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Political Islam and Liberal Democracy: Bipolar International System of Ideologies Kelsey Price

Farmanfarmaian MID E 5647 International Relations of the Middle East Final Paper Political Islam in Egypt



ABSTRACT This paper will attempt to explain the role of moderate political Islam and Western response, in terms of balance of power and the structure of the international system using the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as a case study. It is evident that political Islam and Western clashes regarding the growth of Islamism is due to ideological differences and balance of power and attempts to achieve equilibrium, regardless of the conditions of the state where moderate political Islam exists.




Political Islam and Liberal Democracy: Bipolar International System of Ideologies What role has moderate Political Islam played in EITHER Iraq, Iran, Egypt OR Turkey since the end of the Cold War, and what has been the response by the West?

One year later, the Arab Spring and its democratic uprising in countries across the Middle East and North Africa continue to shift and redefine general conceptions of the Middle East and governmental politics of the region. Such shifts, particularly in Egypt, are largely due to growing civil discontentment on a variety of issues, most notably the lack of free elections in many states. In turn, many of the reforms riding on the waves of the Arab Spring have incorporated elements of political Islam into their new governments. However, amongst the general population in Western political Islam is often equated with the waves extremism, jihad and Islamic fundamentalism associated with Al-Qaeda and other violent terrorist organizations. Furthermore, notable historians such as Bernard Lewis in “Liberal Democracy and Islam,� draw serious concerns as to whether or not Islam and democracy are compatible with each other (Lewis, 1996). As the reforms of the Arab Spring unfold in Egypt, it is crucial to examine the role of political Islam both prior and after the events of 2011 in analyzing any country in the Middle East, as well as within the larger scope of the international community at large. Particularly with Egypt, the Arab Spring has sparked considerable debate, especially in the media as to what political Islam is



and to how radical political Islam groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, really are. In some regards, the paranoia in the West about the “Islamization” of politics, such as Rick Santorum’s categorization of sharia law as “an existential threat" to United States Security, are comparable to McCarthyism in the early 1950s. To an extent, the role of political Islam in the wider Islamic community can be seen as a growing political sphere that provides a wider incorporation of classes and the masses in traditionally autocratic societies, whereby its growth in Egypt can be countered with Western attempts to balance liberal democracy with Islamic political ideology on democracy. The Western response to political Islam as a threat to liberal or European based democracies is, in essence, a projection of the need for a bipolar power or ideological balance of power in international relations and security. The Cold War, perhaps more so than any other power struggle in the past century, accurately illustrates the classical political science balance of power theory as well as its most basic equilibrium of an international system function of a bipolar structure. Such balance of power is undeniably a guiding factor, according to Partha Chatterje, “of European statecraft in much of modern history” moreover, it has been used by many theorists and commentators as a concept explaining important aspects of international behavior” (51). Characterized by a series of patterns, balance of power theory in the international system proposes that states make rational decisions and alliances with other states in an attempt to maximize their own power, while counteracting the rising power of other states. That is to say, state alliances are often based on a desire to achieve political equilibrium in the international system. After the bipolar system of the Cold War, political Islam came to be the new threat after the power vacuum created by the collapse of communism in the Society Union. Political Islam in a very real sense, rose in response to the regional power vacuum created by the fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent decline



of Arab socialism (Hansen, 106). Since then, whether the security threat to the West is real or imagined, the role of political Islam, particularly in Egypt has drastically changed in attempt to reach equilibrium with the political ideologies of the liberal democracies of the West. However, before the role of moderate political Islam can be analyzed in Egypt, it is critical to establish a definition for what political Islam is, and is not, as understanding varies even amongst scholars such as Lewis or Robin Wright. Lewis suggests that while the definition of Islam itself is subjective, religious Islam is fundamentally incompatible with the West (Lewis), while Wright claims nearly the opposite that neither religious Islam nor the culture is an obstacle to political liberal modernity (Wright, 64). However, religion, particularly Islam is ideal at providing a sphere for political thought in that it “offers an institutionally specific way to organize this modem form of collective representation, how a collectivity represents itself to itself, the symbols, signs, and practices through which it is and knows itself to be. Religious nationalism is only a viable option when the collectivity has a religious basis in common� (Friedland, 138). In framing political Islam, therefore, it becomes necessity to understand that political Islam is not wholly political, cultural or religious. It is best understood as that political Islam promotes the belief that Islam as a faith has something of value to say about how politics, culture, and society should be ordered in the contemporary world. Indeed, it is not a political party so much as a political ideology rather than a religious or theology construct (Ayoob, 1). Azza Karam, a senior advisor for the United Nations Population Fund, further defines political Islam as the intersection of politics and Islam or Islamism. It is best explained as a continuum of various movements, which have a prototypical political agenda. Political Islam is characterized as a political ideology that uses religion as the primary foundation or driving force for chance, but it is not necessarily an attempt to become more religious. Like all political ideologies, it is by no



means homogenous to one specific organization or grouping (Karam, 5-6). Political Islam, thus in this sense, is not completely objective, and must be examined subjectively, taking into account various political and historical factors that effect the development of ideology in the Middle East. Moderate political Islam is considerably more complex than traditional Orientalist scholarship suggests. Moreover, the tendency to frame political Islam as “Fundamentalist Islam� by the Western media fails to capture the nuances or the complexity of Islam and its intersection with politics (Gerges, I). It is not simply an attempt to install sharia law, but rather, according to Karam, but rather a movement to promote change through social action, education, constituency building, etc. which incorporates elements of Islam. Unlike other Islamist movements, moderate political Islam is distinct in that it actively promotes political parties and participation in elections and establishes credibility through social classes and defined social agendas (Karam, 6-7). Credibility, therefore, lies in the ability to have a diverse agenda that appeals to the masses. Karam does note, however, that even radical Islamist groups, can have moderate elements of political Islam, or vice versa, that moderate political Islam can become radicalized (Karem, 8). Although Egypt, like other countries in the Middle East, was subject to colonization and imperialism in the 19th and 20th centuries, it is unique in that Egypt has a unified identity and culture that existed even in ancient times. Such a society provided an ideal sphere for grassroots movements that were anti-imperialist and often grounded in Islamic rhetoric. As a result, the fallout of colonization provided the ideal foundation for the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928. Since 1928, it is almost impossible to separate the role of political Islam in post-Cold War politics from the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood as it is intrinsically linked to the political history of the state. Founders of the Brotherhood, such as Sayyid Qutb, believed that Islam should be used as



unifying force in government because it was a complete system of morality, justice and governance, whose Sharia laws and principles should be the sole basis of government. Qutb suggested, “Much of the Muslim world approaches the Qur'an as a means to simply acquire culture and information, to participate in academic discussions and enjoyment. This evades the real purpose, for rather, it should be approached as a means to change society, to remove man from the enslavement of other men to the servitude of God” (Qutb, 7). And although Qutb’s was often radical and extreme in his thinking, particularly in regards to his stance on political jihad, the thought Qur’an should be used as means to change society, specifically in unifying the Muslim community remains a crucial element of modern political Islam in Egypt. Egypt serves as defining example of moderate political Islam’s role in regime politics in part because of the ideological belief that “the existing constitution parliamentary framework in Egypt, if reformed, would satisfy the political requirements for a Muslim state” (Ayoob, 71). Such thought has been clearly evident in the events of the Arab Spring in Egypt, where protests were characterized by demand for civil justice and governmental reform and disapproval for police brutality, corruption, and high unemployment. While early movements of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt prior to the end of the Cold War undoubtedly experienced times defined by political violence and extremism, since the late 1980s, political Islam has been increasingly defined by efforts to use existing political spheres to licit change in the governmental regime. The key difference between the West and moderate political Islam in Egypt, is not religion per say, so much as difference in approaches to democracy and political participation. The Muslim Brotherhood explains the difference as, For instance, democracy in the West in general, or at least as I regard it, is a problem-solving mechanism that aims at resolving the problems between different individuals in society by guiding them to form alliances based on interests, and then to compete for power to protect or



pursue their interests. This creates an interest-based society where people pursue the interests of their ethnic, religious, economic or social groups rather than the interests and well-being of the society as a whole. Democracy, or ‘Shura’ in the Islamic philosophy, is not merely a problem-solving mechanism that is used to prevent conflicts within society. Rather, it is an ethic that consultation should take place before taking any decision. Therefore, the mindset of the voter is different, as he seeks the well- being of the ‘umma’ at large, even if that runs against his own personal interests or objectives. This means that votes going to different groups is not due to differences in interest, but due to different understandings of what best serves the interests of the society as a whole....[and]... there is a balance between the interests of the individual and the society’ (Shanin) According to Georgetown professor John Esposito, since the end of the Cold War, attitudes of the West towards communism, have to an extent, been “replicated in the projection of a new global threat” that is political Islam, which is misattributed by the media and political pundits as an fundamentally anti-western movement (Karam, xii). Especially since 9/11, the rhetoric is increasingly reductionist to the point that the Islamic and Western worlds have been divisible into an “us or them” realm. Such division is comparable to the rhetoric used by United States politicians during the Cold War to describe the bipolarity of the international system. John F Kennedy stated in his inaugural address, for example, that “ Let Every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty” (Kennedy). President Kennedy’s rhetoric during the Cold War is similar to President Bush’s on the war on terror in that either you are with the United States, or against it. The attempt to achieve equilibrium in political power between the two spheres of West and the Islamic world this is reflected in the Muslim Brotherhood’s in Egypt gradual shift away from radical, political violence since the mid-1970s. As the Cold War came to a close, and the



Soviet Union began to lose power, in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence rose in correspondence through increased political participation in parliamentary elections working with he Wafd and Labour Parties, which allowed them to significantly increase their influence in the Egyptian Parliament by the 1990s (Shahin, 1). Furthermore, since the end of the Cold War, the Egyptian Brotherhood and other sects moderate political Islam have gained considerable legitimacy in its ability to gain support from the masses and a variety of class structures. Moderate political Islam is beginning traction with professional associations and groups that include lawyers, journalist and doctors. In increasing the diversity of constituency through such groups, as well as non-governmental organizations, charities, social service networks, publishing groups and even women’s centers, moderate political Islam groups are gaining considerable support and a large sphere of influence that arguably led to the events of the Arab Spring (Ayoob, 5). Work with such groups to work on secular politics shows willingness to adhere to political norms, and "It seems the Brotherhood understands the basic premise of democracy that people vote you in; they sometimes vote you out … no way to prove without a doubt the Brotherhood's commitment to anything without giving them a role in government” (Serwer). Regardless of the so-called clash of civilizations that has arisen between the Middle East at the United States since the end of the Cold War, Egypt remains an important cornerstone and foundation for United States foreign policy in the Middle East. Egypt is and will remain a vital asset to United States regional interests in spite or perhaps because of political Islam due to its critical air access to the Gulf, the Suez Canal as a vital trade way, etc. However, the rise of political Islam which at times complicates the relationship between the Egyptian government and the United State because the countries, especially moderate political Islam policies within Egypt,

Price 10 no longer share the same strategic vision they held during the Cold War (Pinto, 109). Despite the growing role of not only moderate political Islam in Egypt, but Islamic revivalism as well, Egypt remains a vital linkage to the United States economically and a key tool when the United States is working on agreements with the PLO in Palestine. The United States and western response to the growth of political Islam in Egypt is best described as cautious, primarily because of the need to maintain a strong relationship with Egypt. In Egypt, the role of moderate political Islam has been largely defined on the interplay between the state, particularly under Hosni Mubarak’s regime, and political Islam organizations and parties. After the Cold War, Mubarak’s reinforcement of both Sadat and Nassar’s limitations on speech for the Muslim Brotherhood and similar groups led to a similar balance for power as to the West and liberal democracy ideology and Islamic political ideology as a whole. Some groups, such as al-Jama, turned to violence political demonstrations, that the West viewed as hostile towards their own security interests, in part due to ties to Osama bin Laden. However, due to the population’s interpretation of Mubarak’s regime as autocratic, political Islamic groups, even if they did have some radical Islamic ties, gained considerably political ground due to regime policies in the late 1990s. In Egypt, in the years leading up to the Arab Spring, the Muslim Brotherhood and moderate political Islam groups emerged as the most credible alternative to an oppressive regime, gaining considerable grounds in limited elections (Ayoob, 86). The role of organized political Islamic groups can not be overstated in examining the Arab Spring in Egypt. Along without other government opposition groups, the Muslim Brotherhood advocated for government change in Egypt, taking the initiative to organize all opposition groups to unite against Mubarak (Weaver). Such political Islamic groups were responsible during the

Price 11 revolution for: • •

• • •

Coordinating and publicizing massive mobilizations and nonviolent resistance tactics against pseudo-democratic regimes after stolen elections, Allowing foreign governments and diaspora communities to support local democratic movements through information, electronic financial transfers, off-shore logistics and moral encouragement, Organizing … student movements to use unconventional protest tactics at sensitive moments for regimes … Uniting opposition movements through social-networking applications, shared media portals for creating and distributing digital content … Attracting international news media attention and diplomatic pressure through digital content such as photos taken “on the ground” by citizens, leaking videos and documents to foreign journalists, or by diplomats raising flags over human rights abuses, environmental disasters, electoral fraud, and political corruption, and Transporting mobilization strategies from one country to another, sharing stories of success and failure, and building a sense of transnational grievance with national solutions. (Howard)

Such features are found in other political ideology and tactics that are by no means unique to moderate political Islam, so Western response cannot be automatically categorized necessarily as disapproving of the movement. Instead, the role of moderate political Islam, for good or for bad on a moral principle, must be disregarded. Instead, it becomes necessary, as Hans Morgenthau’s principles of realism suggest, to remove moral objectives from the analysis of the West response. Regardless of the tactics of political Islamic groups as moral or immoral by human rights standards, which are only briefly discussed, the role of political Islam as a movement of power must be analyzed to understand the West’s cautious, yet defensive approach to the role of political Islam in Egypt. While nuances in political Islam exist, whether they be political violence or other forms of extremism, and moral philosophy aside, the response to the West to the rise of political Islam, as

Price 12 evidenced by the Muslim Brother in Egypt, is best viewed as a comparable quest to achieve equilibrium with two competing ideologies, much in the same way as American idealism and Soviet communism created a skewed biopolar international system. While today’s liberal democracy of the West versus the ideology rhetoric of Islamism differs in that one is a both a political system and ideology, the other more so a political ideology, they still represent a projection of bipolarity in the international system today.

Price 13 WORKS CITED Ayoob, Mohammed. The Many Faces of Political Islam: Religion and Politics in the Muslim World. Singapore: NUS, 2008. Print. Chatterjee, P. "The Classical Balance of Power Theory." Journal of Peace Research 9.1 (1972): 51-61. Print. Hansen, Birthe. Unipolarity and World Politics: A Theory and Its Implications. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2011. Print. Howard, Phillip. "The Arab Springâ s Cascading Effects." The Arab Spring's Cascading Effects. Pacific Standard Magazine, 23 Feb. 2011. Web. <>. Karam, Azza M. Transnational Political Islam: Religion, Ideology, and Power. London: Pluto, 2004. Print. Kennedy, John F. "Inagural Address." 20 Jan. 1961. Address.

Lewis, Bernard "Islam and Liberal Democracy: A Historical Overview," Journal of Democracy 7.2 (1996) 52-63

Pinto, Maria Do Céu. Political Islam and the United States: A Study of U.S. Policy towards Islamist Movements in the Middle East. Reading, UK: Ithaca, 1999. Print. Qutb, Syed Milestones, 1964. Serwer, Adam. "A Primer on the Muslim Brotherhood." The American Prospect. 9 Feb. 2011. Web. Apr. 2012. <>. Shahin, Emed El-Din. "Political Islam in Egypt." Centre for European Policy Studies (2007). Print. Weaver, Matthew, and Owen Bowcott. "Egypt Protests." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 29 Nov. 0000. Web. Apr. 2012. <>. Wright, Robin “Islam and Liberal Democracy,” Journal of Democracy, 1996, pp. 64-75

Political Islam and Liberal Democracy: Bipolar International System of Ideologies  

This paper will attempt to explain the role of moderate political Islam and Western response, in terms of balance of power and the structure...

Political Islam and Liberal Democracy: Bipolar International System of Ideologies  

This paper will attempt to explain the role of moderate political Islam and Western response, in terms of balance of power and the structure...