Islamists Have Failed to Deliver

01/03/2014 04:55 pm ET | Updated Mar 05, 2014

The military coup against the duly elected government of Egypt was without doubt a blow to democracy. However, the latest poll from Zogby Research shows an almost evenly divided Egyptian public. Fifty-one percent of Egyptians believe it was wrong to depose Mohammed Morsi, their legitimately elected president. While 46 percent believe that the military intervention was the right thing to do. Around the time Morsi was deposed, 7 in 10 Egyptians did not sympathize with the Morsi supporters, according to the Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research.

After giving the Muslim Brotherhood only a year in office, why did the Egyptian public turn against them? A New York Times article stated that before Morsi's ouster there was erosion in support for the Brotherhood even in traditional strongholds. This was due to, "confusing economic policies of the Brotherhood-led government." Another popular complaint against Morsi was that the Brotherhood was, "focusing too exclusively on his (their) Islamist base."

The first complaint stems from the Brotherhood's lack of governing experience. However, the second complaint is more foreboding as they go to the heart of the trouble with Islamist politics. Ambivalence about pluralistic values undermines democracy.

The Associated Press (AP) defines Islamists as, "advocate or supporter of a political movement that favors reordering government and society in accordance with laws prescribed by Islam." AP's definition is useful but unsatisfying as it fails to distinguish between those who want the values of Islam to inform laws and those who want to impose their parochial interpretations of Sharia (the moral code and religious law of Islam). Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in the Middle East and North Africa and Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) in South Asia want the latter.

In contrast, other political forces in the Muslim world, such as the National Forces Alliance in Libya, favor laws to be guided by the values of Islam but do not wish to impose Sharia. This puts them squarely with the majority. John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed in Who Speaks for Islam? noted that "having an enriched religious/spiritual life" is an important priority for Muslims. Majorities in most Muslim countries want Sharia to be "a" not "the" source of legislation. This seems to be no different from the aspirations of a Christian majority country such as the United States. In 2006, Gallup Poll showed 46 percent of Americans saying they want the Bible to be "a" source of legislation.

The upsurge in support for Islamist politics is the confluence of two trends -- a repudiation of the disastrous policies of past regimes and a growing view among Muslims that Sharia can be an effective bulwark against the oppressive corruption and monopolization of power by the elite. A recent Pew Poll shows that clear majorities support implementation of Sharia. However, Muslims do not have a unified understanding of what Sharia means in practice. In addition, the survey finds, "most Muslims see no inherent tension between being religiously devout and living in a modern society." Muslims favor democracy, symbiotic coexistence with others and a system of governance that best reflects their own ethical values. Islamists like the ruling secularists they deposed have not been able to translate this aspiration into effective governance.

How to reconcile the desire for Sharia with the erosion in support for Islamists? The realpolitik of the Islamists that has left many disillusioned. In Egypt, the MB had left the powers of the military unrestrained, much to the chagrin of the Tahrir revolutionaries. In Libya, MB was viewed as pawns of foreign powers such as Qatar. In Bangladesh, the JI has been viewed with suspicion because of anecdotal accounts of their past collaboration with the Pakistani army in slaughtering hundreds of fellow countrymen during Bangladesh's war of liberation. In Pakistan, the chief of JI described Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of Pakistani Taliban a martyr.

In Turkey, the conservative AKP came to power as a result of the failures of the secular elite in ensuring broad economic prosperity. During its first two terms AKP succeeded by delivering stunning economic results. All that has begun to crumble as the AKP is now embroiled in corruption scandals and have begun to push conservative social policies going so far as to suggest how many children women should have. AKP's foreign policy is in shambles. A recent headline in the influential Foreign Policy summed it best, "How Turkey Went From 'Zero Problems' to Zero Friends." AKP's growing unpopularity even with religious conservatives, such as the influential Fethullah Gulen, may represent a turning point in not only Turkish politics but Islamist politics globally.

The twentieth century marked the rise of political Islam, from Jamaat-e-Islami in the South Asia to Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East and North Africa. But once in power the Islamists, with the exception of the early period of AKP rule, have proven to be ineffective. They are prone to the same abuse of power that characterized the ruling elites they deposed. From Egypt to Bangladesh Muslims are increasingly uneasy. Beyond their utopian slogans that "Islam is the solution," there is little track record and consensus about how to practically implement Sharia in a way that will deliver economic and social justice for all people. Islamists need to espouse a more secular vision that is inclusive of all people and not subservient to their base. Secularists need to spiritualize their politics by espousing public policies that better reflect the public's aspiration that fulfill the objectives of Sharia. Politicization of Sharia and Sharia-ization of politics are a disservice to the faith of Islam and they have proven to be divisive thus far.

This article first ran in Turkey's leading English daily, Today's Zaman