As 2021 rolled in, some media outlets were able to look at a few other stories besides the near civil war situation in Washington DC. One of these news items was that Hamas and the NATO-backed faction of Mahmoud Abbas had agreed to hold legislative, presidential and Palestinian National Council elections in occupied Palestine this year.
This led some Muslims to revive the old debate about whether Islamic movements should participate in elections in Muslim majority countries. We will not detain ourselves with the Saudi-Wahhabi narrative of whether elections are halal or haram. Crescent International and its associate Islamic scholars hold the position that an electoral process within the Islamic paradigm is completely legitimate.
There is, however, no clear response to the question as to when an Islamic movement should participate in elections. It depends on the specifics of the situation. There are, however, certain crucial socio-political variables which the Islamic movement must possess in order to enter the electoral process and the political system. Let us look at these important socio-political variables in practical terms.
We need not go into in-depth analysis of the reality that most Muslims countries are ruled by despotic systems with no legitimacy. Their allegiance is to external powers. This is an axiomatic reality.
Thus, let’s start with the success stories first. While it is tempting to examine the successful ascension to power of an Islamic movement by looking at Iran’s experience, this column will not do so. Iran’s success is self-evident. No matter what one’s opinion of Iran, it is the only locale where the Islamic movement overthrew a despotic ruler and established a fully functional modern governing system rooted in Islam’s pristine values.
Our analysis will look at the Hizbullah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine and AnsarAllah in Yemen. These Islamic movements are similar not only in terms of sharing similar strategic political policies and outlooks, they also have a common methodology in how they became powerful political players with influence far beyond their borders.
Hamas, Hizbullah and AnsarAllah all established themselves as grassroots organizations whose leadership was primarily composed of Islamic scholars who went through the traditional Islamic learning process. Their primary leadership, unlike that of the AKP in Turkey or an-Nahda in Tunisia was not trained by West-centric secular institutions.
All three organized their political work on a societal level first and addressed societal grievances, bypassing the corrupt governmental institutions and leaders. Thus, they established a direct line of communication with the masses. Also, all three assumed the leading role of defending their societies from external aggressors.
Thus, they did not begin their “careers” as political parties, but as socio-political movements providing social services and functioning outside the illegitimate political power structures in their societies.
As their societal influence and power increased, naturally those occupying formal seats of power assaulted them politically and physically. All three movements did not shy away from confronting the internal and external aggressors but customized their responses by differentiating between their response to internal and external opponents. For example, after Israel failed to weaken Hizbullah through direct military attack in 2006, external powers facilitated the rise of a Wahhabi gang under the leadership of Ahmed al-Assir to incite internal war against Hizbullah in Lebanon.
Hizbullah refused to fall into the trap. Instead, it addressed the challenge through soft political means and utilized Lebanon’s state institutions to eliminate al-Assir’s sedition. This differentiation strategy provided all three with a political deterrence and an opportunity to form political alliances beyond their immediate constituencies.
This broad appeal in theory and practice partly explains that while Hamas, Hizbullah and AnsarAllah face immense pressure from numerous external powers and internal saboteurs, they are able to retain the reins of power and continue their principled political course.
There are many Islamic organizations in the Muslim world that provide social services and public assistance far better than the autocratic regimes. However, most of them are subordinate to the regimes. Thus, the question arises, why such organizations that are far bigger and wealthier than Hamas, Hizbullah and AnsarAllah are unable to convert their mass appeal into legitimate political power and influence? The answer lies in the fact that most of these organizations define themselves within the structure and paradigm drawn by the autocratic regimes. This undermines their moral high ground. Thus, they are viewed by the wider society as another political party vying for power, rather than bringing about paradigm shift through holistic Islamic revival.
The success of Hamas, Hizbullah and AnsarAllah lies in the fact that they established their political, social, and administrative base outside and independent of the illegitimate autocratic systems. They “joined” the system on their own terms.
A similar approach has been taken by Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq. Even though he often acts as a political spoiler, hate him or love him, the reason he can shake up the Iraqi political scene is because he built his network outside of the US-established political framework in the country. Using the political and military vacuum, as reported by Asia Times as early as 2003 “immediately after the fall of Baghdad – with no Ba‘ath Party structure and no security left in place – Muqtada acted with lightning speed to fill the power vacuum. From his base in Kufa, near Najaf, he dispatched the Muqtada faithful all over the Shi‘ite south to set up neighborhood committees and take over local hospitals, collect garbage, protect warehouses, establish roadblocks to deter looters, protect electricity and water stations and transform Ba‘ath Party offices into religious centers.”
In comparison to the above-mentioned movements and organizations, the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen (Muslim Brotherhood) in Egypt and Jordan and the Jama‘at-e Islami in Pakistan regressed into mere political players within the illegitimate and corrupt system.
The Ikhwan commands a vast network of activists, scholars and supporters throughout the Arab world. It even got power in Egypt for a short time, but did not manage to transform itself into a full-fledged party of power even though it became a party in power for a short while. In comparison to the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas in Palestine which faces a far more aggressive enemy and much greater international political pressure, is a party of power and not just a local but regional player. Governments in the region are courting Hamas in order to gain legitimacy by being associated with its honorable resistance to occupation. This reality emanates from the mindset, vision and leadership of Hamas which does not accept the imposed rules of the game and works outside of the established perimeters.
Some might argue that the Ikhwan in Egypt face a far more difficult situation than Islamic movements in occupied Palestine. This is a narrow view. It should be remembered that in the 1970s and 1980s, the Muslim Brotherhood enjoyed financial and political support of the Saudi and other regimes. Even when they didn’t face much pressure and political doors were open, the Ikhwan did not make political headway.
As recently pointed out by the Washington based al-monitor.com, in Jordan “the group was founded on April 19, 1945, under the direct sponsorship of the founding King Abdullah bin Al-Hussein, who welcomed the group. At that time, King Abdullah met with Abdel Hakim Abidin, the husband of Hassan al-Banna’s daughter, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. ‘The Emirate of Transjordan needs the efforts of the Muslim Brotherhood,’ Abdullah said back then. At the inauguration ceremony of the group’s headquarters in Amman, Abdullah also met with Hazza al-Majali who was a Brotherhood member before he left the group and who became Jordan’s prime minister in 1955.”
Fast forward to December 2020, Jordan’s Ministry of Social Development dissolved the Muslim Brotherhood. Over several years of political support, the movement could have converted itself into a major political player which no regime could simply ban with the stroke of a pen. Can Israel ban Hamas? It would be laughable and would have no real effect on the ground.
In Pakistan, the Jama‘at-e Islami (JI) was established by one of the Muslim world’s most prominent and charismatic scholars of the past-century, Abul Alaa Maududi and enjoyed much public support. In its early stages, the JI was close to the governing circles in Pakistan. Its affiliated scholars played a significant role in drafting Pakistan’s constitution.
With vast popular support, significant financial and administrative backing and no shortage of dedicated cadre, a movement of its caliber should have by now become a bulwark against corrupt politicians and the corrupt political system. Yet, it is well known that a deeply corrupt and feudalistic political system took root in Pakistan. Corrupt politicians like Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari became posterchildren for Pakistan’s political system, not Abul Alaa Maududi or his close associates and students.
Despite decades in politics, the JI has failed to transform itself into a socio-political alternative. Why? Writing for the US think-tank, the Brookings Institute (closely associated with the US regime), Asif Luqman Qazi, a senior figure in the Jama‘at-e Islami, wrote: The “Jama‘at has remained a coalition partner with Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) and was part of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), an alliance of Islamic political parties that led regional governments in two provinces. It is currently a coalition partner with Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf Party (PTI) in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province... This is despite the fact that the Jama‘at is considered the most internally democratic party in Pakistan, one that is particularly obsessed with winning elections as much as they are keen on participating in them.”
It is precisely this mindset and vision at the leadership level that have prevented the JI in Pakistan and Islamic movements elsewhere to mold themselves into alternative socio-political players. The JI and others like it became associated with the existing system and are now viewed simply as just another Machiavellian political player.
Based on this analysis, some might point to the fact that during his lifetime, the Prophet (pbuh) also concluded alliances with non-Muslims. True, but the noble messenger’s alliances were not formulated on the basis of subservience. The Prophet’s Islamic polity did not subordinate its policies and objectives to those with whom he was building alliances. He entered into alliances on mutually beneficial terms and conditions: alliances of equals. Islam and the Qur’an permit that.
In Muslim majority countries, the regimes and their external backers use Islamic organizations merely as pawns, and tools of sabotage. This was recently witnessed in Egypt when the Saudi-financed Salafi-leaning Noor Party was used to topple Egypt’s first elected president Mohammad Morsi. Syria is another catastrophic example where Islamic organizations were used for imperialist ends.
Even in Turkey, one of the more positive experiences of Islamically conscious people trying to change the system from within, ended up projecting an opportunistic leadership into power for whom Islam is a means of social mobilization, not a point of reference in strategic policy decisions. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s destructive policies in Syria, flirtations with Israel, half-hearted opposition to the Saudi regime, are all clear manifestations of this failed approach.
The above analytical overview shows that there are three factors which an Islamic movement must possess prior to entering the political process dominated by autocratic and illegitimate regimes. 1) Its leadership must consist of experts in Islamic sciences with traditional Islamic education and track record of struggle and sacrifice. 2) Prior to entering the formal political process, it must establish itself outside of it, on its own terms. This will require sacrifices at every level. 3) It must not join the system for the sake of being part of it and thus involuntarily converting itself into just another player.