Despite the fact that the term political Islam has been used for many decades, it still often invokes looks of bewilderment, and intrigue, when mentioned in conversation.  

The inclusion of the words political and Islam together clearly suggests some sort of the political and Islam working in combination and leads to questions from the curious observer who has not heard of this term before.

How do politics and Islam function together and is there a working model? If so, what does it look like? Muslims who engage in politics could be called political Islamists who are members of moderate mainstream movements and parties throughout the Middle East. These parties partake in politics in their respective countries and accept the concept of democracy, participation in elections and political pluralism. Many of these Islamist players form the main opposition front which is pressuring for democracy in repressive regimes in the region.

The contemporary mainstream Islamist movements are of a diverse nature, their ideology and politics interplaying with the specific politics of the countries, in which they exist, and operate. Due to the long tradition of Islamists in providing social care and services for the poor and needy, they realized that they can benefit politically from the strong grassroots support. Mainstream Islamists are uncorrupt, religious and selfless in an area where support for secular parties is low, and oppressive regimes, like Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia are the norm.

Among the Islamist movements which are committed to democracy are the following: the  banned Muslim Brotherhood and al-Wast (Center) party in Egypt, the Islamic Constitutional Movement (HADAS) in Kuwait, Jordan’s Islamic Action Front, Yemen’s Islah (Reform) party and al-Wefaq (Concordance) Party in Bahrain.The Islamists commitment to liberalization can, however, be questionable in certain areas, such as, women’s rights, Islamic law and civil and political rights. This commitment depends on the particular ideology and dynamics of the player within its own country.

There are movements, which participate in the politics and elections of a country but have their own military apparatus, such as Hizbullah and Hamas. They are similar in that the aims, motives and internal politics are dictated to a large extent by their struggle against Israel. Both operate in weak states where the central government does not have control over all of its territory.

In Lebanon, Hizbullah is entrenched within Lebanese society and the Lebanese political system. It enjoys considerable electoral support mainly from its Shite supporters. Practicality and flexibility is at Hizbullah´s core in forming cross confessional and ideological alliances with secular parties if it is in its interest to do so. Although, many claim that Hizbullah is a mere tool of Iran and its agenda, Hizbullah and its supporters claim it is a Lebanese resistance, which is needed to deter Israeli threats and provocative actions.

There has been much talk on the Lebanonization of Hizbullah by many analysts saying that it has transformed into a  truly Lebanese entity. However, there have been an increasingly growing number of sceptics to this analysis especially since May 8, 2008 when Hizbullah took over West Beirut after a governmental decision to replace Hizbullah affiliated chief of airport security, and to dismantle the party’s communication network.

Hizbullah isn’t afraid to flex its muscles when its interests are threatened. In the Lebanese system of confessional politics, the party is keen to reiterate the consensual nature of the political process, so no unilateral decisions are taken against its interests.While Hizbullah is eager to play the game of been seen as democratic, such as accepting its recent electoral defeat in the May 2009 elections and frequently portraying its openess to discussion with all parties, the party wants to reformulate Lebanon, so that it is united in its confrontation towards Israel,and that its weapons are an integral part of Lebanon´s defence strategy. Rather than a Lebanonization of Hizbullah what we are currently witnessing is a Hizbullahization of Lebanon, as Hizbullah has used a combination of political participation and military coercion to reshape the country. As a result some political actors, such as Michel Aoun and Walid Jumblatt realise that their personal and confessional agendas are better served, on the side of Hizbullah, and that a stronger, and more peaceful Lebanon is one that works with Hizbullah and not against it.

Many are quick to refer to Hizbullah’s absolute allegiance to Iran due to its ideologically adherence to the Vilayet Al Faqih doctrine but this is a hugely misinterpreted and overstated analysis. Hizbullah has its strategic agenda in the region, much the same as other regional actors, including Israel and the U.S. Hizbullah’s interests in its view lies with Iran with whom it is strategically aligned similar to the relationship that Israel has with the United States.

Hamas, similarly, in the Palestinian territories, beginning with the Islamization of the nationalist Palestinian cause in the first Intifada in 1989, aims to direct the Palestinian struggle towards Israel, and not towards reaching a settlement that acquiesces to Fatah, Israeli and U.S. interests.

After Hamas won elections in January 2006, it offered the more secular Fatah an invitation to form a unity government, and has curtailed its fiery rhetoric and statements since its earlier days. Hamas was also eager to gain international recognition of its victory. A recognition of some sorts would have placated the more radical members of Hamas and strengthened the moderates and may have offered a way forward in dealing with Hamas. However, due to Israeli, American and European demands that no Palestinian leader could accept, if he wanted to remain in power, Hamas was isolated, the radicals within Hamas strengthened and the moderates frustrated.

Hizbullah and Hamas have an Islamist view of a just society as do other Islamists in the Middle East. This is a view that often puts the interests of the society as a whole ahead of the individuals interests and rights. These perspectives are deeply religious where traditional and cultural values in society are extremely important. Hizbullah’s and Hamas’s struggle with Israel, and implicitly the U.S., is not just one about land but also one about a struggle against the spread of Western values and morals.

Both Hamas and Hizbullah entered politics and elections realising that participation in democratic politics can be used to advance their goals legitimately. What sets them apart is that they possess and need their weapons due to the internal weakness of the Lebanese state, the Palestinian territories, and due to the conflict with Israel. Neither Hamas nor Hizbullah  see a problem with obtaining a military capacity while they also participate in politics, if anything, they see it as a necessity, and even as a complementary asset, especially in the case of Hizbullah.

Participating in politics has a moderating effect on Islamist movements and parties, as they engage with more secular parties and discuss mutual areas of concern with an aim to exerting pressure on the government. These political players have become more flexible, adaptable, open to debate, willing to compromise and pragmatic.

Not unlike many diverse Western democracies there are diverse concepts of political Islam which are still evolving. Islamists understood that they can benefit from participating in the politics of their countries thus the reason for the rise in political Islam in recent times. The Islamists will remain the main political actors, in the region, in the coming decades and how they develop will depend on the democratization process in the Middle East from which they will be the main beneficiaries. In the case of Hizballah and Hamas their future is tied to the future of their own internal political situation and related regional conflicts in the region.

Donncha Cuttriss is a PhD candidate at Cork College University and a former soldier with UNIFIL. He blogs at Studies in Political Islam.

Picture taken in South Lebanon, 2007 by M.P.

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