360° Analysis

Western Fear of the ‘Islamist Other’

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October 22, 2011 23:48 EDT
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Anas Altikriti, CEO of The Cordoba Foundation, analyses of the role of Islamists in the democratic transition sweeping the Arab World and outlines the West’s response to this.

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 telephone 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 Brotherhood 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.

Islamic Political Elements

While the Muslim Brotherhood is considered the largest, most significant and arguably most organised political party in the region, by no means is it alone in representing the political aspirations of the faithful. Egypt recently saw the emergence of the Salafi movement, which for the first time organised for the purpose of contesting the coming elections. Similarly, a few Islamic platforms emerged in Tunisia as alternatives to the long-standing, impressively organised and popular Al-Nahdha movement. The scene in Libya is still unclear due to the fact that Libyan society is one of the most religiously inclined throughout the Muslim world. This makes it more difficult to make out the Muslim Brotherhood and other distinct Islamic political movements, from the religious crowds.

Although they share an intellectual and to some degree the same ideological schemata, these political movements are quite distinct and different on many levels; structure, experience, political expertise and vision for society. While the Muslim Brotherhood and all Islamic elements in Tunisia were totally excluded from all sections of society and driven underground and into exile due to the fiercely secular approach of the regime, Egypt’s Brotherhood enjoyed a relatively good degree of freedom and interacted with the political structure to varying degrees despite being officially banned. In Libya, the Muslim Brotherhood went through numerous phases in which they were either allowed to engage with the government on some level or banned and fiercely attacked by the regime and its security apparatus.

With the Tunisian elections underway, Egypt approaching its own day at the ballot box and Libya initially announcing that it will hold elections next summer, there remain a number of serious questions the Islamic parties must address openly and convincingly. In addition to the generic and chronic crisis of corruption, failing economies, human rights abuses and foreign relations they must deal with and sort out if they were to come to power, they must clarify their respective visions as to the shape of the future state, society, the constitution, democracy, freedoms, human rights, rights of minorities, women, and many others. Not only are Western audiences being consistently and constantly fed lines – and lies – that instigate fear and suspicion from the prospects of Islamic parties coming to power, local crowds also seek information and assurance. The very concept of the Arab Spring should serve as the perfect reassurance that Arab people are in no way inclined to follow a nihilist, isolationist or violent path for the future let alone vote for one. However, one must accept that fear and apprehension have been allowed to set in for a very long stretch of time, and therefore these issues must be addressed.

Meanwhile, the same movements are also aware of the demands and aspirations of their own constituents. The recent months which have witnessed considerable sacrifices by the Arab people in order to bring about change, cannot be met with timid and partial steps or symbolic gestures. For that, the decision of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood to stand in only half the parliamentary seats was met with criticism from some. A young female member of the Muslim Brotherhood stated on Al-Arabiya TV in July, that this step neither reflected democracy, nor did it reflect the aspirations of the Brotherhood members and the Egyptian people. “If we’re supported by the majority, then we should fulfil that mandate. If not, then we should stop talking ourselves up all the time; that’s the whole point of an election”, she stated.

Post-Election Prospects

A Eurocentric view emerged over the years regarding the potentially terrifying prospect of an Islamic state; the Shari’a based political structure has often been described as male-dominated, authoritarian, dogmatic, and hostile to its neighbours and the West. Yet, the discourse of Islamic movements during the revolutionary phase and in the run up to elections has been anything but.

A US broadcaster introduced Abdul-Hakim Belhaj, the Commander in Chief of the Libyan NTC Forces, as a friend of Osama bin Laden and as a Salafi-Jihadist, someone who had been on the terror list of many Western governments and who spent many years in prison for his alleged terrorist connections. Yet when Belhaj spoke, he appeared to be calm, collected, logical, utterly rational, surprisingly intelligent, refreshingly open-minded and seemed to embrace all the other strands of Libyan political and social landscape. Moreover he spoke only of the democratic, open and inclusive vision which most Libyans yearn for.

Obviously, the proof will be in the pudding, but considering the statements of Al-Nahdha in Tunisia, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi parties in Egypt, the West shouldn’t be overly worried. If anything, the narrative on democracy, human rights, inclusion, peaceful handover of power according to the outcome of ballot boxes, womens’ rights and the rights of ethnic and religious minorities in Al-Nahdha’s literature is far more progressive and far more sophisticated than their liberal secular opponents.

Therefore, when I was asked at a recent meeting with some of Washington’s wheelers and dealers about what the American government should do with the Islamic movements gaining prominence and claiming the limelight across the Arab world, I answered simply: support them. Of course, I would be naïve to think that my response was met favourably. I tried to explain that the entire world was gripped by fear, division, conflict, bloodshed and hatred throughout the first decade of the 21st century because we were under the impression that these elements hated us and despised our ways. Yet now, those same elements are now ‘talking our talk’ and unless we encourage them and offer them an incentive, their own crop of hard-liners will have been proven right.

Furthermore, it would be hypocritical of the West to support revolutions but stop short of supporting, or at least acknowledging and recognising the ultimate outcomes thereof. I warned against repeating the calamity of the 2006 collective punishment of the Palestinian people for democratically voting in a Hamas government. If we witness that once more, the anti-democracy forces would have gained a significant victory and we would have scuppered a golden and quite rare opportunity.

To use a phrase, those who live by the sword die by the sword, and if we uphold democracy, then we should uphold the outcomes of a democratic process. Calls for an Islamic state by some corners should not scare us nor should it bring about a negative reaction. In the new atmosphere of freedom which these nations had not enjoyed for more than a generation, people must be allowed if not encouraged, to think freely and to express themselves. In Muslim countries where Islam forms a focal point of history and society, this must not be dismissed as mere political or ideological fanaticism, but rather viewed as a collective aspiration. Nor should it be perceived as an anti-democratic notion. The millions who rose against their tyrannical dictators and gave life and in limb, are unlikely to settle for any form of government or state which will give them anything less than freedom, full rights and dignity.

The Arab Spring has proved to sceptics that the Arab people were alive and kicking. Not only have they demonstrated incredible creativity and ingenuity, but also immense bravery and fortitude. We dismiss them at our peril. They have risen above the parapet and the challenge is ours to match their stand. If we succeed, we will have paved the way for a brighter future, one that is a far cry from the decades of oppression that had been the bane of generations of Arabs.

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