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The Arab Spring offers new space to politics and sharia

Nov 01. 2011
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By Imtiyaz Yusuf
Special to The

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October saw many developments in the Middle East - the deaths of Muammar Gadhafi in Libya and Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud; the success of Ennahdha, a moderate Muslim democrat party in Tunisian constituent assembly elections; delaying


But Assad, Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Bahrain and Saudi monarchies take no heed of the fate of Gadhafi. 
The contemporary Middle East is is changing rapidly as authoritarian regimes continue to block and suppress the tide of people power. The successful election in Tunisia is worthy of emulation by other Arab countries that have thrown out their leaders. Political freedom should pave the way for economic development – the original cause of the Arab revolts, not Islamic radicalism. Democracy without economic betterment will amount to just a changing political face with no overall real improvement. Improving economic conditions is a big task before the emerging Arab democracies can stave off the rise of Islamic radicalism and terrorism. 
The Tunisian Muslim democrats look up to Turkey as a model worthy of emulation in terms of political arrangement, and they might well look up to Muslim Southeast Asia as a model for development. Yet, they have their own economic conditions upon which to plan their development. 
The ousted Tunisian president Ben Ali must be sleepless in Saudi Arabia as the very party he banned won the majority of seats in the constituent assembly. Ennahdah is engaged in talks with the Congress for the Republic and Ettakatol – two secular parties – to form a coalition interim government. Their objective is to avoid ideological squabbling in a new democracy. The Tunisian election was not fought on religious grounds, rather on a national agenda for establishing of democracy. Yet, the supporters of Ben Ali may try to upset this democratic evolution. The self-sacrifice of the Tunisian, Mohamed Bouazizi, who set off the “Arab Spring” by setting himself on fire, is producing results.
Ennahdha obtained 90 seats in the 217-member constituent assembly, which will draft the constitution, appoint a president and form an interim government. Moncef Marzouki, leader of Tunisia’s largest secular party,  Congress for the Republic, which may form a coalition government with Ennahdha said, “One must not take them for the Taleban of Tunisia. It is a moderate part of Islam.” 
The current secular Tunisian prime minister, Beji Caid el Sebsi, remarked that he had no reason to doubt Ennahdha’s commitment to the secular state and democracy. 
Western media and leaders are wary about the success of Ennahda – an Islamic democratic party – and also about liberated Libya, following Libyan leader of the National Transitional Council (NTC), Mustafa Abdul Jalil’s announcement that sharia will be the basis of all new legislation in Libya. No such concern was expressed by the West in regard to post-Saddam Hussein Iraq and Karzai’s Afghanistan, whose constitutions declare Islam as the official religion, sharia as the basis of law, and also permit polygamy. But Jalil’s similar declaration has raised western eyebrows. In fact, the role of Islam in Libyan politics is not new; Gadhafi had implemented his own version of Islamic socialism. Presently, worries about the role of Islam in changing Libya are out of fear about an emerging pluralist Libya.
All countries base their values on social and cultural philosophies. This is Islam in the case of the Middle East and Muslim Africa and Muslim Southeast Asia; Hinduism in India; Buddhism in Thailand; secularism and Judeo-Christian traditions in the West; communism in China and Cuba.  
It is thus necessary to be clear about sharia – the path, legal principles or religious values in the Koran – and the Muslim jurisprudence. The former provides no details about application, which is left to fuqaha – jurists and religious scholars, who produce the rules and details of the legal application of sharia values. This corpus is called fiqh – the interpretation of sharia. The Prophet Muhammad developed and applied some details of sharia principles during his lifetime, however the main corpus of fiqh emerged over later centuries. 
The process of Muslim legal evolution went into stagnation during the 10th century and there has not been much movement in the legal evolution of fiqh or legal interpretation in Islam. Today, there are fives schools of Muslim jurisprudence: Hanafi – in the Indian subcontinent, Central Asia and Turkey; Shafii – in Egypt and Southeast Asia; Maliki – in north Africa; Hanbali – in Saudi Arabia; and Jafari – in Iran, the last being the only shia legal school. Many other schools faded out in history. Thus, when politicians speak of implementing sharia, it depends upon which school is prominent in their countries, their national ideologies and political structures. 
Sharia law, as interpreted and developed by jurists, covers all aspects of life such as religious rituals, personal and family relations, governance and international relations, economic and business matters, and hudud (the criminal code). 
Unfortunately, majority Muslim politicians and political parties in their pursuit of political power seek the implementation only of the hudud – ignoring the necessary conditions for its application as laid out in tradition. Mere implementation of the criminal code of Islam and outdated interpretation of gender relations without addressing issues of political, economic and social freedoms and human equality is not the solution for the predicaments of the Muslim world.  
Furthermore, Muslim countries such as Turkey, Tunisia, Algeria, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Malaysia do not subscribe to sharia as the basis of their national political and legal systems. Hence, political squabbles between parties about the partial implementation of sharia law, restricted to the criminal code, are a political hot potato for religious and secular parties in Muslim countries. Awareness of this fact will change much misunderstanding about the relationship between Islam and politics. Religious experience is deeper than the mere exercise of religious policing. Religions cover all dimensions of human life, not merely legal. Reduction of religion to law and legalism saps it of spirituality.
The emergence of democracies out of the Arab Spring offers a new space for the reform and evolution of the interpretation of sharia principles – jurisprudence fit for the age of democracy, gender equality, economic improvement and pluralism – values which are not in contradiction of Islam. These have been only been obscured by authoritarian and totalitarian regimes using support from religious clerics. Such reform and evolution will help other Muslim countries and communities to embark on paths of development and pluralism. It will also aid in combating exclusivism and extremism borne out of authoritarian and totalitarian environments. 
The most pertinent issue confronting the Muslim world today is not about the separation or non-separation of religion and politics but about balancing the spiritual and legal aspects of the religion. Moving away from the practice of religion as constituting merely law and politics centred around the hudud code will enable the emergence of balanced spirituality in the interests of democracy, freedom, development and human dignity. The pluralist Arab Spring is making such space available for the Muslim world, which should not go to waste. 
Dr Imtiyaz Yusuf is professor of Islamics and Religion at the Graduate School of Philosophy and Religion, Assumption University, Bangkok.

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