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Out of the Authoritarian Shadow: Islamist Parties in the Middle East

Out of the Authoritarian Shadow: Islamist Parties in the Middle East

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An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards (International Programme) Competition by Stephanie Ovens. Originally submitted for Religion, Politics, and Society at McGill University, with lecturer Daniel Cere in the category of International Relations & Politics
An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards (International Programme) Competition by Stephanie Ovens. Originally submitted for Religion, Politics, and Society at McGill University, with lecturer Daniel Cere in the category of International Relations & Politics

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 31, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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02/21/2014

 
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AbstractThe relationship between politics and religion in the Middle East is a multifaceted and usuallycontentious issue. In the last twelve months (this paper was written December 2011), the Arabworld has been at the center of the world stage, as historically stable authoritarian regimes slowlybecame challenged, and some overthrown. As the revolutions and their transitions play out,there is a recurring trend of Islamist groups being fully involved in or even spearheading themovements. The role of religion in their platforms has been highly focused on in the media
 — 
most prominently in Western media
 —provoking debate and questioning claims for the parties’
accountability, yet the fact alone that such parties are working within the democratic limitsspeaks to their dedication to a democratic transition. Because many regimes illegalized them,groups such as Ennahda in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt had to work in theshadows of their societies, but now, their importance to civilians has been brought into the light,no longer eclipsed by their repressive regimes. This paper outlines a brief history of both parties,and seeks to demonstrate how Islam is still a driving popular foundation in Middle Easternsocieties; it as well shows how religious groups under repressive regimes are somewhat uniquelyplaced in terms of civilian support, where previous grassroots and charitable work with no
 promise of benefit can incur major support, and most importantly, citizens’ trust
. The clearrelevance and importance placed on such groups is apparent through the recent success of 
Ennahda in Tunisia’s parliamentary elections, and what is now recognized as the MuslimBrotherhood’s parallel success.
 
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Out of the Authoritarian Shadow: Islamist Parties in the Middle EastThe relationship between politics and religion in the Middle East is a multifaceted andusually contentious issue. Though many countries entrench religion into their constitution, thespecific role and degree that religion plays in Middle Eastern societies varies from state to state.Usually, the stable authoritarian regimes keep a strong hold on their religious groups in civilsociety, sometimes outlawing them altogether, and recent events suggest that there may havebeen larger motives in prohibiting these groups from publicly participating in politics. In the lasttwelve months, the Arab world has been at the center of the world stage, as historically stableauthoritarian regimes slowly became challenged, and some overthrown. As the revolutions andtheir transitions play out, there is a recurring trend of Islamist groups being fully involved in oreven spearheading the movements. Because many regimes illegalized them, groups such asEnnahda in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt had to work in the shadows of theirsocieties, but now, their importance to civilians has been brought into the light, no longereclipsed by their repressive regimes. The clear relevance and importance placed on such groupsis apparent through
the recent success of Ennahda in Tunisia’
s parliamentary elections, andevidence of the
Brotherhood’s possible parallel success
. Through their liberal policies, theirhistory of grassroots work, their organizational advantages, and their commitment to religiousvalues that remain important in the Mi
ddle East, Islamic parties like Tunisian’s Ennahda andEgypt’s Muslim Brotherhood are advancing progress towards human rights and democratization
in the wake of the Arab Spring.Western observers have made a habit of treating Islamist parties as monolithic,homogenizing the moderate and the extremist into one movement. Yet, melting all associationstogether does Islam an enormous disservice because it undermines the causes and work of 
 
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Islamist groups that deviate from the stereotype (Elshtain 13). Differences between groups canbe attributable to many variables, including internal disagreements about
―basic‖ Islamic ideas,
including how to interpret the
Qur’an itself 
and its relation to democratic ideals (12). Like anyreligion, polar interpretations will inevitably arise, and what brings these into tension is the factthat they draw from the same theological text. Muslim democracy has begun to emerge inresponse to the opportunities and demands created by the ballot box, attempting to reconcile boththe modern focus on democratization in the Middle East with the historical devotion to Islam(Nasr 15). Throughout what can be called the
Arab Spring,
many Islamist groups emergedonto the public stage, and judging from their wide range of civilian support and clearorganization, it is apparent that they already held strong foundations and networks withinsociety, dismantling the Western beliefs that had disregarded the groups as backward orextremist. For decades, religious groups and civil society in general has been eclipsed byauthoritarian regimes, but in light of regime overthrow, it is apparent that, in all their diversity,these religious groups have been crucial members of civil society.In both Tunisia and Egypt, previous constitutions specified an official state religion andrequired the head of state to be a member of that religion as to solidify their
―legitimacy‖ through
their religious association (Schwedler 116). Egypt, for example, had the office of mufti, filledby a prominent cleric from the Al-Azhar University; his job was to judge whether state policiesadhered to Shari
a or not, acting as a religious check on the state (121). Islamic symbolism isclearly an important symbol in sustaining authority to rule, yet religious political parties wereusually explicitly outlawed, or at least majorly suppressed (121). In Egypt, the state justified thisexclusion by explaining
that the ―state itself is already Islamic‖
(121). Under regimes that wouldmandate religion in their constitution, the centrality of religious values in society was clear, but

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