Saturday, March 15, 2008

Centrist Islamist parties Can Be Bulwark Against Extremism

Centrist Islamist parties Can Be Bulwark Against Extremism


CAIRO — For more than three decades, fundamentalist religious organisations across the Arab world – such as the Islamic Group in Egypt, the Armed Islamic Group in Algeria, and Al Qaeda – have monopolised global attention. Meanwhile, moderate currents faced – and continue to face – difficulty expressing themselves at the international level, even though they represent the mainstream essence of Islam.

Now, violent waves of extremism have waned one after the other, as is evident from the receding popularity of such organisations, the disintegration of the central command of Al Qaeda, and its transformation from a hierarchal system to a state of mind. It seems that the Arab public has meanwhile become more amenable to “centrist” political ideologies, which call for tolerance, moderation and communication with the “other”.

This comes as a result of the suffering that Arab societies have witnessed due to the prevalence of extremist violence, and a wariness towards martyrdom overtures which inflict death and destruction upon innocent civilians. However, shifting this paradigm requires that moderate political Islamic groups be allowed the opportunity to participate in the political arena.

Moving away from traditional political movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, centrist Islamic activists and parties have gradually established their political presence over the past 20 years. Examples include the Nahda (Awakening) Party in Tunisia, which was established in 1981, and the Justice and Development Party in Morocco, which combines the Popular Constitutional Democratic Movement established in 1967 with members of the more religious Moroccan Reform and Renewal Movement. Other centrist parties include the Jordanian Islamic Centre Party, which was established in 2001, the Sudanese Middle Party, established in 2006, and the New Middle Party in Egypt, whose members have been struggling for the past ten years to obtain a legal license for political activity.

There are several reasons to pay serious attention to the rising phenomenon of Islamic centrist parties.

Such parties appear to exhibit an advanced level of “Islamic” political awareness that has been missing in the political arena since the emergence of the Arab nation-state over half a century ago. Such nuanced understanding of the relationship between Islam and politics has been sidelined largely by the strife between the state and extremist religious groups that have come into existence since the 1970s. These continuing clashes have hurt the chances for successful centrist Islamic political participation.

These centrist parties represent a departure from the traditional political currents of Islam – which range from the moderate all the way to the violent extremist – instead measuring their success on the basis of political efficiency. These parties have the ability to absorb the concepts of democracy and civil service, and deal with them independently of religion. Such parties believe Islam can provide a moral framework for political action by adhering to basic universal – and Islamic – values like justice, freedom, equality and citizenry. They respect, for instance, the concept of political plurality and do not oppose the emergence of secular or communist parties.

Furthermore, they realise the rights of all non-Muslim minorities. That they are labelled “Islamic” implies that they emanate from a value system, as does the liberal or social frame of reference. These parties have the ability to absorb the concepts of democracy and civil service in a manner that is consistent with the outlook of mainstream Islam without falling prey to the restrictions of some narrower interpretations.

For example, centrist parties reject any discrimination among citizens assuming public posts on the basis of gender, colour, religion or ethnicity, whereas groups like the Muslim Brotherhood place restrictions on who could attain the presidency in Egypt.

These imposed limitations for developing an effective political model have haunted political Islamic philosophy throughout the past century. Other more extremist parties are entrenched within the confines of their own religious rhetoric, unable to move beyond perceived restrictions, which inevitably leads to their political and intellectual inertness and reduces the likelihood of being successfully championed by civil society.

These parties also provide a prominent example of the nature of the relationship between the state and society. They do not, for instance, impose a specific type of governance, such as shari'a (Islamic law), but leave society to select the appropriate model. With these principles, they have succeeded in resolving the historic dilemma of how to combine religion with politics in public life that has long plagued all Islamic political currents.

Islam assumes a central position in these centrist political parties, a pre-requisite for credibility with a mainstream audience and a safeguard against those who may attack them for turning away from religion. In its genuine commitment to both the principles of Islam and cultural identity on the one hand, and to meeting the challenge of modern political life on the other, centrist Islamic politics are the only credible way forward for many countries in the Arab world.


KHALIL AL-ANANI is an Egyptian specialist of Islamism and author of The Muslim Brothers in Egypt: Old Age Struggling with Time and a second book titled Political Islam:The Phenomenon and the Concept. He is also deputy editor-in-chief of the international politics journal Al Ahram. This article is written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at

A look at the Middle Class: The In Betweeners

The in-betweeners

Jan 31st 2008
From The Economist print edition

A lot is expected of the middle class in emerging economies. But they just want a quiet life

TWO jars of chickpeas, 20 bars of soap, three packs of cigarettes and six sachets of shampoo—all these items and more are in stock at a village store five hours away from the Indian city of Hyderabad. It is the leanest of inventories, and yet it supports great hopes. Combined with a scrap-metal business, the store is just enough to lift its owners into the ranks of India's fabled middle class. They and their comrades in Latin America, Africa and emerging Asia belong to a vague demographic that no one can define precisely, but which everyone agrees is vital to stability and prosperity in the developing world.

“The virtues of a middle class are those which conduce to getting rich—integrity, economy, and enterprise,” observed John Stuart Mill after the industrial revolution. Do the new middle classes share those virtues? In a recent paper* Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, two economists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have tried to find out. As well as visiting village stores outside Hyderabad, they drew on household surveys in 13 developing countries, from Mexico and Panama to Tanzania, South Africa and East Timor. The result is a sequel to their 2006 portrait of the lives of those living on about $1 a day.

The two authors define the middle class abstemiously, as those who spend $2-10 a day, measured in 1993 purchasing-power-parity dollars. In other words they have about the same command over goods and services as Americans spending $1,050-5,200 a year in today's money. If this seems too austere a standard, note that 88% of the rural Indians in their surveys lived on less than this, and that the middle-class Britons who won Mill's praise earned little more.

Do the emerging middle classes exhibit the temperance and economy that Mill celebrated? Like good burghers everywhere, they invest in their health and their homes, the surveys show. Most also spring for a television, and the share of their spending devoted to entertainment rises steadily with income. To be middle class is to have licence to indulge more freely in creature comforts. To the very poor, on the other hand, even drinking tea is a wasteful extravagance.

And what of enterprise? Does the spirit of capitalism burn in the new middle classes? They are often portrayed as “entrepreneurs in waiting”, the authors note, ready to transform their lives and their economies if only they can get secure title and ready capital to underwrite their businesses. “It is impressive how pervasive is the view that the poor are sitting at the cusp of a huge opportunity to get much richer—by now it's almost an axiom,” says Mr Banerjee.
A nation of shopkeepers

In fact, the urban middle classes are no more likely to own a business than the poor. (In the countryside, the pattern is mixed.) And even when they own one, their hearts are not really in it. Their ventures are tiny, often one-person operations doing mostly what their neighbours do. In Hyderabad and its environs, 21% of the middle class run general stores, 17% tailor-shops, 8.5% telephone booths and 8% sell fruit and vegetables. Others sift through rubbish for items of value, sell milk or collect dung. The businesses turn a modest profit, but only if the value of the owner's own time is not counted.

The businesses are short of capital. The threadbare inventory the authors discovered in the village store outside Hyderabad is only one example. Few businesses own machinery, or even a bicycle. The two economists cite an experiment, sponsored by the World Bank, which randomly bestowed about $100-200 of extra capital on tiny businesses in Sri Lanka. The annualised return on the money was an impressive 94% on average.

If their businesses are so starved of capital, why do the middle classes not invest more in them? Borrowing, as the proponents of microcredit point out, is expensive. But there is nothing to stop households accumulating capital by saving. After all, they defer gratification enough to “invest” in their homes and TV sets, so why not in their enterprises?

The authors speculate that the new middle class is not an aspiring bourgeoisie of petty businessmen. They are, instead, aspiring salarymen. To be middle class is to draw a pay packet weekly or monthly, rather than daily or hourly. An hour from Udaipur, another Indian city, the authors spotted well-tended homes with motorcycles in the courtyard and children in starched school uniforms. Sure enough, a zinc factory was operating nearby.

For those who cannot get such regular jobs, a petty business is the next best thing. The hours are long, but not very intense. The storeowner outside Hyderabad chatted happily with the pair of inquisitive economists for two hours. Only two customers showed up in that time. One bought a cigarette, the other a stick of incense.

This segment of the middle class may lack the gumption to expand their businesses, or perhaps they know something about their prospects that their cheerleaders do not. Their businesses might benefit from a little more capital: some extra jars of chickpeas or sticks of incense. But once such businesses get beyond a certain size, the authors argue, the returns to scale diminish quickly. A village can support several identical stores, but not if they get too big.

Adam Smith, who described Britain as a nation of shopkeepers, had a keen sense of what could be expected of the middle class. The prudent man, he wrote, “does not go in quest of new enterprises and adventures, which might endanger, but could not well increase, the secure tranquillity which he actually enjoys.” Cup of tea, anyone?

* Available at

Free Domains