Say It Ain’t So: The “Islamic Winter”

Two days ago I was in my local branch of Ottakars (which is actually Waterstones but which I insist on calling Ottakars out of a loyal and anachronistic stubbornness akin to the United States’ obsession with flying the South Vietnamese flag) when I saw a book which made me unspeakably furious – so furious, in fact, that I had to buy a book by Frantz Fanon in order to calm down.  This book was by a man called John R. Bradley, and it expounded the idea that the Arab Spring has gone terribly wrong because it has been hijacked by Islamists.  Of the gross imbecility of publishing a book about the Arab Spring merely a year after it has begun I will say nothing – a casual glance at the shelves will show that Bradley is definitely not the only culprit – but his argument deserves a rebuttal because it is not only completely inaccurate but widely believed.

For it seems that despite all the people who, this time last year, were attempting to inject a bit of well-needed realism into both sides of the debate on the Arab Spring, we (and I mean that in a collective sense, the Western commentators) are further now from realising its true effects than we were then.  Back then, if you recall, a lot of people were cautioning that:
1. Revolutions take time to have an effect, and the post-revolutionary period will most likely be worse before it gets measurably better.
2. There is very little chance that Islamists will take over any of these countries.
Almost immediately, it would seem, people forgot the first point and generalised the second one to mean that Islam would magically disappear once Ben Ali, Mubarak, or Gaddafi had been overthrown.  Looking at it this way, you can see why they might be disappointed.

What I find so amusing about the idea that Islamists have taken over the Middle East (besides the fact that it’s wrong, but I’ll get to that) is that people on both ends of the political spectrum seem to be espousing it, and indirectly revealing a healthy dose of Orientalism as they do so.

The conservative argument goes like this: “All the protesters and insurgents were and are just Islamists in disguise, determined to push out a government which the West is backing/tolerating.  They’re doing this because they hate the West/Israel/democracy/freedom.  Anyone could have told those naïve liberals that this was not a democratic movement because Muslims are incapable of any government form except Islamism (and what a lesson this is to us about supporting any of our other autocratic client states).” This is Classical Orientalism, the idea that the differences between “Them” and “Us” are insurmountable, and the best that “We” can hope for is to keep “Them” docile.

The liberal argument says: “The uprisings were and are peaceful and democratic, and most people involved in them want a liberal democracy.  However, the radical Islamists got in the way and are now trying to hijack the movement.  Progress towards a system just like ours (which is, naturally, the only thing anyone could want) has been hindered because some Arabs refuse to give up the one part of their society which isn’t like ours.” This is a more subtle form of Orientalism which suggests that “They” basically want to be like “Us”, but that in order to do that “They” will have to surrender anything that distinguishes “Them” from “Us”.  You can see this sanitised attitude in many discussions about the rights or women or LGBT people in Arab societies (for more about this, see my previous post on the hijab).

At the core of both views there are two assumed truths: (1) the Arabs cannot possibly improve upon our version of democracy; the most they can achieve is to mimic it and hope for the best. (2) the Islamists do not want a democratic system and are, by dint of their religious beliefs, struggling to overthrow it.  Once they get into power, they will not leave.

But are the Islamists actually taking over? Let’s investigate the three nations where a revolution of some type has been achieved.

The Evidence: Tunisian society has become increasingly religious in the year since Ben Ali’s downfall.  Ennahda took over the country despite only 18% of the electorate voting for the party.
The Rebuttal: You would have been hard pressed, before last year, to come up with a more anti-religious Arab state than Tunisia.  Even now, headscarves are banned in public buildings.  It is only natural, therefore, that one of the first measures to be taken upon Ben Ali’s ouster would be to lift this enforced irreligiosity.  Tunisians haven’t become instantly pious, but the ones who were before now feel freer to express it.
The electoral argument is disingenuous: Ennahda did win 18% of the electorate’s vote, but then elections are not customarily calculated out of the potential electorate but out of those who turned up to vote, in which case they won 37%. (If you insist on looking at the whole electorate, there’s hardly a leader in the Western world who has more than 50% – even Sarkozy, in 2007, with a record turnout of 83.8%, only garnered 42% of the whole electorate.) This would indeed be worrying if Ennahda were now totally in control of Tunisia.  However, as they failed to get a majority, they are now heading a coalition with the secular leftist parties Ettakatol and Congress for the Republic (CPR).  Congress’ leader, Moncef Marzouki, is the Tunisian President.

The Evidence: The Muslim Brotherhood’s parliamentary party, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and the Salafist Nour Party managed together to win nearly two-thirds of the vote and three-quarters of the seats.
The Rebuttal: Egypt is, on the surface, the post-Spring nation in which accusations of an incipient Islamist takeover seem least hysterical.  However, let’s sprinkle some context over this.  Unless Israel bombs Mecca, there will probably never be a more abundantly favourable situation for the Egyptian Islamist parties.  For most of the year since Mubarak was forced out, their liberal and secular opponents have spent their time agitating for a second revolution and organising extra-electoral protests.  No matter how sensible or necessary this might be, a large number of Egyptians consider them trouble-makers.  The Brotherhood, however, which has been in existence for 84 years and built up a massive reputation, has played Scaf and the protesters off each other and spent the rest of the time campaigning (not that it needs to).  In 2007, the  Brotherhood managed to get 88 ‘independent’ candidates elected to the National Assembly, garnering 19.4% of the popular vote despite being an utterly illegal movement.  It is therefore frankly astounding that they only managed 37.5% this time.  The Salafist Nour Party seems to have stolen away some of the Brotherhood’s vote, a result which has the right-wing American pundits yelling in anguish.  I don’t think the proliferation of Islamist parties is particularly worrying; on the contrary, the presence of Nour alongside the FJP will have the same effect as the fragmentation of liberal parties – electoral divisions leading to no single winner.
Of course, the second round of Scaf’s needlessly complex legislative elections from Hell still awaits – the ex-Mubarakite Kamal Ganzouri is still PM – and then the presidential elections, which Amr Moussa looks set to dominate (the Brotherhood will not even field a candidate).  Even assuming that Tantawi and Scaf stay the course and step meekly back when requested to do so, they will still more or less be in charge.  It is possible that Saad al-Katatny, the FJP leader, will become Prime Minister.  He and his party are doubtless aware that circumstances have conspired in their favour, and they will be anxious to govern well in the hope of maintaining their lead over the liberal parties once they have become more organised.  The one thing they will not do, even if they wanted to, is to forever blow their chances by attempting to take over the whole country, and to pretend otherwise is to give excuses for Scaf’s continued and unmerited influence over national affairs.

The Evidence: Mustafa Abd al-Jalil declared that the laws in the new Libya would be based on sharia. (Also, the protesters have beards and might be dodgy.)
The Rebuttal: The notion that the NTC and the various anti-Gaddafi movements have links to al-Qaeda seems persistent. (It originated with Gaddafi, but that’s probably a part of the story that many people would rather we forgot.) There are a few opposition groups that might be linked to it, among them the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which was active in Afghanistan in the 80s along with al-Qaeda.  However, the Fighting Group’s emir, Abdelhakim Belhaj, probably the most prominent opposition Islamist, was denied a cabinet post by the NTC.  In fact, the new Libyan government has deliberately cut all Islamist groups out of their decision-making process, something which pleases the West but might well cause issues later on.
So what of Abd al-Jalil’s troublesome sharia statement? Well, in reality, nearly every legal system in the Middle East (even Syria’s) is to a degree “based on sharia”.  This isn’t to say that’s a good thing, but it’s not by any means exceptional, and it’s more likely to have been just an attempt to get Islamists on-side without giving them any actual power.  In my view, Libya is the state most in danger of some kind of Islamic uprising simply because the NTC and its organs are trying their hardest to make sure that doesn’t happen and might end up tipping that balance too far.  But assuming that, whenever they get around to having elections, they let them be free-ish, I don’t think there’s much chance of it.

It would seem that Islamism, compared to where it was a year ago, is certainly ‘on the rise’, but this is not quite the same thing as ‘taking over’.  One cannot sensibly argue that Islamists are “in control” in any of these three nations.  Nations where Islamists are in control, conversely, seem to be doing rather badly out of the ongoing unrest.  Hamas has had to leave Syria, and Khaled Meshaal is even now trying to patch things up with Jordan’s King Abdullah.  The rise of Sunni Islamism to ‘power’, real or imagined, is far from a good thing either for Iran, the source of paranoia for most of the right-wingers who scream about an “Islamic Winter” settling over the Middle East.  There is a slight risk of a rise in sectarian tensions across the region if Sunni and Shia Islamists face off, but as we’ve already established, Sunni Islamists are not in power in any of the three post-revolutionary nations, and anyway I doubt that anything they could do would match the irritation posed to Iran of Saudi Arabia’s very existence.

So next time you hear someone solemnly declaring that the Middle East is going fundamentalist, please, for the love of God, tell them to shut up.

(This post owes a considerable debt to Hussein Ibish for crystalising many of the arguments I was striving for myself.)


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