The Arab Win­ter

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Waqas As­lam Rana

An un­de­ni­able shift is tak­ing place in the at­ti­tudes

of peo­ple in the Mid­dle East

It seems like a life­time when the flames of re­bel­lion swept across North Africa and the Mid­dle East. Erupt­ing in Tu­nisia and quickly spread­ing to Egypt, mass move­ments for change spread to coun­tries as di­verse as Morocco, Ye­men, Syria, Bahrain, and Libya. Yet, only a cou­ple of years down the road, this so-called ‘Arab Spring’ is fast turn­ing into an ‘Arab win­ter’.

The swift counter-rev­o­lu­tion in Egypt shows that the old power struc­tures re­main firmly in place. As I re­cently stood in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in view of mil­i­tary ar­mored per­son­nel car­ri­ers, it was dif­fi­cult not to feel sor­row for what seems like a lost rev­o­lu­tion. The Egyp­tian case is worth ex­am­in­ing in some de­tail, since it is in­struc­tive in un­der­stand­ing the forces driving events across the re­gion.

Re­gard­less of one’s view of the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood or its per­for­mance dur­ing a short-lived one year in power, the fact is that its demo­crat­i­cally elected pres­i­dent Mo­hamed Morsi was de­posed by Egypt’s mil­i­tary. That many Egyp­tians still sup­port this move, de­spite the vi­o­lent crack­down by se­cu­rity forces

and a con­tin­u­ing state of emer­gency, shows just how po­lar­ized their so­ci­ety has be­come. This has re-ig­nited the de­bate be­tween po­lit­i­cal Is­lam and sec­u­lar­ism. The ques­tion re­mains as to what is the real­ity of these two seem­ingly op­pos­ing philoso­phies as they ap­ply to the Mid­dle East and in­deed other Mus­lim so­ci­eties?

With its roots in pan-Islamism and anti-colo­nial­ism, it was the revo­lu­tion­ary Egyp­tian Has­san al-Banna who first gave con­crete shape to po­lit­i­cal Is­lam by form­ing the Ikhwan al-Mus­limun, the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood, in 1928. With the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s fate hang­ing in the bal­ance today, it is hard to miss his­tory’s sense of irony. But the con­se­quences are not just limited to Egypt. The fail­ure of the Morsi gov­ern­ment is be­ing her­alded by many as proof that po­lit­i­cal Is­lam is not vi­able, and even that Is­lam and democ­racy are in­com­pat­i­ble.

This as­ser­tion needs to be scru­ti­nized against his­tor­i­cal ev­i­dence. It can be ar­gued that the forces of po­lit­i­cal Is­lam have al­ways been marginal­ized from main­stream pol­i­tics and, as such, have never had the op­por­tu­nity to gov­ern. Decades of re­pres­sion against the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood in Egypt from Nasser up to Mubarak are well-known.

In Al­ge­ria in 1991, the Is­lamic Sal­va­tion Front (FIS) was kept away from power by the mil­i­tary de­spite win­ning at the polls. Sub­se­quent re­pres­sion against the FIS led to a pro­longed civil war that tore the coun­try apart. While the sit­u­a­tion may not de­te­ri­o­rate to such an ex­tent, there are gen­uine fears that Egypt may be head­ing down the same path af­ter the killings in Au­gust.

It seems democ­racy is a de­sir­able thing for the Mid­dle East, but only if Is­lamists do not get power. This nar­ra­tive, height­ened by years of state re­pres­sion against Is­lamist par­ties, with Western pow­ers ei­ther ac­tively en­cour­ag­ing it or look­ing the other way, has sig­nif­i­cantly con­trib­uted to the rise of ex­trem­ist forces such as Al Qaeda.

In a broader his­tor­i­cal con­text, both Euro­pean and Ot­toman colo­nial­ism en­sured that the re­gion’s pop­u­la­tion had no ex­pe­ri­ence in po­lit­i­cal evo­lu­tion. Com­pare this with Europe, where cru­cially there was no out­side power bear­ing down to snuff out the Re­nais­sance and the En­light­en­ment, the seeds for the even­tual emer­gence of lib­eral democ­racy. Even worse, the post­colo­nial pe­riod in the Mid­dle East was dom­i­nated by dic­ta­to­rial regimes that only re­placed for­eign mas­ters with lo­cal despots. In this en­vi­ron­ment, is it re­ally sur­pris­ing that po­lit­i­cal Is­lam ‘failed’?

Still, it is worth con­sid­er­ing the other side of the ar­gu­ment be­cause, af­ter all, there is a his­tory of sec­u­lar­ism in the greater Mid­dle East. The cen­tral char­ac­ter in this story is Mustafa Ke­mal Ataturk, and how he brought mod­ern Turkey into ex­is­tence. The Turk­ish ex­am­ple is held up to show that sec­u­lar­iza­tion is the way to go for Mus­lim coun­tries if they are to be­come mod­ern and suc­cess­ful states. But this is an ide­al­ized ver­sion of his­tory and glosses over un­com­fort­able re­al­i­ties.

For starters, in post-Ot­toman Turkey, sec­u­lar­ism did not emerge in re­sponse to pop­u­lar will but was im­posed by Ataturk in the1920s. And ever since then it has ex­isted un­com­fort­ably in a rel­a­tively con­ser­va­tive re­li­gious pop­u­la­tion, a fea­ture much in com­mon with other Mus­lim coun­tries. The Turk­ish army has di­rectly in­ter­vened more than once in the name of pro­tect­ing sec­u­lar­ism, in the process en­trench­ing its out­sized po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic in­ter­ests. A very sim­i­lar story played out in Pak­istan and Egypt dur­ing the sec­ond half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury: a strong mil­i­tary dom­i­nat­ing the state and sup­ported by a self-pro­claimed sec­u­lar civil­ian elite. Other vari­a­tions were the sec­u­lar so­cial­ist Baath Party regimes in Iraq and Syria, and the Pahlavi dy­nasty in Iran.

One com­mon thread runs through all these cases; rather than es­pous­ing the Euro­pean ideal of sep­a­rat­ing state from re­li­gion, this kind of sec­u­lar­ism sought to at­tack and bring Is­lam under the state’s con­trol.

In the Turk­ish con­text, the emer­gence of the AKP under Er­do­gan shows that this par­tic­u­lar vi­sion of sec­u­lar­ism is ul­ti­mately doomed in Mus­lim coun­tries. Of course, the suc­cess of the AKP is so far an ex­cep­tion and Is­lamist par­ties in other coun­tries ur­gently need to re­think their strate­gies to be­come more in­clu­sive in newly emerg­ing demo­cratic frame­works.

The real point, though, is that the po­lit­i­cal Is­lam vs. sec­u­lar­ism de­bate is a hollow one. It mis­rep­re­sents the past, and sab­o­tages the way for­ward for the Mid­dle East. In his book ‘Is­lam and the Arab Awak­en­ing’ pub­lished last year, re­view­ing the events of the Arab Spring, noted scholar Tariq Ra­madan says: “Hav­ing bro­ken free from po­lit­i­cal dic­ta­tor­ship, they must free them­selves from the in­tel­lec­tual strait­jacket and the false di­vi­sions that pre­vent them from ex­plor­ing new ways and new hori­zons to­gether.”

With­out real con­tem­po­rary ex­pe­ri­ence of po­lit­i­cal evo­lu­tion, the way for­ward for coun­tries in the Mid­dle East will be a tough one. It also does not help that the re­gion is still cen­tral to global geo-pol­i­tics, as the on­go­ing tragedy of Syria demon­strates. Demo­cratic prin­ci­ples and hu­man­i­tar­ian con­cerns are ab­sent in the cal­cu­la­tions of global as well as re­gional play­ers and sec­tar­ian fault lines are as en­trenched as ever.

To pre­dict even the im­me­di­ate fu­ture would there­fore be fool­ish. There is an un­de­ni­able shift tak­ing place in the at­ti­tudes of Mid­dle East­ern peo­ple, who are de­mand­ing a greater voice in how they are gov­erned. Real change will likely be slow and stag­gered, as we are wit­ness­ing in Egypt. How­ever, his­tory shows that once po­lit­i­cal evo­lu­tion be­gins, the sta­tus quo even­tu­ally yields. How long that will take is any­one’s guess.

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