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The Rise of Islamists

The following is the first of a series of excerpts that Fair Observer will be featuring from its first book — The Arab Uprisings: An Introduction.

The Arab Uprisings are the most significant events to occur in the Middle East and North Africa over the past few decades. So far, the change that young protestors called for has been slow to materialize. Either new elites have acquired political power or old regimes still survive. A report by the London School of Economics and Political Science concluded, “Uprisings across the Middle East have not led to any significant shifts towards permanent democracy even where they have toppled dictators.”

There are a number of new realities on the ground though, including the rise of Islamists, the specter of sectarianism and security, and the changing balance of power in the region.

The Rise of Islamists

Islamists did not play a key role in any of the Arab Uprisings. Yet, they have reaped the benefits in the aftermath of the revolts. Islamist parties have received the highest number of votes in most elections held since the uprisings.

Parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt have long been the key opposition to the ruling regimes of the past. Through their underground network and as providers of welfare services, Islamists are more organized than the new secular and liberal parties or the still evolving revolutionary youth movements. After years of repression, Islamists are now in the best position to fill the power vacuum. They are winning power not because of their religious agenda but because they are best placed to exploit the social, economic, and political grievances against former dictatorships.

As Rami Khouri notes:

“Islamists winning free and fair elections in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco is no surprise, because of their massive followings in Arab countries for different reasons; in large because they offered the only feasible outlet for any Arab who was unhappy with prevailing government policies or socio-economic conditions.”

The victory of Islamists in elections brings into question the role of Islam and democracy. For some, Islam will always be incompatible with democracy. Under Islamic law, governance is to be carried out as per the laws of God and not the democratic mandate. For others, Islam is compatible with democracy because they believe that Islam can be placed within the current societal context and adapt to the demands of a modern democracy.

Nader Hashemi makes this argument forcefully:

“The claim, therefore, that Islam is not subject to evolutionary transformation and development – like all religious traditions obviously are – ignores what really matters: the changing socio-economic and political context, which is all important in shaping how Islam/religion manifests itself in different regions of the world, at different moments in time.”

Over the last few decades, there has been a resurgence of Islam as a political ideology in parts of the Muslim world. Islamic societies have arguably become more religious, raising questions about the public role of religion. For instance, will Islamists let others compete freely and fairly in elections once they have power? How do they intend to deal with socio-economic problems? How will they cater for the wider society that includes secularists, liberals, religious minorities, and women? Will shari’a (Islamic law) form a basis for new constitutions? The answers are yet unclear but how political Islam and democracy interact will be a key feature in the post-uprising world.

Read the second excerpt from The Arab Uprisings: An Introduction on January 14, 2013.

The Arab Uprisings: An Introduction is available at Amazon. A paperback version is available at the SlimBooks store.

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Over the last few decades, there has been a resurgence of Islam as a political ideology in parts of the Muslim world. Islamic societies have arguably become more religious, raising questions about the public role of religion. For instance, will Islamists let others compete freely and fairly in elections once they have power? How do they intend to deal with socio-economic problems? How will they…

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