Egypt, Turkey, and Tunisia Are All Slowly Islamizing

Institutions are gradually shifting in favor of Islamists in many Arab Spring countries.
More
egypt mb protester banner 239408.png
A supporter of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood holds up a Koran during Friday prayers at a rally in Cairo on December 14, 2012. (Amr Dalsh/Reuters)

Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil announced a cabinet reshuffle recently that included a number of new ministers from the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood's leadership. This development seems to have confirmed the worst fears of the Egyptian opposition, which has raised concern over the "Brotherhoodization" of the country. Although the increased representation of the Brothers in the government is cause for alarm for Egypt's secularists and liberals, they should be concerned about a quieter, but more worrying process -- the Islamization of Egypt's political institutions -- which is likely to be far more durable than the Brotherhood's grip on political power. This phenomenon is not just underway in Egypt, however. Islamist power and the Islamization of society are what the the future holds for Egypt, Tunisia, post-Assad Syria, and likely other countries in the region.

Given that the noticeable evidence of the Islamization in the Middle East is few and far between, the idea that Islamization is the trajectory of the region might seem misplaced. Egypt's Muslim Brothers and Tunisia's Ennahda have not declared alcohol forbidden, forced women to don the hijab, or instituted hudud punishments (i.e., specific punishments for specific crimes set forth in the Qur'an or hadiths). It was big news in Egypt several weeks ago when the Le Roi Hotel in the Red Sea resort of Hurghada poured out all its alcohol and established a female-only floor and swimming pool, but only because there have been so few incidents along these lines -- observers tend to forget that what was Cairo's Grand Nile Tower (formerly the Hyatt) went dry well before anyone ever contemplated Hosni Mubarak's ignominious fall.

Even if alcohol remains readily available in Egypt, that does not mean that the process of Islamizing its political and social institutions has failed.

Yet the fact that Egyptians and Tunisians can still drink Stellas and Celtias should be cold comfort. There will not be a moment -- a decree, for example -- that will indicate that a given Middle Eastern society will hew closely to the tenets and values of Islam. Rather, it will be a slower, more subtle process in which a country's political and social institutions are Islamized.

The Democracy Report

There is widespread confusion about what constitutes an "institution" and there is bound to be misunderstanding of the concept of "Islamized institutions." To clarify, institutions do not have doors and offices. Neither the UN nor the World Bank is an institution. The improperly named Brookings Institution is actually an "institute." Rather, institutions are frameworks that direct the behavior of society through the establishment of incentives, disincentives, and norms.

Thus far in Tunisia, Egypt, and Turkey, Islamists have won, which means the political institutions of the state will, to varying degrees, reflect the priorities of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ennahda, and the Justice and Development Party (AKP), respectively. Yet what does it mean to "Islamize institutions"? It is a process in which Islamic legal codes, norms, and principles are either incorporated into existing laws, or supplant them. By grounding certain institutions in Islamic tenets, Islamist elites create an environment in which religion plays a greater role in society, including in areas that have not been directly Islamized.

The second article of the 1971 version of Egypt's constitution stated "Islam is the religion of the state; the principles of the Islamic shari'a are a principal source of legislation, and Arabic is the official language." In 1980, Anwar Sadat amended the constitution to say: "Islam is the religion of the state and Arabic its official language. The principles of shari'a are the principal source of legislation." Sadat's change represented a step in the direction of Islamizing Egypt's political institutions, which matched some of the measures the Egyptian president took in the mid-1970s in the cultural and educational spheres that gave a prominent role to religion in these areas. First, it provided an opportunity for Islamists to delegitimize the state on specifically religious grounds, given the gap between the constitutional requirement for Islamic law-based legislation and the reality that much of Egypt's laws paid little heed to shari'a. Second, the article helped pave the way for the further Islamization of the Egyptian political system 33 years later. The new constitution, which was adopted in December 2012, includes a number of innovations that clearly sets Egypt along an Islamist trajectory. Consider, for example, the following excerpt:

Al-Azhar is an encompassing independent Islamic institution, with exclusive autonomy over its own affairs, responsible for preaching Islam, theology, and the Arabic language in Egypt and the world. Al-Azhar Senior Scholars are to be consulted in matters pertaining to Islamic law.

As a variety of Egyptians and other observers have noted, this provision places the ulema in a position to determine the validity of legislation based on religious principles. Although al-Azhar's Senior Scholars are ostensibly independent from the government and do not have as broad a reach as Iran's Guidance Council for example, the two bodies are clearly analogues.

In addition, the new constitution includes Article 219, which to the uninitiated is extraordinarily difficult to decipher, but is intended to guard against the kind of expansive view of shari'a that Egypt's highest court had previously used in assessing legislation . The combination of all of these constitutional principles significantly advances the Islamization of Egyptian society and renders it unnecessary for leaders to promulgate a decree or law that specifically bans alcohol, for example. Of course, President Mohammed Morsi could take this dramatic step, but he would not need to unless there is political pressure -- say, from Salafis -- to do so. In a relatively short period of time, alcoholic beverages would become scarce because of the powerful disincentives associated with the religious tenets and norms that are now codified in Egypt's political institutions. The effect of this codification is similar, if slower, to an outright ban on liquor, as Egyptians will be compelled through both opprobrium and possible penalty to give up their beloved Stellas and Johnny Walker.

Yet, even if alcohol remains readily available in Egypt, that does not mean that the process of Islamizing its political and social institutions has failed. In Turkey, raki, Efes Pilsner, and a few passable varieties of red and white wines are plentiful. In fact, the wine bar has become a bit of a thing in Istanbul these days. Even so, one of the reasons--along with a strong record on the economy -- that the ruling AKP has been so successful for more than a decade has been its ability to foster an environment in which Turks can more freely express their Muslim identity. Part and parcel of this is the steady Islamization of institutions in the decade since the AKP came to power.

In March 2012, for example, the AKP paved the way for graduates of imam-hatip (preacher) schools to enter the bureaucracy by making it easier for them to matriculate at Turkey's universities -- a traditional feeder for public servants. In the context of Turkish politics and the Republic's history of aggressive laicisme, the change was controversial. Turkey's preacher schools are, as their name implies, intended to train prayer leaders for Turkey's 82,693 mosques and, as such, about half the curriculum is devoted to religious subjects while the remainder of the curriculum coincides with what the Ministry of National Education prescribes for non-religious high school students. Previously the vast majority of graduates of preacher schools went into the clergy -- Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan being a prominent exception -- and had difficulty entering Turkish universities. They either lacked the preparation as Turkey's predominantly Kemalist academic elites argued or they were subject to discrimination as pious Turks claimed. Either way, with larger numbers of imam-hatip graduates entering Turkish universities, larger numbers will enter careers in Turkey's sprawling bureaucracy. Although this development is far less dramatic than the innovations contained in Egypt's new constitution, the effects are similar: the slow, but steady, Islamization of society. Of course, not all imam-hatip graduates are Islamists, but together with their Islamist colleagues, they are well-positioned to funnel state resources to projects and causes that they favor regardless of who is in power.

It has always been a misnomer to refer to "secular republics" in the Arab world.

From the time the Justice and Development Party came to power in 2002 the hicab (headscarf) became an underlying and neuralgic issue in Turkish politics. To many pious Turks, the headscarf is an important test of freedom of expression while to their secularly-minded fellow citizens, the hicab represents a threat to the political system that Mustafa Kemal (known commonly as Ataturk) built some 80 years earlier. In 1925, the Law of the Hat banned the Fez and discouraged women from wearing the headscarf -- both head coverings since regarded among Republican elites as symbolic of an age of corruption, obscurantism, and backwardness. This was why in 2007, the General Staff opposed (among other reasons) Abdullah Gul's move from the foreign ministry to the presidency. The prospective first lady of Turkey, Hayrunnisa Gul, wore a headscarf. The AKP moved in early 2008 to lift the ban on headscarves specifically at public universities, a restriction that dated back not to Ataturk's reforms of the 1920s, but rather to the 1980 coup d'etat. The party -- in conjunction with the National Movement Party -- succeeded in parliament only to have the legislation overturned in the courts on constitutional grounds. Yet what seemed to be a resounding defeat in the effort to Islamize Turkey's political institutions provided an opportunity for the AKP to undertake a broader effort to alter Turkish politics and society. Stymied in their effort to change Turkey's institutions further, Prime Minister Erdogan championed a constitutional amendment, which passed in a September 2010 referendum, that altered the way in which judges were selected for Turkey's highest courts. No one disputes that Turkey's judiciary was badly in need of reform, but while the United States and the EU praised the change, the amendment merely substituted Kemalist court-packing with Islamist court-packing. With the parliament firmly in the hands of the Justice and Development Party, no viable opposition, and a judicial system that is set to be transformed, the Islamization of Turkey's political institutions will proceed apace. The irony of the Turkish situation is that the changes that the AKP have wrought were done, in part, to remedy past institutional discrimination against pious people. And while Turkey is perhaps more democratic than it was 20 years ago, it is less open than it was eight years ago.

In Tunisia, the effort to Islamize political institutions has confronted a significant backlash. Proposals to enshrine in the country's new constitution criminalization of blasphemy and subtle changes that would have reduced the equal status of women were beaten back after ferocious protest. Yet even in Tunisia, where the state brutally suppressed Islamism and an aggressive secularism was a hallmark of the political system, the Islamist Ennahda was elected. Even if the party is a closer approximation to Turkey's Justice and Development Party than Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, as the Ennahda leadership claims, the incorporation of Islamic codes and norms in Tunisia's political institutions are not far behind, despite early setbacks. Tunisia, often described as "the most secular" of Arab states, is experiencing an Islamist renaissance with new expressions of piety ranging from the sudden emergence of the niqab, Salafis, and demonstrations over the availability of liquor.

It is hard at this point to imagine anything other than a future in which religion plays a broad and decisive role in Egyptian, Turkish, and Tunisian societies. Yet this does not necessarily mean that the spread of theocracies is in the offing. Theocracy suggests a totalitarian-like Taliban rule or an Islamic Republic of Iran style of politics whereas certainly in Turkey and perhaps in Egypt and Tunisia, there is likely to be room for secularists to contest politics and the nature of the political order. Still, with the slow Islamization of political institutions, maintaining familiar lifestyles and even livelihoods of non-Muslim and/or non-pious citizens will become more difficult. Egypt's Coptic community is not imagining the pressure they feel even as President Morsi reassures incredulous Christians that they are an integral party of society.

Only in the context of the Arab uprisings, with its inspiring and emotional stories, can the Islamization of political institutions be a surprise. Various Islamist movements have been open about their goals for some time. In addition, it has always been a misnomer to refer to "secular republics" in the Arab world. In Hosni Mubarak's three decade-long political struggle with the Muslim Brotherhood, he, his party, and the propaganda machines of the state borrowed Islamist symbols and language. What, after all, is secular about a country that at one end of the scale identifies an official religion and at the other pipes the call to prayer into the subway system? Even Turkey is not secular, which implies freedom of religion. Rather, central to the republican system that Ataturk founded was laicisme, meaning the control of religion. More germane is the fact that secular elites in Turkey used religion when doing so served their interests. Thus, the oft-referred to "staunchly secular" Turkish military went on a mosque building binge in the 1980s, flaunted the fact that the chief-of-staff could recite the Qur'an from memory, and encouraged the growth of piety in the belief that religion would depoliticize society. All of this set the stage for the Islamization of political institutions once religious politicians came to power. The inevitable result is going to be a region in which particular interpretations of shari'a will play a direct role in shaping people's lives in unprecedented ways.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Steven A. Cook is Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square. He blogs at From the Potomac to the Euphrates.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What Do You See When You Look in the Mirror?

In a series of candid video interviews, women talk about self-image, self-judgment, and what it means to love their bodies


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

Just In