[Dehai-WN] Middle East Online: The Rise of Political Islam

[Dehai-WN] Middle East Online: The Rise of Political Islam

From: Berhane Habtemariam <Berhane.Habtemariam_at_gmx.de_at_dehai.org>
Date: Wed, 26 Oct 2011 23:07:18 +0200

The Rise of Political Islam


Why have the revolutions of the Arab Spring brought political Islam to the
fore? One reason is that, having suffered decades of persecution at the
hands of Western-backed Arab autocrats, Islamists now benefit from a mantle
of martyrdom, explains Patrick Seale

  Middle East Online

First Published: 2011-10-26

Political Islam is making a dramatic comeback right across the greater
Middle East. Some in the West will react with alarm at what they see as a
dangerous geopolitical upset. Democrats, secularists, feminists, Christians
and other religious minorities may fear that a rigid application of the
shari'a, the body of Islamic law, will threaten their freedoms and their way
of life. But these fears are almost certainly exaggerated, if not wholly
unfounded, at least in most Arab countries.

The triumph at last Sunday's elections of Tunisia's leading Islamic party
Ennahda (Renaissance) is the latest example of the revival of political
Islam in the Arab world. But it is also cause for reassurance. This moderate
Islamic party should not be confused with hard-line Salafis, who demand a
return to the uncompromising values of early Islam.

Without an absolute majority in the new Constituent assembly, Ennahda cannot
rule alone, nor does it intend to do so. It will seek to form a coalition to
carry forward its programme of social justice, economic development, and
clean government. It has pledged not to erode or claw back the achievements
of the past, notably democratic freedoms and women's rights.

In Libya, however, the interim leader, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, has aroused
fears by declaring that "any law violating the shari'a will be legally null
and void." If this is implemented, it could have an impact on laws of
personal status, for women in particular, in such matters as inheritance,
divorce and polygamy. But what it will actually mean in practice has yet to
be determined.

The rebel forces that stormed and captured Tripoli were led by an Islamist,
Abdalhakim Belhadj, battled-hardened in the war against the Soviets in
Afghanistan. Tracked by the CIA and Britain's MI6, he was returned to Libya
and tortured for seven years in Abu Salim prison. His attachment to Western
interests should not be counted on.

Why have the revolutions of the Arab Spring brought political Islam to the
fore? One reason is that, having suffered decades of persecution at the
hands of Western-backed Arab autocrats, Islamists now benefit from a mantle
of martyrdom. Hamid Jebali, Ennahda's secretary-general, spent 16 years in
prison, including ten in solitary confinement. Rashed Ghannouchi, the
party's spiritual leader, spent 22 years in exile.

In Egypt, Syria, Libya, Algeria and elsewhere, members of Islamic movements
have been hounded, jailed, killed and tortured in great numbers, or have
simply fled abroad. In Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood has been outlawed since
the 1980s. Membership is a capital offense. If there is a change of regime
in Damascus, the Islamists, by far the best organised of the opposition
movements, are bound to figure prominently.

Another reason for the emergence of political Islam is the poverty and
deprivation of a large part of the electorate in most Arab countries,
especially those with little or no oil income. Free elections have at last
given this under-class a voice. The Islamic parties have long distinguished
themselves by their welfare activities in favour of the underprivileged. Of
all the political parties, they can justly claim to be closest to the common

The Tunisian revolution was not a middle class achievement but was, on the
contrary, driven forward by young men and women on the margin of society,
bitter at their own unrelenting misery and at the gross corruption of the
former ruling elite, especially the plutocrats close to former president Ben
Ali and his wife.

There is a striking contrast in Tunisia between what the tourists see -- the
coastal hotels, restaurants, comfortable villas, well-tarred roads,
efficient services and so forth -- and the interior of the country, where
jobs are scarce, running water a luxury denied to many, medical services
virtually non-existent and government indifference a subject of angry

The same is true of Syria. The rural poor, which have suffered gravely from
drought and government neglect, make up the massed ranks of the opposition,
while the well-heeled merchant class of Damascus and Aleppo has so far
remained loyal to the regime.

Egypt's Muslim Brothers are expected to do well at next month's elections.
But, like Ennahda in Tunisia, they do not aspire to rule alone. The task of
satisfying the economic demands of the great majority of the population is
simply too daunting. The Islamists have no ambition to assume the burden
alone. They fully realise that there can be no economic miracle which will,
overnight, produce the hundreds of thousands of jobs, the affordable
housing, student scholarships, low-cost medical services, and efficient
public services which the population is clamouring for. Rebuilding the state
institutions and the economy in all these countries will be a long and
trying process, and many expectations are bound to be disappointed.

Another winning asset of the Islamic movements, however, is that they
express, more clearly than their rivals, the frustrated but largely unvoiced
ambition of the masses to affirm their Muslim-Arab identity. Most Arabs,
with the exception of small Westernised elites, are God-fearing, socially
conservative and attached to their traditional way of life. They are unhappy
at attempts -- which they attribute to outside powers -- to impose on them a
Western model of society. Islamic parties are the champions of this
aspiration -- all the way from the Taliban in Afghanistan, to Hamas in Gaza
and, in its own way, even to the moderate Ennahda in Tunisia.

The so-called 'Arab Spring', therefore, is far more than a revolt against
long-entrenched, corrupt and brutal dictators. It is also a rebellion
against foreign values -- and foreign military intervention. America's
destruction of Iraq and Israel's oppression of the Palestinians arouse great
anger. What the various Islamist movements have in common -- whether in
Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen -- is an ambition to satisfy the
thirst of the populations for an Islamic version of social justice freed
from foreign tutelage.

It needs to be stressed that each country's experience will be different.
Tunisia, where women are among the most emancipated of the Arab world, is
not like Libya or Yemen, nor will it be changed radically when Islamist
parties come to power. In countries heavily dependent on tourism like Egypt
and Tunisia, wide-ranging compromises with the shari'a are bound to be made.
Tourists will not be denied alcohol, belly-dancers or night-clubs.

In Turkey, Prime Minister Erdogan's Islamic-coloured Justice and Development
Party has had to compromise with the strong secular tradition of Ataturk,
the Republic's founder. The result is Turkey's special brand of democracy.
Likewise, Tunisia's large and educated middle class will be a force with
which Ennahda will have to accommodate. In most Arab countries, Islamists
will be constrained by the counter-weight of long-established secularists
and the need to satisfy foreign investors, donors, tourists and Western

The West wants to see democracy flourish in the Arab world, no doubt to
protect its interests. But the locals want jobs, a better future for
themselves and their families, a fairer distribution of the country's
resources, an end to corruption and police brutality. They want good
governance and a respect for their traditions rather than Western- style
democracy or Western interference.

Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East. His latest
book is The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of
the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press).


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