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Uprisings Divide Islamic Clerical Establishment

Rachid Ghannouchi, Tunisia's once-exiled Islamist leader, has praised the governing AKP for reconciling Islam with modernity.
Rachid Ghannouchi, Tunisia's once-exiled Islamist leader, has praised the governing AKP for reconciling Islam with modernity.
A split has emerged among predominantly Sunni Islamic clerics and scholars in the Middle East as they consider whether to support the wave of popular revolts spreading throughout the region.

On one side of the divide are state-supported clerics -- such as conservative Salafis belonging to the Council of Senior Islamic Scholars in Saudi Arabia -- who have denounced antigovernment protests as un-Islamic. On the other side is the pro-reform camp, which itself embodies differing views -- from strict, or even radical, Islam to secularism.

The contributions of such clerics and scholars to the shaping of public opinion are already significant, with millions in the Arab world following their opinions and writings. Now they are poised to play major roles in navigating uncertain political transitions.

'Against Allah'

Saudi Arabia's Council of Senior Islamic Scholars, in a statement issued March 6, decried protesters' tactics such as signature-gathering campaigns as "inflammatory," saying they were "against what the Allah almighty has ordered."

On the other hand, Egyptian Islamic scholar Gamal al-Banna, a younger brother of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, explains there is no contradiction between democratic values and Islam.

"Protests and demonstrations are one of the very important means of promotion of virtue and prevention of vice," Banna says. "Holding demonstration means that people want to secure a neglected right or press for a legal demand."

Some reformists are looking to Turkey's governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) as an example of how to merge Islamic beliefs with democratic practices.

Tunisia's once-exiled Islamist leader Rachid Ghannouchi, who is visiting Turkey this month, has praised the governing AKP for reconciling Islam with modernity. Another example is the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood's effort to form a Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt in the moderate mold of the AKP.

Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Institution's Doha Center, says the differences among the clerics are mostly not theological and represent a board spectrum of political beliefs and practice.

He notes that many leading theologians -- such as Qatar-based Yusuf al-Qaradawi -- are Islamist and are associated with known political movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Independent televangelists such as Amr Khalid, with their millions of viewers, have also emerged as influential figures because of their popularity.

Hamid says that because of their popularity and grassroots support, people look to such figures for leadership.

Protect Their Freedoms

A week after Hosni Mubarak's resignation as Egypt's president, Qaradawi led hundreds of thousands in Friday Prayers at Cairo's Tahrir Square.

In his first address on Egyptian soil in more than 50 years, he urged people to protect their revolution and newfound freedoms. He has also addressed the turmoil in Libya, saying that the killing of leader Muammar Qaddafi would be justified.

Hamid says the prominence of clerics like Qaradawi suggests that a new generation of Arabs is keen on separating mosque from state.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul (right) meets with Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Cairo on March 3.

"Even the Muslim Brotherhood has advocated just that. But we have to be clear; the separation of mosque from the state is different from the separation of religion from politics," Hamid says. "Most Muslims in the Arab world, according to most polls, support religion playing a larger role in public policy."

Muqtader Khan, a specialist in Islamist movements at Delaware University, says he expects democratic Muslim movements to emerge in the region, just as Christian Democrats did in Europe.

He predicts such movements would adopt classic tenants of democracy without necessarily taking anti-Islam and anti-Shari'a stances.

Saudi Aberration

Established clerical hierarchies would be the main losers in such an emerging scenario. Khan says Riyadh is losing its prominent role in the Arab world and that there are few buyers for its claims to religious leadership.

"Saudi Arabia becomes an aberration in the region while democracy, freedom, and equality become the norm in the Arab world," Khan says. "I have been writing for the last three months that if Egypt becomes a democracy, then democracy will become a norm in the Arab world. And any country which is not democratic will become a pariah in its own home region. And that is what Saudi Arabia fears and [clerics] are afraid of that, too."

The influence of radical Islamists, however, cannot be dismissed.

Hamid says the revolutions in the Arab world have essentially rendered Al-Qaeda irrelevant because people can see that change can happen peacefully, without resorting to the type of apocalyptic violence advocated by Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri.

However, he says that if the Arab revolutions disintegrate into chaos and confusion, they might provide an opening to ultra-radicals such as Al-Qaeda.

Khan says that, despite the risks, the ground is still fertile for democracy.

"A democratic Middle East will be a threat to the extremists, to groups like Al-Qaeda, because once people feel that they are free to shape their own destiny, then the appeal of radicalism in the region will decline," he says. "And democracy will act as an antidote to extremism and terrorism."
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.

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