Islamists and Super-Islamists, and the Incoherence of Each of Them
There was a fairly interesting article in Sunday's New York Times by Robert F. Worth on a rising star within the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Beltagy, and what it might portend for the future of Islamist movements as well as the Middle East after the Arab Spring. Some of it, namely the divisions within the Brotherhood as between a cautious older guard and a newer, younger, flashier set of leaders, was of less immediate concern to me, though it was quite interesting. What really got my attention was the division described, here and elsewhere, as between the mainstream Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, which won 49% of the seats in the lower house of Parliament, and the more hardline Salafists, who won about a quarter of the seats. (To be clear, "Islamist" under my working definition is a person who seeks for the shari'a a prominent role in the law and constitution of the nation state. An itinerant preacher who runs around trying to convince women to wear headscarves is not an Islamist. A legislator who seeks to increase the number of hours of required religious training in public schools is. I think that works well enough at least for these purposes.)
As this is portrayed in the article, I think largely accurately, the division between the two, inasmuch as legal change is concerned, is as follows. Those groups described as Salafist want a greater recognition of the shari’a within the law and constitution of the nation state while the Brotherhood is less interested in all of that. Again, interesting and accurate, but on deeper inspection, drawing on my own scholarship, neither faction I think works in any sort of coherent fashion as the basis for an Islamist political movement.
So taking the Salafists, and largely repeating some of the claims I’ve made in the Death of Islamic Law, there is no real coherent explanation offered for precisely why they are insistent on the Islamization of some areas of the law and not others. Why the opposition toward the creation of marital communal property, let us say, which the shari’a nowhere recognizes as existing, but not opposition to legal personality on the part of corporations, a communal form of property ownership really which the shari’a also does not recognize? Or the opposition to alimony (a wealth transfer not authorized by shari’a) or a financial consequence for a husband initiating divorce as in Iran (another wealth transfer not contemplated by shari’a), but not to rules of tort which are not Islamic in origin (thereby authorizing wealth transfers not contemplated by shari’a) or rules of bankruptcy which make a mockery of the shari’a rules through obligatory debt discharge (another wealth transfer, also unauthorized).
I could go on, but I won’t. There is no coherent methodology that is being applied theoretically to recreate the Islamic state on the basis of shari'a. Nothing can really explain these contorting conflicting positions on how law is evaluated relative to its conformity to shari’a. The Iraqi Supreme Court sweeps centuries of doctrine under its feet by quoting one Qur’anic verse respecting writings and contract, without objection from anyone, and I suspect the supposedly hardline Salafists would not find this troublesome. Can they apply that methodology (quote the Qur’an, ignore contrary juristic interpretations of it) in other contexts, say respecting a woman’s right to divorce? It’s rather easy to come upon the answer. Whatever the running theory, it won’t fit the facts as they exist.
So we then turn to the Brotherhood, which as the article notes is really trying to pull away from offering any suggestions for massive legal changes. They aren’t secular, let’s be clear, they do want the shari’a to play a role in the state. They would walk before agreeing to a constitution that did not, for example, declare that all law that is enacted and that is repugnant to the shari’a is invalid and void. But they don’t want to talk about punishing fornication, or rolling back family law reforms, and there is really no suggestion it is anywhere at the top of their agenda. They are happy to settle into the incoherence that is the application of Islamic law in the modern nation state today and focus instead on more pressing issues for the population, such as anti-corruption, economic reform, wage stagnation, and the like. The Islamizing, to the extent it exists, is not legislated, but rather conducted through social programs offered by the Brotherhood, from women only busses to medical clinics, programs that don’t need the state, or legal authority, but rather operate independently of it.
The real problem with this, in the end, is that it isn’t really much of an Islamist political agenda and so hardly portends for a long term successful political movement. There’s no religious vision there. If all the Brotherhood is going to do is leave things the way they are and push an economic agenda, then it really does not need to be the Muslim Brotherhood as political movement. A secular movement that promised not to reverse the hold of the shari’a on family and inheritance law (the secular nationalist Iraqiya for example, in Iraq) would do just as well. That’s more like the Republican party, with a core religious base and some random sporadic efforts here and there to fight a culture war, but really not organized or driven by a comprehensive agenda based on “Christian law”. That’s fine, though note it does quite well in a secular state with quite a few nonbelievers in it.
So you can play down shari’afication of law, but then you’re sort of losing the very purpose of your movement qua political movement rather than apolitical civic organization sporadically motivated into politics. Or you can actually call for what media outlets always call the “full implementation of shari’a law”, except as I said above, it’s nothing of the sort, and what shari’a they insist on and what shari’a they do not follow no coherent methodology. Either way, it ends in a muddle.