Abdullah Al-Rashid
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on : Friday, 15 Mar, 2013
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Democracy and the Caliphate

How Salafi activists in the Gulf think

The story of the Srourists’ existential dilemmas with liberalism
A Saudi man casts his ballot at a polling station in Riyadh on September 29, 2011, as Saudi men were voting in municipal elections. FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images

A Saudi man casts his ballot at a polling station in Riyadh on September 29, 2011, as Saudi men were voting in municipal elections. FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images

An article entitled “Doctrines of People in Elections,” published on March 20, 2005, on the website Islam Today , described elections as a “mishap” and presented the “correct” legal and political stance towards them. The article was written as a response to the first municipal elections in Saudi Arabia, which took place on February 10, 2005. Its author was Ibrahim Al-Nasser, one of the most prominent symbols of Saudi Salafist activism—also known as “Srourism”—and whose writings constitute a vision and an inspiration to the members of the movement.

Nasser started his article by emphasizing that democracy is a modern Western ideology, and is based on the adoption of secularism and the exclusion of religion. Nasser stated that democracy is “a contradiction and violation of the law of Islam, and is inconsistent with the establishment of religion and monotheism.”

However, after he presented his ideological stance against democracy, Nasser wrote on his preferred political stance towards the existing democratic systems in the Islamic world. He stated that “democracy should be rejected as a philosophy, set of values and a mechanism, but should be accepted as a practice, within limits, seeing as it is in demand and is perceived as a necessity by the public. Those who hold such views use democracy as a mechanism not because it is permissible, but because of the damage that may occur if they do not.”

Thus, Nasser managed to strike a balance between his belief that democracy is an alien and un-Islamic phenomenon, and his belief that it is necessary to play a political role in societies that have adopted democratic features.

Revisiting the Arab Spring

The changing political landscape and the outcome of elections in the countries that experienced the Arab Spring have revealed an apparent alliance amongst the various political Islam groups, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Salafists. These groups, who were once ideologically divided, have today joined forces in order to safeguard the ‘Islamist rule’ project. Led by the Muslim Brotherhood and blessed by the Srourists, they aim to secure the success of the project in the wake of the Arab Spring.

Salafist activism is also known as Srourism after one of its most prominent leaders, Muhammed Srour Zein El-Abidine, a teacher and a Syrian national who moved to Saudi Arabia in the mid-1960s. It is different to traditional or mainstream Salafism in its political ambitions. Salafist activism is generally described as a movement that combines traditional Salafi doctrine and dogma with the activism of the Muslim Brotherhood. As such, the visions of both Ibn Taymiyyah and Sayyid Qutb are important intellectual influences in the movement. On the other hand, traditional Salafism follows the historic approach of complete compliance with authority; opposition is forbidden, but offering guidance is permissible. However, it avoids political involvement and actively advocates for religious education, guidance and judiciary.

While the Muslim Brotherhood took an early stance in favor of democracy and put theory into practice when it won seats in parliament, Salafist activists—at least, those who embraced the events of the Arab Spring—faced a dilemma. If the movement were to directly approve of and support democracy and elections, it would have to break with its intellectual heritage, based on the rejection of modern Western political systems. On the other hand, if the movement strictly adhered to its beliefs, then it would give its rivals, the liberals and the secularists, free reign and it would not be able to assist the Brotherhood.

The stance taken by the Srourists towards the Egyptian constitution is a good illustration of how they solved this dilemma. Their position reflected a convergence between Salafist activism and the Muslim Brotherhood’s project. Clearly, the developments in the Egyptian political arena place the constitution at the center of the divide between the Islamists—the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists—who are in support of the constitution, and the liberals and the others who reject the new constitution and see it as a Trojan horse attempting to create a totalitarian religious state. However, another divide came to light amongst the Salafists, as some perceived the new Egyptian constitution as an instrument for “delusions” and “suspicions” and argued that it is “evoking contradiction in Islam.”

The Egyptian Salafi Sheikh Mustafa Adawi, for example, stressed to the Egyptian media that it is forbidden to vote in favor of the constitution, saying, “Whoever casts a positive vote for the constitution is a sinner. The constitution includes extreme violations to the Book of God and the Sunna of his Prophet, peace be upon him.”

In order to unite the Salafists and to deprive the liberals of a victory amid all this upheaval, Sheikh Nasser Al-Omar, a prominent Srourist leader in Saudi Arabia, wrote an article on his website, The Muslim, on the day of the constitutional referendum, December 15, 2012. In it, he explained the stance of Salafist activists towards the referendum, democracy and political representation in parliament. First, Omar emphasized that “liberal Western democracy is in opposition to Islamic law. Some, however, contemplate the situation in Egypt while under the impression that Shari’a is an accessible option and [its adoption] only requires for followers to advocate it to the public.”

He continued, “Disloyalty towards religion is not permissible except in the case of coercion. However, the Faqih [expert in Islamic law] is the one who can differentiate between the two corrupting vices—disloyalty and coercion—and would avoid the worst of the two. He realizes that failure [to cast a vote] would best serve to bring triumph to iniquity.”

Explaining the Srourists’ general stance on elections, Omar wrote:

The electoral mechanisms could be adopted, in certain circumstances, then Islamized by imposing a number of restrictions—such as excluding women from candidacy in certain posts and excluding godless and promiscuous political parties . . . If participating in the elections will lessen the evils of the regime, oppose all legislations contrary to the rule of God, and call for the reformation of the constitution within an Islamic frame, then participating in the elections is permissible—although the constitution is not satisfactory.

Omar’s article came as a response to a well-known Saudi fatwa that confirmed that the Egyptian constitution includes godless material. However, the fatwa stated that voting “though not a duty, is permissible . . . Muslim voters have little choice—either this or accept a worse option. It is neither rational nor following Shari’a to completely withdraw from the matter, as this may offer an opportunity for the godless and the hypocrites to achieve their goals.”

Although this ruling deals with a particular Egyptian affair, it provides a model through which we can understand Srourism’s attitude to the developments of the Arab Spring, as well as modern political phenomena like democracy and political and societal representation in parliament and civic institutions. The fatwa provoked a wide range of reactions amongst Salafists. The issue that they all focused on, however, was how to acknowledge that the Egyptian constitution is, in fact, a heresy, while still portraying it as a necessary evil. In other words, does the end justify the means?

Sheikh Muhammed Al-Munjid, a Syrian preacher resident in Saudi Arabia, answers such uncertainties via his personal Twitter account: “The current constitution includes godless material that may not be approved of and should be eliminated whenever possible. However, to approve of this constitution means supporting the survival of the best leaders currently attainable. The alternative, in the case of the fall of the constitution, would be an anti-religious, secular rule that is dishonest and ignorant to the will of God.” He added, “Casting a positive vote for this constitution is the path towards a subsequent better one with complete endorsement by the Islamic Law.”

Similarly, Sheikh Bandar Al-Shweiqi, faculty member at Imam Muhammed ibn Saud Islamic University, quoted by The Path to Sunna Network, believes that everyone is in agreement over the fact that the constitution

… includes opposing material to the Islamic Law. However, this does not mean that voting for the constitution is a godless act. In order to justify my statement, I refer to the intentions of the rulers following this constitution; those with intent to rule in deviation to the Law of God, as well as those who claim to follow the word of God in theory but not in practice, are godless. Those with good intentions, but nonetheless unable to rule by the Law of God, are not a cause for concern.

These opinions clearly illustrate that the position of Salafist activists on democracy and modern political systems has two aspects. The first is ideological and fixed. It sees democracy as a godless Western system that grants people the sovereignty and the right to decide legal action in place of the Islamic Law. In contrast, the second is politically pragmatic. It assesses the costs and benefits of participating in a “godless” system, and makes utilitarian calculations based on the balance of the two.

As a consequence, we can catch a glimpse of their objectives in advocating involvement in politics. The first objective is identifying the lesser of two evils and thus enduring lesser spiritual corruption. The second is ensuring that the decision achieves the intended benefit and opens up a gradual path towards implementing the rule of Islam. Finally, they seek to ensure that the result is temporary—when the need is no longer pressing, the ruling is annulled.

A return to the Caliphate

Al-Bayan, a London-based magazine and an influential Srourist mouthpiece, published a review of a book entitled The Islamists and the Illusion of Democracy: A Comprehensive Study of the Islamists’ Participation in Representative Councils in its September 1993 issue. The book was authored by Abdul Ghani Al-Rahal and the first edition was published in 1993. Rahal starts off his book with a historical narrative: “When the sun had set on the Caliphate, in 1924, the Islamic nation became an orphan of religion, scattered and fragile. The nation had to put the Law of God aside and adopt imported circumstantial human laws.” The author concludes, “Democracy is a blasphemous western methodology and representative councils are a contradiction of monotheism.”

In a more recent article entitled “Contradiction Between Democracy and Islam,” published by Al-Bayan in its August 2012 issue, the author, Ibrahim Al-Haqeel, confirms that democracy “is a secular political system that tackles worldly issues. It is not remotely concerned with the afterlife and has not the slightest connection with religion.”

As an alternative to democracy, Haqeel believes—in reference to a text by Ibn ‘Ashour—that

… humans are in need of a Caliph to govern them and resolve their disputes. They will not unite unless they find a system to achieve this. God had sent his messengers and had illustrated his laws in aid of this. Islam had tied the message with Caliphate. Therefore, following the death of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, the Sahaba [companions of the Prophet] were of the opinion that establishing a Caliphate was crucial to safeguard the nation and implement the Islamic Law.

Moreover, in the opening statement of its July 2012 issue, entitled “The Islamists Between the Tunes and the Mines of Democracy,” Al-Bayan magazine called for “the formulation of an alternative political system to democracy that is Islamic and supportive of the faith and that elevates from the status of Islamic Law. This is in order to slowly transform the legitimate rule from secularism to Islam.” This statement follows Al-Bayan’s conclusion that democracy is associated with the anti-religious secularism and that it has failed in the Arab and Islamic worlds.

Similarly, Hakim Al-Mteiri, a Kuwaiti national and a former secretary of the Salafist movement, stated that “democracy and what it ideologically stands for, i.e., granting the right to rule to the people, where they decide what to allow or deny, is, indisputably, a heresy amongst Muslims.” This statement was issued during a November 2001 interview by Sajid Al-Abdalli of the Arabs Forum website. Mteiri also co-founded The Nation, the first political party in Kuwait to call for the prohibition of political parties.

In his book, The Ways of the Prophet on Political Provisions and The Ways of Orthodox Politics, published in mid–2012, Mteiri presents the Islamic Caliphate as a comprehensive model for political ruling. He decided that “this model has been granted approval by scholars and reformers over the years. There is no dispute amongst the various denominations, with their many doctrines and Imams, concerning the Caliphate being the most comprehensive model to follow—contrary to old and recent political innovations, including those in the guise of Islam, such as the Faqih Mandate, and those imported, such as democracy, liberalism and socialism.” Thus, according to Mteiri, “The methodologies of the Prophecy and the Orthodox Caliphate should be comprehended in order for the nation to aptly implement them.”

At this juncture, it is worth mentioning that the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria is considered one of the most well known Salafist models in history. The Islamic Salvation Front alternated between condemning democracy as a heresy and practicing it. In 1991, it invested all of its resources in the parliamentary elections in Algeria. Meanwhile, its second in command, Ali Bilhaj, had published a series of articles in The Front newspaper, under the title “The Bold Imprint of Heresy on the Sect of Democracy”—according to Egyptian writer Jamal Sultan in an article published by Al-Majalla. Bilhaj publically announced, “We want to clearly state that we are no democrats. I, personally, renounce democracy.” Yet again, in a second public address, he declared, “We do not believe in majority rule. Whoever gets to the top and rules by the Law of God is our ally, but who rules against the Law of God shall have to battle us until one of us meet their doom.” These statements are available on YouTube. Bilhaj is well accredited for his proclamation, “The rule in Algeria will be Islamic and the 1991 election shall be the last as the Front shall be victorious.”

We shall revolt at the closest opportunity

In an attempt to respond to the contradictions that arise from condemning democracy while practicing it, Nasser Omar published an article entitled “The Dilemma of the Correlation Between Approving of Democracy and Dealing With It” in the August 2012 issue of Al-Bayan. Omar concluded that practicing democracy, as well as running for parliament, is an instrument used to cope with the current circumstances. “Every Muslim should strive to eliminate evil whenever possible. However, if this cannot be achieved, then it is one’s duty to attempt to lessen the impact of that evil. One of the main principles of Shari’a Law is to lessen corruption when eradicating it is not an option.”

Omar also asserts that “when the opportunity arises, Muslims shall establish an orthodox Caliphate based on the Prophecy and its methodology.” Moreover, Omar justifies the use of democracy by treating it as a requirement of blocking the path of liberals and the secularists: “We are obliged to face this imposed reality; we either take part in democracy and play by its Western rules or the liberals, secularists and the atheists will take control.”

Omar argues that approving of democracy and consenting to its methodology and values is not the aim:

Those who agree with the principles of democracy would attempt democratic action, so would those who aim to reform it. To clarify, think of it like you would a bar! You would have those who would enter the bar with full approval—with intentions of violating the Islamic Law. On the other hand, you would have those who visit it with the intentions of eradicating its practices, opposing its misconduct and violation of the Islamic Law, or calling for an alternative that God approves of.

In his conclusion, Omar firmly and clearly determines that Salafist involvement in the elections is merely “the means towards dealing with the reality of the situation in order to improve it. The moment establishing an Islamic rule or an orthodox Caliphate—based on the Prophecy and its methodology—is at hand, the Salafists shall renounce the Western methodologies. Let whoever wishes to call it a ‘revolt against democracy.’”

Abdullah Al-Rashid

Abdullah Al-Rashid

Abdullah Al-Rashid is a Saudi academic and journalist.

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