Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Islamist Tsunami and Arab Society

by Najat Fawzy AlSaied

Whenever the Muslim Brotherhood are asked if Sharia law will be imposed, the response is that their intention is to build "a democratic and civil state" that guarantees freedom of religion and the right to peaceful protest. But anyone who traces the actions of the Muslim Brotherhood -- in Egypt, Tunisia or anywhere else in the Arab world, will see that their intention is to further Islamize their societies, not to create civil alternatives.

When the news came that Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) had been declared Egypt's President, the immediate concern was about what kind of society the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists would want to create, and how this election would affect society in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world. Would they want to establish a robust civil society or a pious Islamic one, and would it be tolerant and respectful towards women and religious minority rights?

Whenever the Muslim Brotherhood are asked if Sharia law will be imposed, the response is that their intention is to build a "democratic and civil state" that guarantees freedom of religion and the right to peaceful protest, as has been stated by Mursi himself on several occasions. But anyone who traces the actions of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists over the past decades -- in Egypt, Tunisia or anywhere else in the Arab world -- will see that their intention is to further Islamize their societies, not to create civil alternatives. Before they gained power, their approach was from the bottom up, but now that they have the reins of power; they might instead approach their task from the top down.

If the MB's intention is to build a democratic and civil state, what explains Tunisian MB mentor Rachid Ghannouchi's obsessive criticism of Habib Bourguiba, the father of modern Tunisia? If Ghannouchi were scathing toward the corrupt regime of the overthrown Zine El Abedine Ben Ali, that would be understandable; but why against Bourguiba, who was the liberator of women and cultivator of modernism in Tunisia? Ghannouchi always rejects parallels drawn with Khomeini, insisting that he is more like Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and that the Tunisian MB party, known as Ennahda or Rebirth, is closer to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey.

But, unlike the AKP, Ennahda has neither an obvious economic program nor a political program -- omissions which suggest that Ennahda will instead pursue a social agenda of rapidly Islamizing Tunisian society, as revealed in Ghannouchi's writing about the history of women in the Arab world: "Before the emergence of the Islamist movement, woman found herself in an unstable and decaying society whose liberation was purely superficial: nudity, eroticism, leaving the house and the intermingling of the sexes."

Ghannouchi has also highlighted the importance of "tradition" in art: "Art is linked to the values and traditions of society, and no one should take away freedom of expression through art, as long as it reflects those traditions." According to these comments Ennahda's true goal is not, as the title of his party would suggest, a Rebirth or a program of development, but rather the fuller Islamization of society, making it more "traditional;" that is, backward-looking. In mid-June, during Tunisia's annual spring art fair, Tunisian Islamists threw rocks and petrol bombs at modernist works they deemed offensive to religious sensibilities. One person was killed, hundreds of people were injured and arrested, and riots lasted for two days This is the extremism that Ghannouchi's "tradition" defends.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, established in 1928 with the aim of Islamizing Egyptian society from the bottom up, saw, under Mubarak's corrupt regime, a social decay set in that strongly increased the Islamists' appeal. The Brotherhood, with its battle cry of "Islam is the Solution," greatly benefitted from this erosion; it was not surprising that they were able to and gain the support of the majority and win elections.

In the short run, the Mubarak Government also benefited – in addition to marginalizing liberals and pro-democracy forces, it could also present the rise of Islamists as an implicit threat to the West as "It is either us or the Islamists" – but eventually, primarily with Mubarak's insistence that his son, Gamal, succeed him, that strategy failed.

Although Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood claims a likeness to the Turkish AKP, when Erdogan suggested, perhaps ambiguously, that Egypt guarantee a secular state in its new constitution, the MB became angry with him. The MB will campaign against any secular party that seeks to revise Article 2 of Egypt's constitution, which states that "the principle source of legislation is Islamic Jurisprudence [Sharia law]." The MB also claims that anyone who challenges Article 2 is somehow facilitating an American and Israeli plot against Egypt.

The main difference between the constitution in Turkey and the one in Egypt is that in Turkey, the constitution was protected historically by the military which defended the secular state against Islamization – until recently it has been undermined by pseudo-judicial persecution – while the Egyptian military has no guiding political or religious principles. The Egyptian military will accept whatever deal allows them to maintain their rule. It matters little to them whether women's faces are covered or not; whether Christians will enjoy full citizenship or not, or whether liberals are free to express themselves or not – without the restrictions that all Islamists long to impose.

Islamists' supporters in the Arab revolution should learn from history and particularly from that of the Iranian Revolution, in which the liberals similarly formed an alliance with the Islamists, only to be slaughtered by them afterward. Once the Iranian clerics came to power; they focused on Islamizing society, not on building democracy and striving for social justice – both of which had been promised during the revolution.

Within months of the founding of the Islamic Republic, female government workers were forced to wear head coverings, women were barred from becoming judges, gender segregation laws were promulgated, and the age of marriage for girls was lowered to 13.

We would do well to recall that even though the Islamic Republic was not welcomed widely in the region because of its Shia revolutionary principles, the Iranian Revolution did have an impact on peoples' social, as well as the political, lives. In Saudi Arabia, for example, two extremist Islamist developments – one internal and other external, both of which took place in 1979 -- changed the direction of Saudi society: the attack and takeover by Juhaiman Al-Otaibi and his Islamist followers on the Al-Masjid al-Haram [Grand Mosque] in Mecca, and the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Both the Al-Otaibi assault and the Khomeini Revolution and were widely condemned in Saudi Arabia but, because both criticized and embarrassed Saudi Arabia – the country that includes the two holy mosques, in Mecca and Medina – as not representing Islam virtuously, the Islamist outlook was adopted as Saudi government policy and the foundational Wahhabism of the kingdom aggressively reinforced.

As a result, all plays, fashion shows, international events, and cinemas were banned in Saudi Arabia. The so-called Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, known as the "religious police," or "the Commission" (hai'a in Arabic) increasingly harassed people on the street, and "control" became the watchword of the 1980s, particularly for women. Female broadcasters were prevented from reading the news; all female singers and other women vanished completely from the television screen; women without their ID cards could not walk around, even with their husbands, and sometimes even ID cards were not enough for the "religious police."

Saudi Arabia continued this method of reinforcing Islamization, not only inside its own borders but also among most of the Sunni communities in the region -- primarily to establish a balance in outward piety with its rival, the Shia Islamic Republic of Iran. Since it founding in 1979, the main mission of Iran has been to export its Islamic ideology and galvanize the Shia Muslims across the Muslim world against their own governments and against the international community.

Until the shock of September 11, 2001, when 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, the world was not even aware of the effects of this Islamization. Greater pressure was subsequently exerted on Saudi Arabia to open up its society and loosen its hard-line Wahhabi influence on society.

Although the Islamists are now in power, their biggest test is yet to come: Can they offer solutions to the people's largely economic woes that brought them out onto the streets in the first place? And will the Islamists in the Arab world be compelled to meet their people's needs through the workings and compromises of day-to-day government rather than the imposition of an ideology in the name of religion?

However, if you perceive that act the terrorism on 9/11 was the result of an unwelcome revolution and an unsuccessful extremist attack in Mecca, imagine what the impact of the Islamists' successes in the Arab revolutions will be, not only on Saudi Arabia, but across the world?

Najat AlSaied is a Saudi PhD researcher in media and development at University of Westminster in London. She can be reached at:


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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