The Civilized Alternative

Mustapha Kamal

Secular scholars are used to viewing modern Islamists as staunch opponents of the separation of religion and state and as unfaltering foes of liberal democracy. No matter how much Islamists support pluralism and free elections, as they did in Iran and Algeria, many consider their attitude a ploy to fool secular opposition, or a tactical move to further the same agenda: full control of the state apparatus. Within this vision, if there are any differences among Islamists, they are superficial and constitute different ways of achieving the same goal: the Islamist bid for political power. According to Nasr Hamid Abu-Zayd, the Egyptian professor whose life and marriage were jeopardized by fanatical proponents of the "Islamic Way," the dichotomy between moderate and extremist Islamists is spurious. In his eyes, it is no more than a labor division among them. For him, intellectuals speak the language of moderation in order to appeal to the educated segments of the populace, while activists are out to organize the masses and issue fatwas legitimizing the murder of their secular opponents (Abu Zayd, Naqd al-Khitaab al-dini). For other scholars, these differences boil down to two currents: they call the first one exclusionary, and the second one integrationist (Muhammad Dariif, al-Islam al-siyyaasi fi al-Maghrib). The former current considers that either the government or society (or both) has lapsed into pre- Islamic evildoing and needs to be brought back to the fold of Islam, by coercion if need be; while the second current considers that ruler and subjects can be convinced to mend their ways through patient and sustained proselytizing.

There seems to be a consensus among scholars that all Islamist movements are opposed to modern political ideals such as democracy, human rights, and pluralism. It seems to me, however, that this conclusion is inaccurate because in Morocco the Islamist Civilized Alternative promotes these very ideals. Already, its members accept collaboration with liberals and leftists. They denounce human rights abuses, promote pluralism, and claim to believe in dialogue with secular political organizations. In short, they have a democratic agenda.

The situation becomes more bewildering when certain Islamist groups not only express their belief in democracy and its corollary implications such as equality between man and woman and the right of a woman to choose her garment, but also give it, through an alternative reading of the Qur'an and the Sayings of the Prophet, a theoretical grounding. In Morocco, the Civilized Alternative, a group of such new Islamists, in a series of answers to questions I submitted to them in May 2004, expressed views that can easily be considered heretical by our experts and their foes—the literal Islamists.

The Civilized Alternative says, "For democracy to strike roots within our social fabric, we need to implement democratic mechanisms; and by that, we mean all the practical steps that enable our nation to choose its leaders." To be implemented, these mechanisms require three conditions: First, political pluralism; second, the possibility for any candidate to run for office; and third, the peaceful transfer of power. Concerning the first condition, i.e., political pluralism, the Civilized Alternative considers that equality before the law, freedom of speech, and freedom of organization are sine qua non. To remove any suspicion that by pluralism the leaders of the Alternative authors mean only like-minded political currents, as is the case in Iran, they expressly mention secular and leftist parties. To drive the message home, they cite a series of long-standing relationships they have already established with some leftists. Thus in January 2001, they signed "The Call for Democracy" and they helped found "The Democratic Pole" with both leftist and Amazigh groups in March 2002.

But where they achieve a real theoretical contribution is when they give their ground-breaking interpretation of the Muslim caliphate. Unlike other Islamist trends, which see in the pious ruler the embodiment of Muslim ethos, the Alternative leaders consider that the locus of Muslim legislation is the Ummah, i.e., the Muslim community. For them, the successor of the Prophet Muhammad is not an individual but the whole Muslim community. As a corollary, they say: "The elected leader and his deputy wield political power and run the nation's affairs—but only vicariously." Thus, the ruler is the representative of the Ummah, not of the Prophet.

From these premises, the Civilized Alternative draws the following conclusions: the ruler's legitimacy is not a religious one; the seal of sacredness must be lifted from political decisions; politics is based on the centrality of citizenship, not on religion. With these conclusions, the last theoretical obstacles to democracy and the separation of state and religion are removed. In the recent past, when secular thinkers in Muslim countries presented these same demands, literal Islamists accused them of importing ideas from Orientalists bent on destroying Islam. But with their new reading of the Islamic tradition, the Alternative leaders are treading a safer ground. Of course, as any political group, the Civilized Alternative leaders hope to translate these ideas into action and open a space for public debate.

But this same space may be fraught with danger. For example, how do these ideas relate to an absolute monarchy that claims to hold both a political and a religious legitimacy in Morocco? The answer proposed by the Civilized Alternative is a modern constitutional democratic monarchy, in which "the king is the symbol of a unified and independent country; and the people the holder of power." When the writers of this platform are asked, "What will hold the monarchy and the people together if we implement your program?" The answer will be: "A renewable social contract." This contract "will be open-ended and multidimensional, and as a result it will be legitimate." When these ideas are explored within the precincts of the university, the powers that be may feel nervous; but they tend to turn a blind eye, hoping that university professors will timorously retreat and forget these bold undertakings. But when an Islamist movement, which aspires to acquire a legal status within the current political system, presents these same ideas, their tolerance may evaporate. In fact, in 2008 the leaders of the Civilized Alternative were rounded up and accused of plotting terrorist attacks in Morocco. The following year, they were sentenced to twenty-five years. Many believe they were framed because of their positions on the monarchy.

It is wrong to lump all Islamist political movements together and assume that they read the Holy writ and the Tradition of the Prophet in the same way. Neither do all Islamist movements oppose the implementation of Western-style democracy. We might ask what the word democracy means exactly? One can argue that there are as many democracies as there are democratic societies. Nor do all Islamists favor market economy. Guided by a sincere desire to see the Muslim impoverished rise out of their squalor, some Islamists strive to incorporate a social agenda into their political program. It is no wonder that the founders of the Egyptian Muslim Brethren, the first Islamist organization in the Arab world in the twentieth century, justified their actions by the need to defend Islam against foreign encroachments—religious, moral, political, economic, and military. That the early Islamists, in their confrontation with European colonialism, emphasized the religious aspect of their agenda does not mean that all subsequent Islamists will blindly follow the same path. Time will show what direction Islamists will take in the future.