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The Biggest Challenge for Islamic Political Parties? Pluralism

Attending the 2012 U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Doha, Qatar this week during the peak of the Egyptian presidential elections is the dream of pundits, commentators, and intellectuals alike seeking to analyze the next steps of seculars, Islamic groups, and all other political forces that have arrived on the scene after the Arab Spring. 

One thing is clear from both the attendees of the conference and election results across the Middle East and North Africa: The day the Islamic political parties have been waiting for has come. Yet this day has come with a multitude of challenges that could see the success of these political forces jeopardized without them even gaining full power. 

These challenges include transparency, struggling economies with high rates of unemployment, and rule of order in places like Egypt and Libya. Yet the one challenge that the Islamic groups seem to be grappling most with intellectually is that of pluralism. 

Many of the Islamic political movements in the Arab world are products of post-colonial trends that sought to return the independence of struggling nation-states, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. They then went underground for decades after being marginalized by authoritarian regimes that sought to quash all types of opposition. The regimes were particularly brutal toward religious groups, which they viewed as having a faith-based resilience that kept them as a dangerous source of real opposition to the political status quo. 

Pluralism has not been on the agenda of many of the leaders in these movements, at least not an understanding of pluralism that goes beyond just diversity, encompassing an energy and willingness to engage and make policy based on pluralism. Sadly, the only real pluralism that these leaders have been exposed to was during their time as graduate students in the West. 

Developing a culture of pluralism requires the newly elected leaders of these societies to grapple with diversity in all forms. It is a social contract that both governments and citizens in a society need to be committed to and willing live by. These movements clearly have a long way to go. 

Pluralism is not only an important commodity in societies that have various religious, ethnic, and racial groups but an important component of power sharing.

Case in point is the ability of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to develop coalitions that transcend token representation and include real compromises with liberals, secularists, and Copts. The Brotherhood has gone from 50-percent support in the parliamentary elections to half that in the presidential elections, much of it because of their inability to build trust and create coalitions with people they disagree with. 

These groups' problems with pluralism go beyond their political platforms, impacting even how they interpret religious texts. Having for decades lived in authoritarian societies, these groups' leaders have not had the ability to develop a strong Islamic discourse on pluralism, as is being developed by Muslims living as minorities facing the reality of pluralism daily in the West. For many years dictators have used economic, social, and religious differences in societies as leverage to pit communities against each other based on fear and to sustain their power.

Religious institutions in these societies, such as Al-Azhar in Cairo, have not had the independence from government intrusion necessary to develop curricula that would challenge state structures and develop open societies. Freedom of thought and expression are the hallmark of developing a theology and discourse based on pluralism. 

If the Islamic political movements are going to succeed and not become just like the authoritarians they resisted for so many years, it would behoove them to look at historical religious precedence within their own faith and replicate the experience of the Prophet Muhammad when he first arrived in the city of Medina.

He brought together the various communities, including the Jewish community, pagan community, and the nascent Muslim community, to sign the historical document known as the Sahifa. The Sahifa brought these communities together, as one society, to all imprint their unique identities into a constitution that would serve as a model for pluralism. 

The challenge for these movements is clear, and the road ahead is filled with various pitfalls, both on the domestic and international fronts. The question now is whether they will have the honesty to be introspective. Just this week, the father of the Islamic political party in Tunisia, Rachid Ghannouchi, addressed the issue of pluralism here in Doha, saying the success of theses groups will depend on whether they choose to "be the representative of their people or whether they choose to claim to be the representatives of God."

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