The Arab Islamist wave
THE term ‘Islamist’ can be misleading, simply because of the sheer ideological variety of the groups that are usually lumped together under its umbrella.
Roughly speaking, it is used to describe those groups or individuals that believe Islam is inextricably tied to politics. A loaded term, in practice it is used to label groups across the political spectrum — from those who believe in participatory democracy while basing their politics on Islamic principles, to militant and terrorist outfits that reject democracy and use murder and mayhem as instruments of policy while employing religious arguments to do so. Yet despite the nebulous nature of the word, it is being used to describe an array of emerging forces set to possibly shape the future of the Arab world. Though the ‘Islamists’ might not have been responsible for sparking the protests that have morphed into the Arab Spring, in a movement largely described as ‘leader-less’, they are fast emerging as its principal drivers.
Parties with varying degrees of commitment to political Islam are currently basking in the glow of electoral victories in Arab North Africa: Tunisia’s Ennahda is the largest party in the post-Ben Ali constituent assembly; Abdelilah Benkirane of Morocco’s Justice and Development Party is now that country’s elected prime minister. Meanwhile in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party is likely to dominate the constituent assembly once multi-stage elections wind up in January.
Even beyond the aforementioned states, ‘Islamist’ parties in the Arab world are currently either at the centre of anti-government movements, or supply the only viable opposition, or are actually in government. Yemen’s Al Islah is one of Ali Abdullah Saleh’s staunchest opponents; in Syria the Muslim Brotherhood is at the forefront of the anti-Bashar Al Assad protests; Hamas controls the Gaza Strip; Hezbollah’s political wing plays kingmaker in Lebanese politics; Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki belongs to the Islamic Dawah Party while in Bahrain, the opposition Al Wefaq and Al Haq factions can mobilise thousands.
Of all these groups, perhaps the Muslim Brotherhood is — ideologically — the dominant organisation across the Arab world. Finally on the cusp of taking power in its native Egypt (unless the generals, guardians of the ancien régime, decide to strike), the Brotherhood in fact is a pan-Arab, pan-Islamic phenomenon.
Founded in the late 1920s by Hasan Al Banna, it enjoys wide popularity amongst educated Arabs across the Middle East and beyond and has supporters and sympathisers even in the Gulf sheikhdoms that tolerate no political activity. Hamas, Al Islah and Ennahda are all said to be influenced by the Brotherhood’s ideology.
Though the rise of the Islamists has caught many by surprise, especially in the West, to those who follow Arab politics this is hardly a shock. To understand what is happening one must refer to the history (especially of the last century) of the region, as well as its socio-political norms. It has been said the Islamists were allowed to grow as secular Arab dictators crushed all other dissent, while the mosque — the Islamists’ organisational bastion — was beyond control. However, one feels this is only partly true, as in many cases Islamists were suppressed just as brutally as other opposition groups.
To understand the Islamist wave in the Arab world, we need to put things in perspective. The Arab states which have overthrown dictators or are in the process of doing so have no coherent Arab model to emulate. There are other, non-Arab models in the region such as Iran’s Vilayat-i-Faqih or Turkey’s ruling ‘moderate’ Islamists operating within a secular framework (which, in fact, has been cited by Tunisia and Morocco’s Islamists as a worthy model). But in the modern age the Arabs have known only two models: either absolute monarchy under kings, sheikhs and emirs, or populist dictatorship disguised by the fig-leaf of democracy.
It can safely be said that secular Arab nationalism, conjoined with socialism, failed the Arab masses and, at worst, gave the Arabs despots such as Saddam and Qadhafi. Now disillusioned with nationalism as well as monarchy, many Arabs are looking to Islamist parties that claim ‘Islam is the solution’.
It is also a question of identity. Since the end of colonialism the Arabs have been in search of an identity. Again, Arabism failed to provide one, as despite claims of unity the Arabs found that each country’s individual nationalism was perhaps stronger than a collective Arab nationalism. So perhaps in their quest for identity the Arabs have turned to religion. It should also be considered that Muslim societies — especially Arab societies — are inherently religious, so totally divorcing religion from the public sphere may not be possible.
What does the future look like for Arab Islamists? It remains to be seen how the Islamist parties will incorporate Islamic principles with democracy and representative government.
The key is, of course, performance. The parties rooted in Islam need to deliver to prove their promises were not hollow. The focus must be on reviving moribund economies, educating masses of illiterate citizens, ensuring justice and equal rights for all and emulating the community social welfare programmes many parties successfully run at a state level, rather than on how high the thobe is above the ankle, or how luxuriant the beard.
If the Islamists fail to move beyond rhetoric, they will be sent packing — that is of course if the democratic experiment is allowed to proceed. The bottom line is that democracy in the Arab world needs to be allowed to evolve and succeed. Otherwise the Arab Spring will have failed to bear fruit. Obstacles cannot be put in place — by domestic traditional power elites or international players — based on ideological likes and dislikes. The Arab masses need to be given the space to chart their own course.
The writer is a member of staff.