More democracy is bringing more political Islam in the countries of the Arab Spring, but Islamist statements about sharia or religion in politics are only rough indicators of what the real effect might be.
The strong showing of Tunisia’s moderate Islamists in Sunday’s election and a promise by Libyan National Transitional Council leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil to uphold sharia have highlighted the bigger role Islamists will play after the fall of the autocrats who opposed them.
These Islamists must now work out how to integrate more Islam into new democratic systems. Many terms used in the debate are ambiguous and some, especially the concept of sharia, are often misunderstood by non-Muslims.
Jan Michiel Otto, a Dutch law professor who led a recent study of how 12 Muslim countries apply sharia, said political Islam covers a broad spectrum of approaches.
“If sharia is introduced, you don’t know what you’ll get,” said the Leiden University professor, editor of the book Sharia Incorporated. His study indicated that, contrary to what many Western observers might think, more Islam did not always mean less liberty.
Yasin Aktay, a Turkish sociologist at Selcuk University in Konya, said Sharia itself was not a defined legal code and not limited to the harsh physical punishments seen in Saudi Arabia or Iran.
“That’s a fetishized version of sharia,” he said.
Ennahda leads the way
Many Middle Eastern constitutions already enshrine Islam as the official religion and mention sharia as the basis of law, but also have civil and penal codes based on European models.
Apart from Saudi Arabia, which has only Islamic law, Middle Eastern countries apply a complicated mix of religious and civil law. Sharia can be applied almost symbolically in one country, moderately in another and strictly in a third.
Ennahda, the Islamist party leading the vote for Tunisia’s constituent assembly, is the first in the Arab Spring countries to have to start spelling out how much Islam it wants.
It says it respects democracy and human rights and wants to work with secularist parties to draft a new constitution. Its leader Rachid Ghannouchi has long advocated moderate Islamist policies like those of the AKP, the ruling party in Turkey.
The Tunisian constitution declares Islam as the official religion but does not mention sharia as the foundation of the legal system. Given the country’s strong secularist traditions, Ennahda would face serious opposition if it tried to have sharia declared the basis of law there.
Aktay said Ghannouchi’s writings in the 1980s helped to influence Turkish Islamists to shift their paradigm from seeking a state based on sharia to entering democratic politics.
Since then, the AKP’s success in Turkey has served as a model for Ghannouchi as he entered practical politics in Tunisia, he added.
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood
Egypt, which is due to elect a new lower house of parliament by early December, describes Islam as the state religion in its constitution and calls it the main source of laws.
The Muslim Brotherhood is expected to emerge as the largest party. Its bid to build a “Democratic Alliance” has foundered, with most of the liberal and rival Islamist groups splitting away to run on their own or form other blocs.
“I don’t believe the Brotherhood will claim more than 25 percent of the parliamentary seats, which is an important bloc but not a majority,” said Hassan Abu Taleb from al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
Egypt has also allowed several Salafist groups to run. The Salafists, who Abu Taleb said could take up to 10 percent of the vote, want strict implementation of Islamic laws, including those their critics say are anti-democratic.
Libya’s new rulers
In Libya, former dictator Muammar Qaddafi ruled by decrees that included mention of Islam as the state religion and sharia as the inspiration for at least some laws.
NTC chairman Jalil surprised some Western observers on Sunday by saying sharia would be the source of Libyan law, but he had already spoken in more detail about it.
“We seek a state of law, prosperity and one where sharia is the main source for legislation, and this requires many things and conditions,” he said in early September, adding that “extremist ideology” would not be tolerated.
The exact place of sharia in the legal system in practice will only be settled once a new constitution is written by a constituent assembly and approved by a referendum.
Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood has fewer than 1,000 members because under Qaddafi recruitment was secretive and restricted to elites, said Alamin Belhaj, a member of the NTC and a senior member of the group.
Syria, where an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad has been raging since March, has a secularist government but mentions Islam as the source of law in its constitution.
The main opposition body, the National Council, has so far named 19 members to its general secretariat. Four are members of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood and six are independent Islamists.
It has yet to spell out its platform or make clear what kind of a state should take over, if Assad is overthrown.
“In Syria, the Islamist current is a moderate movement,” said Omar Idlibi, an activist with the grassroots Local Coordination Committees.