“…the democrats are of course at a disadvantage. Their ideology requires them, even when in power, to give freedom and rights to Islamist opposition. The Islamists, when in power, are under no such obligation. On the contrary, their principles require them to suppress what they see as impious and subversive activities.” “For Islamists, democracy, expressing the will of the people, is the road to power, but it is a one way road, on which there is no return, no rejection of the sovereignty of God, as exercised through His chosen representatives. Their electoral policy has been classically summarized as ‘One man (men only), one vote, once.” (The Crisis of Islam by British-American orientalist Bernard Lewis).
That precisely is the root cause of the clash between the Islamists and the modernist democrats within Muslim polities. According to Egyptian and international media on 30th June around 14 million people protested at Tahrir Square Cairo and in other cities demanding resignation of President Morsi, who was sworn in a year ago. In three days the military deposed him in a coup. The predicament of the democrats the world over started then. They had to condemn the coup because as Lewis said they have to defend the ‘rights to Islamists.’ While Islamist Morsi believed democracy was the road to power to promote his party’s Islamist agenda and concentrate power in the hands of the president.
But a point that needs to be considered here before extending unqualified support to the deposed president Morsi is: what is the clash in Egypt about? It is typical narrative of other Muslim polities also. Let’s briefly look at recent political developments of Egypt in a historical perspective. Morsi came to power as a representative of Egypt’s largest Islamist party Muslim Brotherhood (MB), which was founded in 1928 by Hassan al Banna. It remained banned since the early fifties when its ideologue Sayyid Qutb was sentenced to death for plotting to kill president Gamal Nasser.
In spite of its conservatism MB adopted democracy as they could not capture power using militant means. So when people revolted against the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak which perpetuated itself for 30 years, MB was the most organised party. On the other hand a strong educated class has emerged in Egypt ever since its king Muhammad Ali Pasha started modernizing the country in the early nineteenth century. So it has to be kept in mind that Egypt has two parallel narratives like other Muslim countries.
The conflict between Morsi and modernist-democrats started soon after the legislative assembly was elected. MB and its Islamist allies, which included the ultra-fundamentalist Salafist Party, had an overwhelming majority in the assembly. They tried to steamroll the constitution with many Islamic clauses which were exclusionary in nature and not acceptable to the modernists-democrats. Taking advantage of the majoritarianism, which some critics dubbed as ‘balllotocracy’ MB held a referendum on constitution. Only 33 per cent people voted of which 64 percent gave the approval of the controversial constitution. This in actual term means that the constitution had the support of only about 22 percent Egyptians. Morsi took the critics lightly and signed the constitution on 26th December 2012, that’s what started another Tahrir Square moment by the modernists to oust him.
Now the argument in Morsi’s support is that he followed the normal democratic path to get the constitution passed by the majority. But a finer point that is missed here is that constitution making is a delicate job in which conflicting interests have to be reconciled instead of pushing the views of a simple majority. To understand this we don’t have to go far. Had the congress agreed to address the concerns of the Muslim minority in undivided India, most probably the country wouldn’t have broken. The Muslims of India would have continued to live in India with greater autonomy in the Muslim majority areas and quota allocations in the provinces where they were in minority. But the view that all the issues would be decided in the legislative assembly, where Muslims were in minority led to the tragic division of the subcontinent. In 1946 Jinnah wanted an agreement on the Muslim demands before the legislative assembly was convened. History was repeated by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (ZAB) and ruling elite of West Pakistan which was in minority but wanted major concessions from the majority parties the Awami League in East Pakistan and National Awami Party in NWFP (now KPK) and Balochistan. In the absence of consensus the military operation was launched in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) which turned constitutional tussle into a liberation war. Had there been a consensus on the constitution, the country wouldn’t have broken. The 1973 Constitution was thus not steamrolled by ZAB and he tried to take all the parties support. Again more recently 18th Amendment was also passed with consensus by all parties. In Pakistan the major tussle between the political parties was over devolution of power to the provinces. But the democrats also gave in a lot to the Islamist parties although they have never secured more than 10 per cent votes, but have formidable street power.
Coming back to Morsi he pushed MB’s Islamist agenda harder in the constitution which was upsetting the modernist-democrats and religious minorities. Article 43 of the constitution is committed to enforce Sunni Shariah that was upsetting for the small Shia community. This encouraged the extremist Sunni mobs and some Shia leaders and their followers were killed. The constitution allows right of worship to only Abrahamic religions—Islam, Christianity and Judaism. This excludes other minorities like Bahais. Tough blasphemy laws were also introduced. Article 48 restricts to discuss and”contradict the principles on which the state and society are based” – a reference to the principles of Shariah.” Article 11 says: “The state shall protect ethics and morals and public order.” Now this is seen as a threat to regulate people’s private life, something which the MMA government in KPK tried to do by enforcing the Hasba Bill, which was struck down by the Supreme Court.
We see a similar kind of conflict between the modernist-democrats and Islamists in other Muslim polities also. Recent protests against the Justice Party in Turkey, which is trying to push Islamist agenda slowly as the country’s constitution is wedded to secularism, are also indicative of similar clash within Muslim societies.
However, we have to admit that though clash between Islamists and modernists is sharper in Muslim societies and violent as in Pakistan, it is also prevalent as an under-current in Christian, Hindu and Judaist societies. Reason: it is the clash between the people who want to stick to their antiquated religious cultural, social and moral values and the modern globalised values which are spreading through information and knowledge explosion. Times have changed, but many people haven’t. (firstname.lastname@example.org)