An analysis of the role of ‘Islamic political parties’ or ‘Islamists’ in the democratic transition sweeping the Arab World, and a questioning of the West’s response to this, by Anas Altikriti, CEO of The Cordoba Foundation.
The year 2011 has proven to be quite unique as evidenced by the tumultuous social, political and economic events that have taken place all around the world.
Lenin once said that “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen”. This has seldom been more true than in this year.
The Arab Spring saw various Arab nations rise against regimes that had been in power for many decades. They followed in the footsteps of the January uprising of the Tunisian people who succeeded in removing Zein Al-Abideen Ben Ali in under three weeks of sustained and intense demonstrations and protests which spread throughout the country like wild fire.
This triggered a new sense of hope in the collective imagination of the Arab people, long described as comatose or catatonic for the absence of a public response to the chronic and long-running dire state of human rights, rife corruption and lack of any semblance of a functioning democracy.
Egypt took slightly longer, albeit not much longer, to dispose of Husni Mubarak who had ruled without opposition after the Emergency Law was declared in 1981.
By the time Mubarak announced that he was stepping down, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria and a number of other countries including Oman, Morocco and Jordan were witnessing their own public protests and mass demonstrations aimed at either achieving radical reforms to the political and economic structures upon which the respective regime had relied on for so long, or an outright change and removal of the regime.
It was probably true that it was at that point that the West, and particularly the United States and Europe, woke up to the fact that these were no longer isolated cases which made for interesting news bulletins, but rather a trend that was sweeping the entire region and which demanded closer attention and quick thinking as to how to react best. Some prominent observers commented on how these changes would impact various commercial and strategic interests as well as on critical issues such as that of Israel-Palestine.
Reading the Map
As events were unfolding on an hourly basis and dramatic pictures and live commentaries from various central locations and capitals across the Arab world were being relayed by on-the-ground activists to a transfixed global audience, attempts were made to understand what exactly was happening. Experts with impressive track records in analysing and forecasting political landscapes were confessing to being taken by surprise at the scale, speed and outcomes of the revolutions, and government spokespeople were reduced to guessing and speculating, rather than offering any solid assessment of the situations.
Questions as basic as ‘who is behind this?’, ‘what do the people want?’ and ‘who is speaking on behalf of the masses?’ were circulating and very few convincing answers were given in response. There were also questions about the exact role and influence of the Islamic parties or ‘Islamists’ in instigating, driving, or actually controlling the direction of the protests. Despite the unanimous response from the main Islamic political and social elements denying ‘ownership’ or even leadership of these uprisings, many remained suspicious. In a phone interview with an American journalist in May, I was asked about my personal assessment of the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Egypt, Syria and Libya uprisings. Upon quoting the official line issued by the MB groups in these countries, the gentleman responded firmly: “Yes, but what of the Islamic chants of ‘Allah-u-Akbar’ (God is Great) and the thousands of women wearing the Hijab?”
In that simple response, lies the problem. Not only has the West misunderstood and misread the Arab region, its people, cultures and religions over the past 90 years since the end of World War I, it continues to largely misunderstand, misread and grossly underestimate the Arab world and its people even at its most spectacular hour.
Not only did my interviewee see little other than a political Islamic trend in the chants and in the dress code, he also failed to see customs rooted deeply in tradition, culture, history and religion. The West has often mistaken an overwhelmingly Muslim people, who are deeply attached to their faith and religion, for Islamic political activists. We have largely fallen for the misguided claim by ultra-secularists that Hijab is but a political symbol and that any manifestation of religious attachment must be seen as a affinity with ‘political-Islam’ or at least a political representation of Islam.
Another problem is that the West often misreads the history of the region. While Europe particularly recalls a grim, dark and brutal past where religion’s close mingling with politics led to oppression, injustice and corruption on an immeasurable scale, the Arab and Muslim world have an entirely different historical reference and a different perception of religion within the political sphere. As a result, while one understands and appreciates Europe’s great reluctance to accept religious politics or political religion, it is important to note that the Arab world has no such apprehensions or misgivings. As a contemporary Muslim intellectual said: it was when religion was phased out of the daily running of state affairs that corruption, injustice and bloodshed became wide-spread in the Muslim world.
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