One thing that revolutionary Islamic movements have largely been clear about since the Islamic Revolution in Iran is that trying to come to power through democratic processes in the political systems established and run by secularist politicians in Muslim countries is a waste of time. The repeated and total failure of the Jama’at-e Islami in Pakistan, the marginalization of Necmettin Erbakan’s Refah-led coalition government in Turkey, and the suppression of the Islamic Solidarity Front (FIS) in Algeria, when it was on the verge of a massive victory in the country’s elections of 1991, are just some of the various ‘democratic’ Islamic experiments and experiences pointing in the same direction.
However, some Muslims point to other experiences and try to reach other conclusions; in fact, some Muslims point to some of the same experiences and try to reach different conclusions. These include both some Islamic movements, and Muslim thinkers committed to democracy and democratic processes. The Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS) is a case in point. It has ruled the state of Kelantan for some years, with considerable success, and in last month’s Malaysian general elections was also elected to run the important state of Terengganu. The ‘Islamist’ political parties in Turkey (Refah until it was banned, and Fazilat since then) have also built their reputations and records on the basis of successes in local government. In both cases, the reputations of the Islamic movements involved have been enhanced, as their successes have tended to demonstrate at least some of the advantages of Islamic social organization, values and administration.
The question which arises, therefore, is whether these successes disprove the Islamic movement’s general rejection of the political party approach, and justify working through existing political systems. The answer is a barely-qualified ‘no’, and the evidence of Turkey is all one needs to explain the point. Refah successes in local government encouraged Muslims to work through the mainstream political system at the national level. However, a Refah government was totally hemmed in by the institutions and norms of the secular state, and was powerless do anything of its own choosing. The same would have been the case even had Refah controlled a majority of seats in the parliament, rather than being in coalition with one of the most aggressively secular parties in the country. One unfortunate consequence of Erbakan’s failure in government has been that Islamic parties have also suffered in local politics.
The object of any Islamic movement must be the ‘total transformation’ of the society and state from one based on secular and western bases, as exist in virtually every Muslim country today, to one based on Islamic values, principles and norms. Such a transformation cannot be brought about from within a non-Islamic system.
This commitment naturally places limits on the long-term value of participation in local or regional politics. The arguments here cut both ways. Certainly there is the possibility of demonstrating the practicability of Islamic values in collective community affairs, to counter the common anti-Islam propaganda myths that Islam is out-of-date or has no relevance beyond that of a purely personal faith. The fact that Islamic government can make life much better for many people is also relevant; that, after all, is the object of the exercise. However, such local involvement must not become an end in itself, to the detriment of the longer term object of the ‘total transformation’ of the society. One possibility is that the movements become ‘moderated’ by involvement in ‘real politics’ and lose their revolutionary edge, becoming used to the relative ease and short-term rewards of mainstream politics. This process is, of course, encouraged by secular politicians and commentators. Another process leading to similar results is if the workers and activists of the movements are tempted by local successes to try to repeat them nationally.
PAS’s success in winning power in Terengganu, to go with their established record in Kelantan, is welcome, of course. What is worrying, however, is the news that PAS leader Ustad Fadhil Nur has been appointed leader of the national opposition in parliament by the four-party Alternative Front. PAS has long been warned of the dangers of working in the system; they are in danger of falling into familiar traps - again.
Muslimedia: December 16-31, 1999