TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Islamism in the Arab Spring

The ongoing Arab uprising against long-standing authoritarian regimes has sparked hope and admiration for the prospect of democratization. Yet in no country can one yet say that democracy has been firmly established—not yet in Tunisia, nor in Egypt (still under military control), nor in any of the other embattled territories. (Despite sectarian strife the two Arab countries approaching a bit a functioning democracy are Iraq and Lebanon.) Given the instability of democracy in the Arab spring, it is crucial to examine not only the potential of an Islamist participation in it, but also the peril of its hijacking. Unfortunately the western discussion often misperceives the role of Islamists. Islamists have not been the leaders of the uprising; on the contrary, like cautious Leninists, they are hoping to take over, eventually with the help of the exceptional sophisticated organizations of their movements. The fact that ruling dictators in the Middle East have typically presented themselves as the alternative to the Islamist movement indirectly gives undeserved credit to Islamists, who can be misunderstood as opponents of dictatorship. This dynamic makes it harder to touch on the core issues frankly. A solid assessment of Islamism and the winds of change in the Arab world require an adequate understanding of the forces in operation.

In November 1982, seventy Arab opinion leaders—I was among them—gathered in Limassol, Cyprus, (after we were prohibited from meeting in Cairo) to discuss “Azmat al-democratiyya/Crisis of Democracy” in the Arab world. (This is documented in a huge volume published 1983 in Beirut in Arabic.) The participants were well aware that a transition to democracy would never be easy. In contrast, today many U.S. and European pundits naïvely think that the removal of autocrats leads automatically to democracy. One exception is Thomas Friedman in his column in the March 31 issue of the global edition of the New York Times (International Herald Tribune). Describing the Middle East as a “region that has been living outside the biggest global trends of free politics and free markets for half a century,” he states that the current Arab uprising helps Arab Muslims to “join history.” Yet Friedman is among the very few U.S. commentators who are aware of the “hard choices.” Friedman knows well that the uprising could include “Sunni fundamentalists who, if they seize power could suppress all those . . . they don’t like.” He is absolutely right: Islamists have no liking for non-Islamist Muslims, even when they pay lip service to democracy and pluralism. Liberal Muslims will not have an easy time in an Islamist-dominated society. Friedman visited Egypt a few months later and on May 30, 2011, wrote the column “Pay Attention” in the global edition of the New York Times, asking Obama to understand “how to complete the transition to democracy in a situation where liberal Muslims made the revolution and the Muslim Brotherhood can now take it.” Friedman rightly asks to pay attention to “who gets to write the rules for the new Egypt.” If the Islamist Muslim Brothers do it, then there will be a totalitarian Sharia state, no democracy.

Despite this caveat, the change in the Arab world is of a world-historical significance. Earlier, there were only four ways of unseating a Middle Eastern despot: removal by Allah (death), murder, a military coup d’etat, or a foreign intervention as happened to Saddam Hussein in the Iraq War. In January 2011, the people of the Arab world unseated Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and it appears that they may continue doing this to other rulers. The movement against the dictators spread rapidly throughout the region. Even as a student of the Middle East for forty years, I confess to having been taken by surprise. I admired the Egyptian and Tunisian people, but I had no expectation that the spring would be extended to Qadafi’s Libya, let alone my home country, Syria, ruled by the sectarian Alawite clan of the Assads with the assistance of the secret police. In spite of this surprise I believe I am right in my assessment that there will be no swift transition to democracy. In his New York Times column “Democracy is Messy,” Nicholas Kristof writes from Cairo: “The Muslim Brotherhood has been brought into the power structure . . . it seems increasingly likely that Egypt won’t change as much as many had expected.  . . . Islamists will play a greater role in society and government.” In other words, the rise to power of the Islamists—certainly a political change—will mean that a genuine transition toward democracy will be significantly constrained.

Any effort at democratization in the Arab-Muslim Middle East and North Africa has to take account of Islamism as an ideology represented by various movements supported by approximately 20 to 30 percent of the population. No genuine democrat would deny Islamist movements political participation. The issue is, however, not whether Islamists should be allowed to participate in politics (of course, they should be allowed), but whether the political hegemony should be handed over to them (no, it should not be). This is, in other words, the choice between engagement and empowerment in dealing with Islamism. Any hasty process of democratization reduced to a formal voting procedure will help Islamists seize power, as has already happened in Gaza, Lebanon, and Iraq, and may happen soon in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. Professor Amr Hamzawy of Cairo University, who is a founding member of a secular social-liberal party in post-Mubarak Egypt, argued against the premature referendum in March 2011 on the prematurely redrafted constitution with these arguments: For decades, the Mubarak-regime oppressed any democratic opposition, and the breakdown of authoritarianism left a vacuum. Under these conditions, democratic forces need time to build their needed institutions. The Islamists are the only political power with a clandestine political organization (again, the comparison to the Leninists is apt) able to swiftly fill the vacuum. If democrats are not given the needed time to gather forces, the Islamists will be in a position to take over, and this is exactly what they are trying to do. In contrast to these misgivings expressed by Hamzawy, the leader of the Muslim Brothers vehemently supported the referendum. Do not be mistaken: an engagement of the Muslim Brothers, as participants in the public sphere, should not be confused with an empowerment of their movement. An early election and a premature new constitution in Egypt would result in this “unrepresentative parliament writing an unrepresentative constitution.” This is the forecast of Mohammed ElBaradei, the Egyptian Noble Prize Laureate for Peace.

Articulating a proper strategy for dealing with Islamism in a process of democratization requires the ability to recognize the moderate pro-democracy Islamists and what distinguishes them from the Jihadists, i.e., the radical Islamists. Unlike the jihadist hard-core Islamists who clearly say what is on their mind, the so-called moderate Islamists disguise their agenda of pursuing a Sharia state and eliminate it from discussion. In contrast to both the violent jihadists and the pro-democracy moderate Islamists, civic non-Islamists Muslims offer the best hope for a better Middle East. This is the hard choice facing the West: will it work with the civic Muslims, liberal democrats who oppose Islamism? Or will it prefer to work with moderate Islamists, treating them as alternatives to the jihadists, but at the price of selling out the Muslim liberals. Lynch in Foreign Affairs unfortunately upgrades the Islamist movement to a worthy partner for the West, and the U.S. State Department has invited him to speak and to consult. Yet his defense of moderate Islamism is deeply misplaced; we need to encourage a civic Islam, appropriate for a democratic society, not to promote Islamism, of any stripe. As a member of the community of civic-liberal non-Islamist Muslims, I believe that this prospect, if honored and supported, can be translated into a reality.

The present uprising started in January 2011 in North Africa and spilled over to the Arab Middle East. Why is the democratization of the Arab world such a complicated issue? The unfolding events are of a world-historical magnitude. On the one hand, they give rise to hopes for a strong civil society and democratic freedom in the world of Islam, but on the other hand they elicit confusion about Islamism thanks to the absence of an open and free debate. It is a fact, which the Islamists themselves admit, that the current Arab upheaval against authoritarian regimes is not of their making. On the contrary it is one of grieving masses suffering a combination of poverty and political oppression. Yet the fact that this revolt is not of Islamist origin is, however, clouded by another fact: the rebelling people are not well organized (because their action misses an institutional framework), nor do they have a clear agenda. The rebels are an amalgam of individuals from all walks of life, and they simply aspire to change in the hope of a better perspective. They believe that toppling of authoritarian regimes opens the way for a better future. In contrast, the Islamists are well organized and their vision of an Islamic Sharia state is their driver in the pursuit of a clear political agenda. Stated succinctly, the revolutionary events in the Arab Middle East have not been the results of an Islamist mobilization, but the Islamists’ inner strength in the upcoming events is their strong and clandestine organization (similar to their organizations in the diaspora in Europe). Their movement could become the engine for a future mobilizing force. There is therefore a third and final parallel between Islamism and Leninism: both were established not at home but in the diaspora of Western Europe—Lenin’s Swiss Bern and today’s Islamists’ headquarters throughout Western Europe.

Lorenzo Vidino recently published a book on The New Muslim Brotherhood in the West in which he provides empirical evidence regarding the Islamist establishment in Western Europe. The insufficiency of actual debates in the West results from the ruling dictators (e.g., Qadhafi, Ben Ali, Mubarak, Assad, among others) having misrepresented themselves as the secular alternative to Islamism, even though some of them (e.g., Qadhafi) drew on Islam for purposes of legitimation. The fact that two distinct repressive forces—the dictators and the Islamists—opposed each other does not turn either one into a force of liberation. The fact that Islamism stands in opposition to these authoritarian regimes only contributes to a moral and political upgrading of Islamist movements. By the same token, the Islamists’ opposition to the dictators becomes a tool with which to discredit the critics of Islamism. From a liberal point of view, it cannot be repeated frequently enough: Islam, as a faith, and Islamism, as a political ideology, are not the same. Confusing them leads to wrong conclusions. The real alternative to Islamism is not the authoritarian dictator but, rather, a civic non-Islamist Islam that would be compatible with democracy. In contrast, Islamist Sharia state is not compatible with the pluralism of a civil society any democracy requires as a minimum standard for freedom.

The Arab world is not a singular, homogeneous space but, rather, each of its societies, as Friedman puts it, “has different ethnic, tribal, sectarian and political orientations.” Islamist movements know their way around in a way the West does not. Yet the region is in turmoil. Is the West up to this challenge? The answer is no, if the U.S. State Department prefers to listen to the misguided and misleading so-called “Islam experts” who recommend that the United States embrace Islamists as partners. A former U.S. congressman, Curt Weldon, recently wrote from Tripoli that the West has no plan for a post-Qadhafi Libya: “no one has a plan, a foundation for civil society has not been constructed and we are not even sure whom we should trust.” This lack of orientation is exactly what happened on the eve of the Iraq War—there had been no advanced postwar planning—and it is being repeated in Libya. To be sure, Islamists should be engaged in political processes, but they should not be trusted. Giving the Islamists trust and therefore legitimacy would amount to an empowerment of Islamism, not a contribution to a real democratization in the Middle East. Every signal of approval sent toward Islamist groupings contributes to the delay of democratization and, ultimately, the defeat of the Arab Spring, turning it into an Arab Winter instead of democratization.

Bassam Tibi, born in Syria, is a Professor Emeritus of International Relations at the University of Goettingen, and author of the book Political Islam, World Politics and Europe (Routledge 2008) and the forthcoming book Islam and Islamism (Yale University Press). His article “The Political Legacy of Max Horkheimer and Islamist Totalitarianism” appeared in Telos 148 (Fall 2009).

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