July 17, 2012 | Gunpowder & Lead

Islamism in the Popular Imagination

July 17, 2012 | Gunpowder & Lead

Islamism in the Popular Imagination

Co-authored by Lauren Morgan

The term “Islamist” has been bandied about frequently since revolutionary events gripped the Arab world last year. It is a term meant to signify those, including political parties, that wish to incorporate their understanding of Islamic law into the laws of the state. Political parties commonly described as Islamist won significant victories in Tunisia and Egypt, and were narrowly defeated in the recent Libyan elections. But is the term Islamist appropriate at all to describe these parties and politicians? In a recent piece for the Huffington Post entitled “Is It Time to Reconsider the Term Islamist?” David Briggs argues that the answer is no. His argument is confused, drifting without apparent direction from a terminological critique to the argument that the Islamist political program isn’t really as immoderate as is generally believed. Flaws aside, Briggs’s piece plays upon some more widely-held misconceptions about the political program embraced by Islamists that are worth addressing.

Briggs’s article itself has the distinction of interweaving major factual or analytical errors into virtually every paragraph, and is an exemplar of how not to approach these issues analytically. Notably missing from a piece that touches upon the Islamist political agenda is any concrete discussion of what Islamist politicians actual stand for — other than the entirely banal observations that the phenomenon of political Islam is “quite heterogeneous,” and that Islamist politicians talk about “having to face the challenges of economic development and cutting back on pollution.” Instead, Briggs reaches his conclusions about the moderation of Islamist politicians by simply interviewing a bunch of university professors who all have the same opinions about the issue.

The confusion in Briggs’s article is evident from the very outset, as he sets up his discussion of the term Islamism by trying to make us question whether an equivalent term might be applicable to American politicians:

At this year’s National Prayer Breakfast, President Barack Obama said his policies were grounded in his Christian beliefs. In a 2008 speech, former GOP presidential contender Rick Santorum said America was in the middle of a spiritual war in which “Satan has his sights on the United States of America.” Are Obama and/or Santorum Christianists?

It is always good to make sure one’s intellectual principles are consistent by asking whether they are applicable in other contexts. But in case anybody is stumped by Briggs’s question, we will answer it: No, Barack Obama — who favors abortion rights and gay marriage — is not, in fact, a Christianist. Briggs’s introduction to the subject represents an intellectual sleight-of-hand, perhaps one that is unintentional, in that he is comparing apples to oranges. You would be hard pressed to find anything beyond a few fringe commentators who are worried about Islamism because politicians representing this movement refer to Islamic principles in their rhetoric. Rather, it is the specific relationship between religion and state that worries observers. (I mean, really, does Briggs think that Obama will make canon law the law of the land if given a second term?)

Briggs bolsters his case by quoting Mansoor Moaddel, an Eastern Michigan University sociologist, as saying that in his interviews, he found that “‘in some respects, Mr. Santorum is more extremist’ than leading figures of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.” Nor is Briggs the only Western commentator to fatuously compare Santorum to Islamic extremists. To actually approach the claim being made by Briggs and others — that Islamist politicians possess an agenda that is less extreme than that of Rick Santorum — a better approach is to look at the practice in Middle Eastern states, as well as the policies advocated by Islamist politicians with significant audiences (as opposed to mere fringe players). That is what we do in this entry. Our purpose is obviously not to mourn the overthrow of the brutal dictators who have fallen in the Middle East, nor to preserve those who are threatened. Rather, threats to liberty can come not only from dictatorial regimes, but also theocrats who are first swept into power through democratic means. It is certainly possible that the election of Islamists will ultimately be a good thing — both for the people of the region, and also from a perspective of U.S. interests — but the U.S. will be hard pressed to play a positive role if its policymakers do not understand the challenges posed by the new players. And Briggs’s analysis is a road to confusion. This piece examines four key issues of relevance when assessing the impact of Islamist policies on individual rights and liberties: apostasy, blasphemy, the rights of women, and gay rights.

Apostasy. Because one’s conception of God is so fundamental to how we understand the world, the right to change one’s religion is fundamental to freedom of conscience. It would be unthinkable for an American politician, no mater how conservative, to argue for laws preventing American citizens from converting to Islam. But in a number of Middle Eastern, North African, and South Asian countries, conversion out of Islam (in practice, usually to Christianity) is outlawed — and this situation has existed even before Islamist parties have had a chance to leave their imprimatur on the laws of the state:

– In Saudi Arabia, “children born to Muslim fathers are deemed Muslim, and conversion from Islam to another religion is considered apostasy and punishable by death.”
– In Iran, apostasy is punishable by death, and during the reporting period from July through December 2010, the State Department noted that “at least two death sentences for apostasy or evangelism were issued under judicial interpretations of Sharia.”
– In Yemen, “the conversion of a Muslim to another religion was considered apostasy, which the government interpreted as a crime punishable by death.”
– In Kuwait, there are laws against apostasy, and in November 2010 the country’s court of cassation “upheld a lower court’s decision not to allow a 27-year-old citizen convert from Islam to Christianity to change his stated religion on his birth certificate, which it deemed a violation of apostasy laws.”
– In Qatar, converting from Islam to another faith is a capital offense, but under-enforced. As the U.S. State Department notes, “there has been no recorded punishment for such an act since the country gained independence in 1971.”
– Even in Afghanistan, where the U.S. has expended so much blood and treasure, apostasy is considered an offense punishable by death.

Even in countries generally considered to be moderate exemplars, individuals have had trouble exercising their freedom of conscience to pick their own religion. In Jordan, the State Department reports that “some family members of converts have filed apostasy charges against them in Islamic law courts, which have led to convictions depriving them of civil rights, including annulment of their marriage contracts and loss of custody of their children.” Apostasy charges similarly loomed as a threat in Egypt even prior to the Muslim Brotherhood’s ascension.

Hand in hand with restrictions on apostasy are restrictions on the ability of non-Muslims to evangelize for faiths other than Islam. Though Westerners are hesitant for justifiable reasons to advocate the right to evangelize to Muslims in Muslim majority countries, one must understand the net impact of how these two laws interact. Non-Muslims can convert to Islam, while Muslims cannot convert out; Muslims can evangelize to non-Muslims, while non-Muslims do not enjoy a similar right to evangelize. The net effect is a visible subjugation of non-Muslim populations in areas where both apostasy and anti-evangelism laws operate together. If Santorum were to advocate for similar restrictions on Muslims in America, writers like Briggs would justifiably be outraged by the kind of second-class treatment such a set of restrictions would necessarily entail.

Does Briggs believe that Islamist parties will be more protective of freedom of religion than the status quo? It is difficult to imagine that this would be the case. Sheikh Yusuf al Qaradawi — one of the most popular Islamist figures in the region, and a man who drew a crowd of over 200,000 to a speech at Tahrir Squre — has on multiple occasions affirmed that those who leave the faith deserve to be killed.

Blasphemy. Another example of the incorporation of religion into the laws of the state can be seen in the widespread prohibition on speech that is deemed blasphemous or insulting to Islam. Blasphemy prosecutions have only increased since the Arab Spring began. One notable case is that of Hamza Kashgari, a Saudi writer and poet who was charged with blasphemy for several tweets that he sent on Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. A review of these tweets clearly reveals how blasphemy laws can run roughshod over free expression:

– On your birthday, I will say that I have loved the rebel in you, that you’ve always been a source of inspiration to me, and that I do not like the halos of divinity around you. I shall not pray for you.
– On your birthday, I find you wherever I turn. I will say that I have loved aspects of you, hated others, and could not understand many more.
– On your birthday, I shall not bow to you. I shall not kiss your hand. Rather, I shall shake it as equals do, and smile at you as you smile at me. I shall speak to you as a friend, no more.

These are not the words of a man seeking to slander his faith, but rather to grapple honestly with his complex feelings about the religion’s major prophet. (And even if they were designed to denigrate Islam, not even the supposedly “frightening theocrat” Rick Santorum has suggested that speech insulting to Christianity should be legally prohibited.) After his tweets caused an uproar, Kashgari fled Saudi Arabia, and entered Malaysia on February 7. Two days later, Malaysian authorities detained Kashgari and deported him to Saudi Arabia, where he continues to be held without charge.

The rash of blasphemy prosecutions in areas where Islamist parties are ascendant can be seen by the fact that they are occurring even in places with longstanding secular traditions, such as Tunisia and Turkey. In Pakistan, two prominent politicians — Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti — were murdered last year for their opposition to the country’s blasphemy law. (That law is particularly problematic because it has had a disproportionate impact on the country’s Christian community, seemingly even being used to bludgeon Christians in the course of routine property disputes.) Disturbingly, the killers of Taseer and Bhatti have been celebrated in Pakistan, and defended even by clerics described as “moderate” by the Western press.

The rights of women. The rights of women are a much-discussed topic in the region. Saudi Arabia, most visibly, features a very clear legal subjugation of women, including its ban on female drivers and its strict gender segregation. But there are also broader questions about equality before the law.

– The State Department reports that in Yemen, “women do not enjoy the same legal status as men under family law, property law, inheritance law, and in the judicial system. They experienced discrimination in such areas as employment, credit, pay, owning or managing businesses, education, and housing.” Courts award custody of children to the divorced husband as a matter of course; daughters receive half the inheritance of their brothers; and two women’s testimony in court is equal to that of one man. The State Department’s report makes clear that many of these restrictions are linked to the prevailing interpretation of sharia in Yemen.
– The State Department also notes that the way religion is interpreted as applying to the laws of the state in Qatar has placed women on unequal footing. “Traditions and interpretation of Sharia also significantly disadvantage women in family, property, and inheritance law and in the judicial system generally,” its most recent human rights report notes. “For example, a non-Muslim wife does not have the automatic right to inherit from her Muslim husband. She receives an inheritance only if her husband wills her a portion of his estate, and even then is eligible to receive only one-third of the total estate. The proportion that women inherit depends upon their relationship to the deceased; in the cases of siblings, sisters inherit only one-half as much as their brothers.” As in Yemen, the testimony of two women in court is equal to that of one man, “but courts routinely evaluated evidence according to the overall credibility of the witness and the testimony being offered and not on the basis of gender.”
– In Kuwait, the State Department notes that women “do not enjoy the same rights as men under family law, property law, or in the judicial system, and they experienced legal, economic, and social discrimination.”
– In Oman, there has been progress, but “some social and legal institutions discriminated against women.” For example, “in some personal status cases, such as divorce, a women’s testimony is equal to half of a man’s. The law favors male heirs in adjudicating inheritance.”

The rise of Islamist politicians and parties is unlikely to remedy the discrimination that women face, and early signs point to significant concerns of further backsliding. Take Egypt, for example. Although the country banned the practice of female genital mutilation in 2007, newly elected Islamist president Mohamed Morsi reportedly called the practice a private matter that should be decided by families, and not by the government. In addition, Egypt’s parliament saw “proposals to decrease the age of marriage for girls from 16 to 14 and revoking a woman’s right to divorce her husband.”

Gay rights. In at least eleven countries in the MENA region, consensual sex between people of the same gender is a criminal offense. In seven majority Muslim countries, it is punishable by death. Some examples of how homosexuality is treated under law:

– In Iran, homosexuality is punishable by death or flogging. It is reportedly “difficult to arrive at an accurate figure” as to how many people are executed for this offense, but the number is not zero.
– Under Saudi Arabia‘s interpretation of sharia, “same-sex sexual conduct is punishable by death or flogging. It is illegal for men ‘to behave like women’ or to wear women’s clothes and vice versa.”
– In Yemen, “consensual same-sex sexual activity is a crime punishable by death under the country’s interpretation of Islamic law. Due to the illegality and possibly severe punishment for homosexuality, there were no lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) persons’ organizations.”
– In Qatar, “the law prohibits same-sex sexual conduct between men but is silent on same-sex relations between women. Under the criminal law, a man convicted of having sexual relations with another man or boy younger than 16 years old is subject to a sentence of life in prison. A man convicted of having same-sex sexual activity with another man older than 16 is subject to a sentence of seven years in prison.”
– In Algeria, “the law stipulates penalties that include imprisonment of two months to two years and fines of 500 to 2,000 dinars (approximately $7 to $27).”
– The State Department notes that in the United Arab Emirates, “under Sharia the death penalty is the punishment for individuals who engage in consensual homosexual activity.” There were no such prosecutions during the reporting period in question; but “the government deported cross-dressing foreign residents and referred citizens to public prosecutors.”

The ascension of Islamist parties promises to make life more difficult for gay citizens. As The Economist reports, “Hossein Alizadeh of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, a New York-based lobby group, says that religious awakening is strengthening hardline interpretations of Islam and a repressive backlash on all kinds of sex-related issues.” It should be noted, for context, that the article goes on to say that “the laws left behind by the former regimes in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt seem draconian enough to satisfy the new governments.” However, the fact remains that Islamist parties are likely to stand in the way of more progressive laws on sexual orientation.

Conclusion. The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has been beset by a host of problems that run far, far deeper than religion. But when certain forms of legal discrimination — against women, religious minorities, and others — derive from a specific interpretation of religion (whether an interpretation rightly or wrongly derived), favors are done to nobody by ignoring that linkage.

We are indifferent to the use of the term Islamist. We both employ it in our writing because it is easily understandable, possessing a definitive meaning within the relevant literature. If a better term were offered, we wouldn’t hesitate to embrace it in the place of Islamist. But pretending that Islamists are the equivalent of Barack Obama — simply claiming religious inspiration for policies that in practice have nothing to do with religious law — is misleading. And the claim that Rick Santorum’s policies are somehow more extreme than those outlined above is simply insulting. Such an argument preys off of a combination of popular derision for Santorum and cultural relativism to reach a conclusion that is truly meretricious — perhaps persuasive upon first hearing it, but crumbling under the weight of even the slightest critical analysis.

This blog entry does what lazy analyses like that offered by Briggs should have done in the first place: looks at existing legal regimes in Muslim majority countries, examines the direction that Islamist politicians have said they will take these legal regimes, and reaches conclusions about the impact that Islamist parties are thus likely to have. Again, we do so not because the rise of Islamist parties will inherently be a bad thing for rights in the region and for U.S. interests. The rise of these parties is a complex phenomenon, with some promise and also some distinct challenges. Ignoring those challenges, as Briggs’s analysis does, is the road to being unable to contribute productively to addressing them.

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