Political Islam on the table at ESCWA talks

Beirut, Lebanon - Political Islam was a major topic of conversation among Arab leaders Monday, the final day of a U.N. meeting in Beirut that focused on democracy in the region. Representing the country that jump-started the so-called “Arab Spring” at a Monday roundtable entitled “Prospects for the future of the Arab region,” Tunisia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Rafic Abdel-Salam said Islamists are now part of political life. In Tunisia’s election last year, a once-banned Islamist party won the largest share of votes in the new assembly.

He said that “they will be affected by the political scene,” especially as Islamists did not win a majority of assembly seats and had to form a coalition government in Tunis.

Former Arab League Secretary-General and current Egyptian presidential candidate Amr Moussa said that in his country as well as others in the region, “change toward democracy has an Islamic character.”

Islamist parties have claimed a majority in the recent elections for Egypt’s new parliament. “We cannot question democracy and then challenge the results. This is unacceptable,” Moussa said, adding that he believed Islamist movements are now leaning toward moderation.

“While building a state, we respect religion. We are all interested in listening to the opinions of religious scholars,” Moussa said, but noted that “the main reference for ruling a country is a constitution.”

Naima Djibril, a Libyan judge and member of a council that supports women’s participation in Libyan decision making, took up political Islam through the lens of women’s rights – a topic that was also hot at the roundtable.

“For the Arab woman, there is fear of and concern over political Islam,” Djibril said. But like several other speakers, she added that “we should practice democracy, and if through it an Islamic movement comes to power that carries an enlightened religious discourse, this could make men and women equal,” as she said Islamic law ideally does.

“If the discourse [of political Islam in Libya] is truly enlightened, and returns women’s rights to them, then this will be a great achievement,” she said. She criticized the presence of only one woman on Libya’s National Transitional Council, which has over 40 members, and said there will be “no real democracy if women and young people do not play their part.”

Djibril noted the part Libyan women played in the uprising and lamented that this has not yet brought them into positions of power. Several audience members also expressed concerns that women, as well as youth, both integral in regional protests, will be marginalized in future Arab political systems.

Former Palestinian Information Minister and presidential candidate Moustafa al-Barghouti said he hoped the Arab uprisings would bring a new level of Arab solidarity with the Palestinians. He also called internal democratization key, while conceding that “we can’t build a perfect democracy under occupation.”

For his part, Moussa also noted that one of the main reasons behind the downfall of Arab regimes was their dealings with Palestine.