The ACRPS brought to a close its conference Islamists and Democratic Governance: Experiences and Future Directions held in Doha, October 6, 7 and 8. The public lectures and academic discussions brought scores of scholars, specialists on Islamist politics, and leaders and representatives of Islamist political groups from across the Arab countries. Researchers presented their analyses on the historical path taken by Islamist movements in Sudan, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Iraq, Palestine, Yemen, Algeria, Lebanon, Libya, and Mauritania. Many also discussed the challenges political Islamists faced during the Arab Spring and the expectations of those groups in the aftermath of the revolutionary period.

Participants at the three-day event had time to take in the breadth of the political Islamist experience. While much attention was paid to the wide-spread Muslim Brotherhood, which has a presence in virtually all Arab countries, and is itself a "broad church," Salafi groups prevalent in Egypt and Morocco were also discussed, along with Shiite Islamists in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen. The academic experience of the 12 sessions was enriched by the presence of a number of Islamist politicians, with three public lectures being delivered by prominent Islamists from Palestine (Khaled Meshaal), Sudan (Hassan al-Turabi), and Tunisia (Rachid Ghannouchi).

Adapting to the Transformation

The discussions throughout the conference provided a number of ideas on how the reality facing Islamist groups would change in the much-anticipated democratic transition following the Arab Spring. After the dust settles, Islamists and others would have to tackle the ideas and behaviors inherited from a time when they were locked into conflict with state authority. With the Islamists rising to power, whether alone or as part of a coalition, they would now have a different set of challenges, freeing themselves from those of previous eras. Commenting on this novel situation, a number of researchers attending the conference pointed to the need for those Islamist groupings to undertake an intellectual leap and embrace democracy wholeheartedly instead of utilizing a purely functional role for democracy - paying lip service to open and fair competition and democratic constitutions. What is needed at this moment is for Islamists to absorb and adopt the philosophical definition and meaning of democracy, including centrality and questions of liberty and equality.

ACRPS General Director Azmi Bishara put forward a similar idea in his opening address, in which he emphasized the point that "democracy has no religious identity". In other words, Islamists were just as qualified as other groups to contribute to the democratic transformation, so long as they adopted both the theoretical and practical principles of democracy. Secularism and reform formed another two focal points in the conference proceedings. Interestingly, there was a near-consensus among those in attendance, including members of Islamist groups, that the Arab democratic transition would have to take shape in the form of what some called a "civil state". In such a state, the principles of liberty and equality would be enshrined, regardless of whether or not Islamists would be at the helm.

Open Discussions

The third and final day of the conference was set aside for a series of open discussions on the general theme of "Islamists and the Democratic Transition". During these open discussions, the following contributors participated: Secretary General of the Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq, Hareth al-Dhari; President of Algeria's Salafist Front for Justice and Development, Abdullah Jaballah; Yasser Barahami, Vice-President of Egypt's Salafist Dawa Party; and Ghazi Salahuldin, former Presidential advisor on Sudan's peace process. Also speaking on the day were Libya's Senoussi Baskiri; Salem Fallahat of Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood; Abdulwahhab al-Ansi, a Yemeni parliamentarian from the Al-Islah Party; and Islam Lutfi, a member of Executive Secretariat of Egypt's Coalition of Revolutionary Youth. Speaking on behalf of Syria's Muslim Brotherhood, during the final discussion, was Ali Sadreddine al-Bayanouni; Mohammed Jamil Mansour, the first Mauritanian to run for the presidency of his country, and Yahya Wald al-Waqif.

Additionally, the third day offered attendees the chance to listen to public lectures by Rachid Ghannouchi of Tunisia and Khaled Meshaal of Palestine.

Ghannouchi: Islamists Convinced of the Need for a Civil State

Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi heads Tunisia's En Nahda Movement, and used his time addressing the conference to make clear that there is no unified "Islamist Movement"; rather, there is a collection of schools of thought and ideas. While there are a number of Islamist blocs that rejected democracy outright, and others that view it as an extraneous "innovation" that has defiled Islam (a bidaa), the majority of Islamists, he said, do accept democracy. Ghannouchi added that Islamist movements as a whole were increasingly recognizing the need to build a civil state where legitimacy rests on the people's consent since all people deserve to enjoy equal rights and share in an equality of duties.

Ghannouchi reached out to those Tunisian citizens who he felt were worried about the possibility that Islamic Sharia law would be enshrined as a source of legislation. En Nahda, said the Tunisian political leader, took these concerns to heart and agreed not to adapt the wording of the constitution as a result. According to Ghannouchi, this reflected that democracy was about not only "majority rule," but also a necessity for the protection of minority rights.

He also took the opportunity to make it clear that there is nothing in Islam that forbids learning from democracy, stressing that ideas of political pluralism need to be nurtured by Islamist theoreticians, as is also true for questions of equality and citizenship. Bringing together these ideas and tying them both to contemporary developments and historical milestones, Ghannouchi likened a paper on similar themes, recently published by the Al Azhar institution of Egypt to the Sahifa, which is a document that brings together the diverse groups of society in the city of Medina in the very early days following the Islamic Hijra, when the Prophet Mohammed left his ancestral home of Mecca for his new community of the faithful. In this manner, political pluralism is, one can see, deeply rooted in the Islamic tradition.

During his address, Ghannouchi criticized what he called efforts to import secularist ideas and impose them on an Islamic environment. Secularism, he said, was something from which Islamic societies could benefit as a means to arrange for the transfer of power. Commenting on his own group's experience in building alliances with secular Tunisian forces, Ghannouchi said "[En Nahda] has always worked to promote freedom. Together with secular forces, we agreed a set of [democratic principles] which made it easier for us to ally with democratic, secular forces."

Khaled Meshaal: Brave Declarations

Khaled Meshaal's speech expounded on the specificities that make the Palestinian situation unique, explaining that the Hamas model is not one that could be easily followed by others. Hamas, he added, is a national liberation movement, not only a typical a political Islamist organization. Expanding on the Palestinian issue, Meshaal explained how the lack of sovereignty over Palestine makes the question of there being any form of Palestinian "Authority" a moot point. The building blocks of a state, he said, are not present in the Palestinian case; furthermore, with the people divided and dispersed, and the territory under foreign occupation, there is no question of any genuine "authority" on the Palestinian side, said Meshaal.

Meshaal also pointed out one of Hamas's self-confessed flaws: entering the political fray and taking part in the governance of the Palestinian National Authority after the 2006 electoral victory, which they did, in part, to correct the mistakes of the Oslo Peace Process. Hamas, said Meshaal, has tried to hold the stick at both ends by being both a resistance movement and a party of authority. He insisted, however, that Hamas would remain a resistance movement. Summing up the experience that his movement, with himself in the leadership position, has gone through in the past six years, Meshaal noted that "Islamists must admit that being in government is much more complicated than what they had imagined; this applies to Hamas as well".

With regards to democracy, Meshaal, speaking on behalf of Hamas, stressed that the Arab-Islamic experience of democracy has, so far, been brief. It was only due to the strength of the society at the time that the early Muslim states had been able to survive after the end of the Four Righteous Caliphs. Today, he says, is the time for all political actors, including Islamists, to build a strong, contemporary model of democracy. Historical precedents, even for the Islamic system of Shura or "consultation" (often touted as an Islamist response to democracy), were simply too short-lived to be of any instructive use.

Meshaal also commented theoretically on the state of democracy in Arab countries, suggesting that the European parliamentary model, in which the majority forms a government and minority political parties are consigned to the opposition or a shadow government in some cases, is not adequate for present Arab needs. Referencing the frequent Israeli practice of forming broad coalition governments across the political spectrum, there is room for all political sides to contribute to the government. As for what others could expect from Hamas, Meshaal declared that "Islamists, no matter how greater their power, cannot exclude others. Thus, there [should be] no reason for nationalists, liberals, or others to worry over the possibility that they will be left out."

Finally, Meshaal had a message for Arab leaders about how to face the popular wave, and beseeched them to balance their own domestic concerns with the collective Arab question of Palestine, noting that "Egypt, for example, cannot isolate itself". Suggesting that Arab states had hitherto been cut out of the international decision-making process, Meshaal urged Arab governments to think of the popular pressure within their countries as being a source of strength for them that would enable their governments to deal more effectively with world powers.