Dr. Muhammad El-Moctar Al-Shinqiti is of the opinion that Islamic movements need to revise their political vision for change, both from a moral and strategic point of view.
He believes that there is a need to transform this vision which is governed by fear from and aspiration for power into one that sees hope in people and seeks to liberate them.
This approach, he adds, was adopted by Islamic movements in Turkey and so far has not been properly implemented by Islamic movements in Arab countries. In his words, “Democracy represents an application of the constitutional aspect of the Shari`ah, which is prior and more significant than applying its detailed legal aspects.”
This is a translation of an interview conducted with Dr. Al-Shinqiti by Al-Nahda Project web site, published in November 2010
Question: Could you briefly shed light on the position of Islamists as regards democracy?
El-Moctar Al-Shinqiti: All political Islamic movements have already decided their stance toward democracy, embracing it with the conviction that political legitimacy is the key to good political performance and balanced accumulated political practices, which push societies forward. This is indisputably settled now in Islamic literature. One exception is the Salafi current that remains self-contradictory in its position on democracy. Whereas the Salafis resist tyranny in practical ways, they seem to accept it theoretically in their writings.
Question: Some Islamists view democracy as creedal that contradicts with Islamic faith. What do you think of this view?
Al-Shinqiti: This theoretical confusion exists in the minds of some Muslims who do not understand the essence of democracy. Democracy is not a creedal stance, yet a procedural form allowing for a free social system of faiths and values that is embodied in certain laws and regulations. Values and beliefs differ from one society to another. A parliament in a European country may vote for a law that permits homosexuality, whereas a parliament in a Muslim state votes in favor of outlawing this act. Both processes are carried out in a transparent and democratic way, despite the opposite outcomes.
Democracy in an Islamic society will undoubtedly result in the rule of Islam. However, democracy in a non-Muslim society naturally brings a different result. It suffices that the constitution in a Muslim state provides for the necessity of compatibility of laws with the Shari`ah and the formation of a judicial supervisory body – along the lines of the Supreme Court in the United States and the State Council in France – that ensures compliance with this constitutional provision. Struggle for democracy today is part of a wider struggle for an Islamic way of life. In fact, democracy is the path to Islam, not a deviation from it.
Question: You once wrote about the inability of Islamists in some Arab countries to go beyond the foundation phase to that of expansion and openness. Could you clarify this view?
Al-Shinqiti: It is true that Islamists in some Arab countries are unable to go past the foundation phase, and this is one reason behind the slow development of some Islamic movements and the slackening of Islamic change in general. For example, underground activities constituted part of the legacy of Islamic movements during the foundation phase given the circumstances of repression and persecution in which they were born. Secret work, however, is no longer necessary for these groups in some Arab countries nowadays. But, some Islamists still lack the courage to operate overtly and engage with society in an open space that tests capabilities and exposes the drawbacks and shortcomings in the movement of social change. They are inclined to clandestine work, as this conceals their faults and spares them the critical eyes from outside their group and accountability before discerning members from within.
A tyrant tends to work covertly, as noted by `Abdur-Rahman Al-Kawakbi who wrote in his book “Taba’i` Al-Istibdad – Traits of Tyranny” over a hundred years ago that “If a tyrant were a bird, he would be a bat that hunts those roaming in the dark.” With underground work, it is easy for the incompetent to cling to leadership and block its way to others. The state of operational and mental emergency accompanying clandestine work offers the best help to the incompetent to stay in their leading positions undeservedly. There is no real competition that sorts them out and expels the corrupt and incompetent among them. It is very difficult under such secrecy to maintain the legitimacy of the leadership, since legitimacy and secrecy often do not match together. By contrast, tyranny and secrecy are often allied together. So, just as dictatorial regimes tend to be driven by the very nature of their tyranny into secrecy and concealment, underground movements also tend to be dragged by the very nature of their secrecy into tyranny.
Question: Islamists sometimes face accusations that they seek to seize political power and that they do so with haste, with the possibility of resorting to military coups to achieve this, as happened in Sudan. What is your view on this?
Al-Shinqiti: Every political movement or party naturally seeks power. This is typical of political work. So, this should not be regarded as an accusation.
|The politically and morally proper conduct to assume in such countries is for Islamists to accept their status as part of peaceful political evolution toward effective and legitimate authority|
However, power should not be sought as an end in itself, yet as a means to serve society and build a civilization. This said, it does not seem to me that Islamic movements today are seeking power in a hurried way, especially after considering the setback in Sudan. Yet, they seek to play an influential role in the political arena and to have full freedom to convey their political and intellectual message to people.
I generally advise Islamists everywhere not to jump to power through illegal channels, even if they are able to do so due to the internal balance of power. And this is more important in countries that are already witnessing a democratic transformation and where Islamists are constitutionally entitled to engage in political work. The politically and morally proper conduct to assume in such countries is for Islamists to accept their status as part of peaceful political evolution toward effective and legitimate authority. With gradual growth, they may one day be able to form a majority party that rules and is ruled by law.
Question: What is the main lesson from the Islamic experience in Sudan?
Al-Shinqiti: I have recently written a chapter about this issue, titled “Fiqh of the Movement and Fiqh of the State … Lesson from the Islamic Experience in Sudan” in a book that will soon be released by Al-Mesbar Center for Studies and Research, Dubai. I ask those interested to kindly read it for detailed information on this matter. Yet, for the time being, I can only say that the Islamic movement in Sudan rushed to pick the fruit prematurely, under circumstances of fear and threat. The fruit turned out to be very bitter. They did not carry the responsibility properly, oppressing people and destroying half a century’s heritage.
Question: Yet you wrote a large book in which you lauded the Islamic movement in Sudan, particularly its strategic and organizational approach?
Al-Shinqiti: This is true. The rescue (Al-Inqaz) revolution in Sudan was the last great success for the approach adopted by Sudanese Islamists. Yet it put them on the threshold of the first resounding political failure in their history. Thus, this remarkable penetration of the state apparatus – which Sudanese Islamists successfully accomplished, and which Islamists in other Arab countries failed to do – turned into being the biggest disaster for the change promised by the movement leaders, on which they raised generations of Islamists inside Sudan and abroad. The great success of this movement’s approach was followed by a tremendous failure in managing the state.
|The future in the Arab countries in particular, and the Muslim world in general, will be for those who adopt the approach of Islamic liberalism that holds onto the values of Islam without coercion, and clings to the freedom of the individual and society without guardianship|
Here lies the paradox and the lesson that we should learn today. We have to realize that sacrificing political legitimacy in favor of any other value means destroying the very basis of political unity and disturbing the moral and political balances. It is not the Islamic movement alone that is to blame for this setback in the political evolution in Sudan, yet the blame also falls on those reckless leaders in the Sudanese army who warned the elected government in 1989 to get rid of Islamists or face the consequences, a clear threat of military coup. The problem essentially lies in the lack of trust between different social players in our countries and in their failure to build sound foundations for the rotation of power and the settlement of disputes.
Question: As the forceful seizure of power is not the proper option, what is the alternative in your view?
Al-Shinqiti: I believe that the future in the Arab countries in particular, and the Muslim world in general, will be for those who adopt the approach of Islamic liberalism that holds onto the values of Islam without coercion, and clings to the freedom of the individual and society without guardianship. I am also of the opinion that Islamic movements need to revise their political vision for change, both from a moral and strategic point of view, transforming it from a vision that is governed by fear and aspiration for power into one that sees hope in people and seeks to liberate them. This approach was adopted by Islamic movements in Turkey and has so far has not been properly implemented by Islamic movements in Arab countries.
As a young man leading the military wing of the African National Congress, Nelson Mandela would proudly say, “Right and dynamite are on our side.” He also used to say, “If those in power take your freedom away, your only way to this freedom is power.” Yet hardened and matured by many experiences, this African wise man later came to realize that “right” can triumph without dynamite, and it can challenge and expose the unjust power and ultimately crush its pillars. It seems that the Islamic movement in Sudan followed the approach of the young African leader when it decided not to allow a repressive regime to oppress it or terminate its political project, be it by gunfire or other means. Other Islamic movements faced such a fate. However, the Islamic movement in Sudan did not heed the wisdom reached by Mandela in his old age, which he expressed in his memoirs titled “Long Walk to Freedom”, where he wrote: “Revolution is not only about pulling the trigger, yet it is a movement aimed at building a society of justice and equity.”
Question: Some view the Islamic reawakening as a mere alternative to the decline of the Left in Arab countries since the early 1970s. What do you think of this view?
|I believe that the problem of oppressed women can never be separated from the problem of oppressed men. The essence of this problem lies in oppressing human beings in our countries, both men and women|
Al-Shinqiti: This view over-simplifies the Islamic political phenomenon, which had been deeply rooted in the legacy and history of the Ummah long before the emergence of leftist movement, merely a passing phenomenon in the history of this Ummah. The leftist movement emerged with the rise of foreign influence and died down with its decline. The Islamic reawakening, on the other hand, is an extension to a long history of revival and reform movements. It is by no means an alternative to the leftist movement. I am not here trying to underestimate the Left and its role in the movements of liberation and resistance against despotism. Yet, I see that, as far as historical analysis is concerned, there is no link between the two.
Question: Are you pleased with the status of women in the Muslim world? And is there an Islamic vision that allows a new reading of Islamic texts in this respect?
Al-Shinqiti: I am more in favor of not dividing social or political problems into separate parts. I believe that the problem of oppressed women can never be separated from the problem of oppressed men. The essence of this problem lies in oppressing human beings in our countries, both men and women. So, we should rather be concerned with how to liberate the oppressed, enabling them to fulfill their mission in life and live with dignity, self-esteem, and respect for others as well. Likewise, the persecution of minorities at the hands of regimes is part of a greater problem of the majorities who are also being persecuted.
We need a foundation vision that rests on a moral system which primarily believes in the dignity of humankind and the freedom of the individual regardless of his or her religion, race, color, or language. By the time we have achieved this, we can then go into the details, considering how much there is equal freedom and dignity for the majority and minority, men and women, etc. Yet, it is unwise to seek equal justice and freedom when there is none of them in the first place. As for the Shari`ah, it does not stand as an obstacle to the liberation of men or women. In a climate of freedom and free ijtihad (independent fiqhi reasoning), we will be able to discuss and seek shar`i solutions to all problems.
Question: We no longer hear much about the application of Shari`ah in the political Islamic rhetoric. Did Islamists give up their demand to apply the Shari`ah?
Al-Shinqiti: No, Islamists certainly did not drop their demand for applying the Shari`ah and they will never do that. But they developed a more mature approach and understanding with regard to this issue. Earlier, many Islamists had a twisted concept of the application of Shari`ah, turning it into merely a criminal-legal notion. Under their distorted concept, cutting off the hand of a person who stole a few pennies by another person who possibly steals billions constitutes in their minds adherence to Islamic law; restoring a house to its rightful owner from the one who unjustly usurped it by someone who exploits a whole nation was the very meaning of justice in their view; and setting a single prisoner free by someone who oppresses millions of people was a “kind” act.
The fact of the matter is that applying the Shari`ah begins by building a political system under which all – the ruler and the ruled – are subject to the rule of law. The basis of the Shari`ah is justice, and there will be no justice if some citizens are above the law and some others are below the law. No matter how just the law is – be it divinely inspired or man-made – it will not have any practical worth unless if it is generally applied to everybody. Abraham Lincoln used to say, “No one is above the law and none is below it.” Also, Jean Jacques Rousseau would say, “This is the major problem in politics: to find a pattern of rule that puts the law above people.” Through this line of thought, westerners were able to achieve justice for themselves in their homelands, despite the defects in their man-made laws compared to Islam’s divine law and despite their injustice to others outside their borders.
By contrast, the ruler in the Arab and Muslim world (in general terms) is still held above the law and never questioned about what he does; whereas most of the people are under the law, finding no equity nor justice. The personal inclination of an arrogant tyrant in these lands continues to be the ultimate reference.
So, if an unjust ruler rightly prevents some of his citizens from wronging one another, while he himself is wronging them all, he is merely like an old feudatory who would prevent his slaves from attacking one another while he subjected all of them to enslavement and injustice. Indeed, such is a serious flaw in setting the shar`i priorities, leading to a flaw in application.
|Democracy represents an application of the constitutional aspect of the Shari`ah, which is prior and more significant than applying its detailed legal aspects.|
Many a time thieves’ hands were cut when the ruler’s hands were more deserving of being cut, as he committed more serious crimes and injustices. And many are the prisoners who faced great suffering and humiliation while living in a land espousing the just Shari`ah of Islam. Hence, establishing a democratic political rule that respects the will of the Ummah and individual freedom is the only path to the application of Shari`ah. Such a rule even constitutes the most significant aspect of Shari`ah application when it comes to such a serious and controversial issue as who should rule and be obeyed? This issue would often cause a lot of suffering and bloodshed. Therefore, I believe this should be the main focus of Islamists in the future, putting political legitimacy first and the Shari`ah application afterward.
Democracy represents an application of the constitutional aspect of the Shari`ah, which is prior and more significant than applying its detailed legal aspects. What we today call “the application of Shari`ah” is a mere implementation of the shar`i rules in its detailed legal form. Those who are knowledgeable about politics and law are quite aware of the priority the constitution takes over detailed laws. In any event, the rule of the Shari`ah will not be established unless embraced by the majority of citizens. Thus, it will be a procedural expression of the will of a free nation that is adhered to by all politicians, willingly or otherwise. Such is the state of the legal and constitutional rules in the West today. No political project can succeed without putting human freedom and dignity first.
The current dispute between Islamists and secularists on the identity of the laws governing our societies, as to whether they should be Islamic or positive, is fake and meaningless. This is because our countries did not lay the foundation of the rule of law in the first place. In my view, the Muslim Brotherhood moves in the right direction by focusing on the rule of law rather than the identity of law. By the time we have settled the issue in favor of the rule of law and got rid of the rule of individual inclinations, we will have conditions ripe for holding discussions about the identity of the laws governing us. Then, the Muslim Brotherhood – and even the majority of Muslims – will favor “the application of Shari`ah” in its detailed legal aspect. No longer a political slogan, the Shari`ah application will then be a practical procedure.
Question: In your opinion, does Sufism represent an obstacle in the way of the Islamic movement?
Al-Shinqiti: I do not think Sufism stands as an obstacle to the Islamic movement. On the contrary, I view it as one of the branches of the Islamic reawakening trend. The Brotherhood first emerged as a movement with a Sufi background. Its founder, Imam Hasan El-Banna, was a follower of the Hasafiya Sufi order. Although the renewal trend among the movement’s youth takes them back to the fundamental sources of religion – away from the traditional religious orders that are marred by some forms of delusion and religious innovations – the fact remains that the fiqh of the movement is one of reform. Their fiqh is built upon the principle of stirring the potentials of good wherever they exist, even if associated with some sort of deviation.
Based on this fiqhi vision and pragmatic approach, the Brotherhood movement in many countries opened up to Sufi orders and absorbed many of them. Mutual benefits were achieved as a result: the Sufi orders gained political momentum, and the Brotherhood acquired knowledge of Islamic fiqh and experience in field activities. Whereas some Salafi currents were preoccupied with fighting religious innovations associated with Sufism, questioning too far in this direction to the extent of alienation, the Muslim Brotherhood found no reasonable grounds to focus on this issue, believing that inherited religious innovations will gradually fade away in the face of true Islamic awareness and contemporary intellectual culture. They also saw that alienation and rejection proved to have failed in winning the hearts of those among Sufis who are naturally religious. So, the movement focused instead on political innovations and problems, such as communism, secularism, and tyranny.
The difference between the Muslim Brotherhood and Sufism was rooted in their different political positions, not creedal or fiqhi views. For example, Sufism was criticized by Islamic movements after some of its sheikhs had abandoned the slogan of asceticism and becoming involved in a relationship of interests with some authoritarian rulers.
However, Islamic movements continue to have strong ties with some sheikhs of Sufism who combine shar`i knowledge with political positions. Moreover, they also have some avowed Sufis in their ranks, seeing no contradiction between their Sufi affiliation and their political loyalty to these movements and their message of reform.