The Outset of Post-Islamist Age
Harith Al-Qarawee 31 March 2011

The Tunisian revolution started by challenging religious dogma, when a young man burned himself, committing what Islamic Shari’a regards as a great ‘sin’. Al-Mufti, the main religious cleric, said it is not permissible to pray for al-Bu’ Azizi because he breached, by his act, the rules of Islam. Similar accidents occurred in Egypt and Algeria, provoking the same condemnation by religious establishments that are allied with regional dictatorships. The angry and rebellious crowds did not pay attention to the clerics’ calls. They saw al-Bu’ Azizi as a symbol of their suffering and they kept protesting carrying signs with his name, cheering his sacrifice for it awakened their feelings and resistance.

Arab dictatorships have guaranteed their external legitimacy by exploiting the threat of Islamism, securing the backing of Western governments by proclaiming that Islamic fundamentalism would consolidate itself in the event of a free and transparent election. Therefore, the ‘Islamic exceptionality’ has been widely accepted and taken for granted by the Western governments, and gradually, this argument became so entrenched even in research centres. ‘Stability’, rather than democracy, became the main objective when the Middle East is concerned and it was interpreted as the necessity of maintaining the status quo, no matter how harmful and unfair it has been for the majority of population. Israeli governments and Western right wing found great comfort in the amplification of the ‘Islamist threat’. The survival of these corrupt elites that lack of internal legitimacy depended on the roles they played in protecting the interests of external patrons, including the Israeli and Western interests to maintain regional order and secure the smooth influx of oil. Some right wing groups in Europe and United States were trying to ‘invent’ an ‘other’ that could justify their existence and their version of Western superiority. They found this ‘other’ in the images of the angry bearded men, raising Quran and calling for the rule of Shari’a. A huge industry has flourished based on the intimidation of the danger represented by those coming from the ancient centuries charged with ideologies of hatred and religious fanaticism.

In the last decade, many happenings were functional to reproduce this myth. Khomaini issued a fatwa urging faithful to kill the Pakistani novelist, Salman Rushdie, for ‘insulting’ Islam; a Moroccan immigrant killed a Dutch filmmaker for the same accusation; al-Qa’eda attacked the two towers in New York in its global Jihad against ‘infidels’ and ‘crusaders’; the crowds of ‘faithful’ attacked Danish embassies in Damascus after a caricature allegedly mocking prophet Mohammed was published in a Danish magazine; and, just recently, systematic attacks targeting Christians in Egypt and Iraq have been used to affirm the ‘Islamic threat’ and to stress the power of fundamentalism in those societies. So that, for many, Muslim would mean Islamist, and Islamist is by necessarily would mean radical fundamentalist. This world is no longer producing any iconic images other than those of bearded men, veiled women, and impressive minarets.

In the academic field, many fell in the trap and contributed to disseminate this myth. The ‘clash of civilizations’ theory was widely represented as a self-fulfilling prophecy: culture is going to direct people’s behaviour, and cultural divides, particularly those between Christianity and Islam, will be a major source of friction and conflict. The advocators of ‘Islamic exceptionality’ argued that as long as ‘Islam’ is not compatible with democracy, a civil democratic state in the Arab world is unrealizable. Some accepted this point without further investigation. They did not wonder if Christianity and Judaism were compatible with democracy. Do those societies whose religion is Islam have nothing but this obsession of assuring their ‘religiosity’ independently of any other need?; do not they feel hunger, satiety, sadness, and happiness? Is it enough for them to have their ‘Islam’? Furthermore, another simple question was not asked: what is Islam? Can we talk about something essentialist and stand-alone called Islam? If so, why then the ‘Islam’ of Tehran is different from the Islam of Istanbul, and the ‘Islam’ of Casablanca is different from the Islam of Saudi Arabia or Peshawar?; if ‘Islam’ is the element shaping these societies, why then there is an ‘Islam’ for each one of them? The right way to develop a deep analysis, thus, is to start by studying a society rather than its religion. For, do we study Western societies by looking at the Bible? Or do we try to understand Israel by reading the Torah?

Ideas and beliefs alone do not achieve revolution nor change society. Rather, it is the social conditions that shape them and give birth for new movements and dynamisms. The phenomenon of Islamism should not be considered as an old one or used interchangeably with Islam. It is a modern phenomenon caused by social, economic and political circumstances. The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions confirmed this fact. They were not inspired by the fundamentalist discourse or by any other totalitarian ideology. They stemmed out of social, economic and political demands. Protesters were seeking for a new political system in which their voice is heard, their needs are met, and their dignity is respected. Can this be anything other than a civil, democratic state?

Now, will Islamists win the free elections if they will be conducted in Egypt and Tunisia? Yes, Islamist parties might win, but they will not be the sole winners. Islamist movements, like the Muslim Brotherhood, which participated in the Egyptian revolution and recently announced its plan to become a political party, are organized and popular. They are actually the more credible opposition movement in Egypt. Having this advantage, they will be able to use electoral strategies to win as many votes as possible. Election, as we know, is the art of marketing. It is different from revolution because it includes a process of choosing among several alternatives rather than toppling one corrupt regime. But should anybody be scared if they will become a strong political force in any Arab country? My answer is: NO, for two reasons. Firstly, if they win and become part of the power structure, they will have to face the questions stemmed for realistic problems that need to be addressed successfully. That implies something more than their loose slogan: “Islam is the solution”. Secondly, by being in power and by practicing real politics, they will lose the legitimacy derived from their image as a victim oppressed by brutal and widely hated regime. People identify themselves with Islamists, partly because they share with them those feelings of victimhood. Very likely, Islamist groups will develop different responses when they will face the new realities. Some of them will take the path of their counterparts in Turkey who found a formula to conciliate their Islamism with democratic game. Others will not have the same courage and creativity and will become more radicalized. But that is exactly what will make them less popular and less legitimate in societies that look for freedom and bread, political representation and economic opportunities.

Is it, thus, immature to claim that with Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, we inaugurated the post-Islamist age?



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