12/31/2012 05:23 pm ET Updated Mar 02, 2013

My Father-in-law's Political Islam Problem, and My Own

My father-in-law is one of the smartest people I know. An Indian who left his native country decades ago to earn both an M.D. and a Ph.D., he became a successful medical school professor and researcher in the U.S. He has been unable to go back to India since resettling in the US. So he tends to have strong views about India and countries near it, not necessarily based on recent experience, including about Hindus and Muslims. While his ethics are strongly universalistic and pluralist, he sometimes reveals a fairly common Indian nationalistic trope towards Muslims, which in his case is a suspicion regarding the compatibility of Islamic politics and law with a government that protects minority rights.

Over the years, my wife has encouraged me not to discuss issues of Arab politics with my father-in-law, because it can agitate him. Yet, as he has gotten older, he has shown more flexibility on some issues, while retaining his razor-sharp mind and real dedication to a more equitable and tolerant world. So yesterday, it seemed both polite and reasonable to respond when he initiated a conversation with me asking what I, as an expert in Arab legal politics, thought about Islamic law in the Middle East these days. Indeed, if I can't speak about such things with someone as smart and rational as my father-in-law, making arguments to the broader public would seem nigh impossible.

Hoping for a chance to have a more open discussion of this topic than we had been able to do in the past, I explained briefly that, for the most part, Islamic law has been a largely symbolic issue in Arab politics. In recent Arab history, I noted, with the major exception of Saudi Arabia, provisions in national constitutions around Islam have been vague, while the scope of sharia's practical reach has diminished steadily.

Moreover, I added, political Islamism has been popular in the Arab world in recent years precisely because it has been relatively devoid of a concrete program of legal or other institutional Islamicization. Finally, the diverse attitudes towards politics and laws of Arab Muslims, and the divergent experiences of political Islam and Islamic law outside of the Middle East, made it clear that there was no such thing as a simple perspective on Islam and the state. Instead, the particular historical encounter that many Arabs had with Western secular political and legal ideals during European colonialism helped make sense of the popularity of more indigenous Islamic norms in the particular context of the Middle East.

In the recent past, scholars of Arab political Islam could point to two broad arguments that suggest that governing Islamist parties would be unlikely to institutionalize anything largely at odds with a pluralistic politics that would sit comfortably with non-Islamists. Argument one is that Islamists generally moderate their views and platform when they actually enter the political arena. Argument two is that most Islamists have been socialized in a global political crucible that includes appreciation for Western civil rights and democracy.

My father-in-law listened to this reasonable set of points, all easily verifiable in the Arab world and in accordance with my experience living in a variety of countries in the region. Then he asked me about stoning in Pakistan, blasphemy cases in several Arab states and recent events in Egypt. Before last November, my response would have been to expand on the diversity and nuances of political Islam in the Middle East, or make it clear that the most narrow-minded people or institutions which formed my father-in-law's basic image were really unrepresentative. Or, I'd just smile and remember my wife's good advice, just let it drop.

But after what's been going on in the past few months in Egypt, it's harder to discount my father-in-law's concerns. Yes, I know that, as important as Egypt is, there are alternative experiences in Morocco, Tunisia and elsewhere that continue to suggest that political Islam and Arab states' links to Islamic law are highly varied and compatible with religious pluralism and the protection of minority rights. Yet Egypt is at a particularly frightening moment with respect to political Islam and sharia.

I want to believe that Egypt's narrowly-elected Islamist government and Islamizing constitution, approved by a minority of the population, are new experiments that form one political step on the way to a longer-term more pluralistic, democratic Egypt. Or perhaps Egypt's Islamist President Mohamed Morsi will compensate for the political mistakes he made of overreaching politically on behalf of his Muslim Brotherhood political constituents by ensuring that the non-Islamist segments of his population receive tangible political concessions. Either basic argument one or two above would then be operative.

However, Morsi's political missteps, the overall polarization of Egypt's politics, and the particular power-maximizing tactics of the Muslim Brotherhood, all make it hard right now to have faith in the pluralist or universalistic prospects of Arab political Islam, at least in the Arab world's most populous country.

So, my father-in-law's political Islam problem is that he over-generalizes the most negative trends in the Islamic world in a way that seems unfair to the diverse, political Arab Muslims I know well. But I have my own political Islam problem. Namely, specific, recent events that do not seem inevitable in Egypt bring with them at least a temporary likelihood that at least a few of his concerns seem quite rational.

I still know enough about the broad trends and particular national contexts of political Islam across the Arab world to be hopeful that both pluralism and universalism will be central to Arab governmental politics in most countries. Yet this is undoubtedly a moment during which it is difficult to convince myself, let alone my quick-witted father-in-law, that this will happen in the immediate future.