This month, former Egyptian President and Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsy was sentenced to death by an Egyptian court. More trials and harsh sentences are expected. Today, more than 40,000 Islamists are in prison in Egypt.
“In Egypt, we have now broken the back of the Muslim Brotherhood,” a senior government official there told me recently. Part of me wishes he were right.
At times, I have felt only contempt for Islamists such as the Brotherhood. They have politicized my religion and made ordinary Muslims the sacrificial fodder of their self-serving plots and protests across the Arab world.
Last month, an adviser to Morsy, Gehad El-Haddad, was sentenced to life in prison. I knew Gehad. I met him in Egypt in 2012. He was not a radical, but a pluralist Muslim democrat within the Muslim Brotherhood. He spoke to me passionately about economic prosperity, the rule of law and checks and balances in government; imposing Sharia was not of any interest to his generation.
In his early 30s and Westernized, Gehad has reached toward the West, once accepting an invitation to meet with British Prime Minister David Cameron to advocate for better trade relations.
The future of democracy in the Middle East depends on engaging with the pluralists and modernizers within the Muslim Brotherhood. The Islamist movement is not a monolith. There are different, conflicting currents even within the Brotherhood tradition, ranging from the violent Hamas to the nonviolent Jordanian opposition.
Democracy in the Middle East will not look like the White House in the United States or Westminster in England, but it will be participatory government, free from tyranny, upholding the rule of law and respectful of Muslim culture and history.
The persecution of Islamists only helps to strengthen the narrative of jihadists who have always argued that voting is doomed and violence is the way forward. “Where is Morsy’s elected government?” they say. “Whereas ISIS is strong and spreading.”
The brutal repression of Islamism in 1960s Egypt created a generation of jihadists in prison. Since then, however, political incentives, engagement with the West and the freedom to participate in political life have also created a strain of democratic Islamists — a political tendency closer to what we in the West would recognize as center-right social conservatives.
The thought leaders of global Islamism today are Tunisia’s opposition leader, Rashid Ghannouchi, and Turkey’s President Tayyip Recep Erdogan. Both men are proponents of normalization; their Islamism is about personal piety, not imposition of Sharia.
By ensuring that Turkey stays on this pro-Western path, we avoid Erdogan tilting toward Putin and ensure that Erdogan’s recent repressive moves, such as Twitter and YouTube bans by the government, are not repeated.
Arguably Sunni Islam’s most important religious authority, Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah, to whom Ghannouchi and other political leaders defer, explains that Sharia is aimed at the preservation of life, property, intellect, family and religion. These are known as the maqasid, or the higher objectives of the Sharia.
Therefore, any system of government that preserves the maqasid is a Sharia-compliant government. In this mainstream Muslim interpretation, the secular authority of the state and its courts is completely compatible with Islam.
We are witnessing the emergence of Muslim democrats in key Arab and Muslim countries. In Turkey last year, I met with ruling AK Party parliamentarians who were offended if they were described as Islamists.
That was their predecessor movement, the Refaa party, not the pro-Western AKP. In Tunisia, the Ennadha party under Ghannouchi is traveling toward a similar space of being a mainstream conservative party, Muslim democrats and advocates of political and religious pluralism.
But where is Western support for this nascent but vitally important political project? Who will treat yesterday’s Islamists as today’s conservative Muslim democrats?
Last month, I visited Brussels where I met two British members of the European Parliament: Syed Kamall, who last year was elected as the leader of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) Group and the first Muslim leader of any political group in the European Parliament; and Daniel Hannan, a British Conservative and author of books on freedom and liberty.
“Our first conversation is not about secularism,” says Hannan. “We discuss manifestos, the rule of law, personal liberty, common conservative values, campaigning and accountability.”
Hannan’s organization, the Alliance for European Conservatives and Reformists (AECR), which evolved from the ECR Group, is leading the way — a member of Turkey’s AKP belongs to their board. These conservatives, driven by common values, cooperate, socialize and consolidate commitment to a democratic culture by helping to renovate schools in Bosnia or work in Syrian refugee camps in Turkey.
Such social action projects are designed to minimize government and strengthen civil society. In most Arab countries, civil society is not robust. Consequently, there is a tendency to produce political parties that lack effective checks and balances. A more vibrant civil society, therefore, can help to produce political movements that are less authoritarian.
Support from such networks in the West is already shifting the debate inside Muslim democratic movements. Hannan quotes the last sermon of the Prophet Mohammed to me: “Your blood, your property and your honor are sacred and inviolable.”
His point is that there is a common strain of respect for the law, creating wealth and the right to owning property both in the West and in Islam. Values like these not only inspire modern Muslim democrats, but also chime with the ideas of Edmund Burke and Adam Smith.
These are the conversations we need to have with Egypt’s Islamists. Those who want to move away from the dead end of violent revolution and repression we can help. But by treating them as enemies to be locked up or sentenced to death, we simply affirm the narrative of victimhood of Sayyid Qutb, al Qaeda’s founding father, who was hanged in 1966 for calling for the establishment of a theocratic caliphate.
Indeed, it was the prisons of Egypt that gave us Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s current leader.
By approaching Islamists as Hannan does, primarily as conservatives, we can move them toward democracy, good governance, free trade and accountability. We should help our allies in the Middle East change their approach toward the Muslim Brotherhood toward a policy of engagement and inclusion for those such as Gehad who are willing to embrace democracy and pluralism.
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