On 24 October 2012, the Center for Constitutional Transitions at NYU Law (Constitutional Transitions) welcomed Nathan Brown, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, to present his latest research on the constitutional politics of the Arab region. Brown’s presentation, entitled “Post-Tahrir Politics and the Puzzling End to Islamic Inflation,” was the third session in the 2012-13 Constitutional Transitions Colloquium. A video recording of the event is available here.
Brown’s paper stems from the question: Why, given the recent electoral victories of Islamist parties in both Tunisia and Egypt, are we witnessing a counter-intuitive halt to decades of ‘inflation’ of the position of Islam in national constitutions? From the middle to late 20th century, Arab constitutions witnessed the growth of clauses that constitutionalized Islam a source of legislation. Brown argued that these provisions served a primarily expressive function, and were designed to enhance the legitimacy of authoritarian regimes with their Islamist opponents, and had little concrete legal impact. The newly empowered Islamist governments are now more focused on enshrining majoritarian governance and democratic political institutions, confident that their Islamist vision will be protected by their popularity at the ballot box. Thus, Ennahda, in Tunisia, and the Muslim Brotherhood, in Egypt, need not engage in symbolic debates over how Islam is framed in constitutional texts, but can instead promote public policies rooted in Islam more directly; what Brown describes as moving “discussions of Islam in public life from hot air to cold reality.”
During his presentation, Brown took the opportunity to recalibrate his thesis in light of the latest developments on the ground in Egypt. While the Muslim Brotherhood has, as predicted, continued to focus on strengthening majoritarian institutions, Brown noted renewed debate over the constitutional placement of Islam being driven by less prominent political forces, such as the Salafists. Capitalizing on the Brotherhood’s desire for consensus leadership, the Salafists have put pressure to amplify the constitutional status of Islam.