Tahrir Square, Cairo, daytime_311.
(photo credit: Reuters)
The Arab Spring hasn’t so much dropped the seasonal aspect of its name as it has
the national part. It’s not an Arab Winter but an Islamic Spring. But what does
that mean? Radical Muslim states intent on confronting Israel and the West
abroad as they oppress women and minorities at home? Or democracies gently
guided by religious principles bringing their people peace and prosperity so
long denied them?
The best (though by no means perfect) way to gauge the
Islamists is to look at their record. What emerges is something far less
inevitable or revolutionary than either they or their opponents would have you
Islam is on the ascent: This claim – shared by Islamists and
many in the West – asserts that the Arab world lost its religion in favor of
nationalism and pan-Arabism, only to be disappointed by both and is now ready to
return to God and the Koran.
In fact, for the great majority of Arabs,
Islam was always the defining feature of their lives and identities. Only a
small class of intellectuals, politicians and resistance leaders ever really
adopted the alternatives and even they quickly surrendered them when they needed
to win popular support. So-called secular regimes, like Egypt’s, never strayed
far from religion because they understood how deeply faith was embedded in
society. The rise of Islamism isn’t a revolution at all.
Islam is the
solution: For their apologists, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and the like are
the only effective opponents of repression and corruption and purveyors of
social services where secular governments have failed. For Islamists, however,
Islam is the solution because it is divinely ordained. For those of us who do
not share the faith and would like to see the Islamic solution successfully at
work in the modern world, the evidence is poor to say the
Thirty-two years of Islamic Revolution in Iran haven’t produced
either economic development or a more socially just society. Saudi Arabia’s
wealth has everything to do with oil and nothing to do with religion. Aside from
some general bromides and bans on interest and immoral practices, Islamic
economics has little to offer in the way of solutions to the manifold problems
facing the Arab world.
Elections are democracy in the making: True, the
peaceful polling in Tunisia and Egypt is certainly a more promising start to
democracy than killing, kidnapping and rioting. But the fact is the people in
power (the interim governments) were not themselves competing in the vote and
those that were, especially the Islamists, had no incentive to disrupt a process
working in their favor.
The real question is what comes next: Negotiating
with opponents, compromising on principles and ceding power in an orderly,
democratic way are bigger tests than obtaining it. Hamas gladly participated in
what is generally judged to have been free and fair elections in 2006, only to
seize power in the Gaza Strip the following year, and it hasn’t shown much
interest it returning it. Islamists are not the only ones whose democratic
credentials need to be proven, but Islamists have a chip on their
shoulder.Islam is compatible with democracy
: No one less than US
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton maintains as much – and not a few Islamists
agree with her. But the historical record is at best mixed. Turkey’s Justice and
Development Party (everybody’s favorite Islamists these days, except among
Islamists themselves) has a reasonably good record despite a heavy-handed
crackdown on the press and the military. But the precedents end
Iran retains a thin film of democracy over a deeply repressive
theocracy. Hezbollah is a contender in Lebanon’s democratic system, but plays by
thoroughly undemocratic rules, such as maintaining a private army and taking
money from a foreign country.
For Islamic parties, the compromises,
tolerance for other views and inevitable setbacks in the pursuit of aims that
are part and parcel of democracy are hard to cope with. How can a good Islamic
government enforce a person’s right to eat in public during the Ramadan fast? It
can, but it doesn’t come naturally.A vote for Islamist parties is a vote
: To some extent the votes the Islamists are getting represent a
kind of Islamo-Tammany Hall situation: The parties provide social benefits in
exchange for which uneducated or indifferent voters offer their support. But
focusing on that would miss the major point, which is that Islam is an important
part of the typical Muslim’s life.
Grievances (corruption, lack of jobs)
and desires (social justice, more jobs) framed in Islamic terms appeal to the
voters more than when they are presented as Western imports. That
Islamists say these things can be accomplished only inside a comprehensive
program that includes the veil for women and a ban on alcohol isn’t an obstacle.
But for their voters, more Islam won’t interfere with their values or way of
living or impose any unwanted restrictions.Islamists can maintain good
relations with the West
: True, there’s no reason why Islam can’t live peacefully
with America and Europe. Saudi Arabia has done so for decades and the Islamic
agenda is in the main a domestic one aimed at bringing back Muslims to the
fundamental practices of their faith.
But many Muslims believe the world
is out of kilter: It’s not just that the West and liberal values are alien, but
the very fact that they so dominate the world is fundamentally wrong. The
ordinary pious Muslim isn’t prepared to wage jihad to change this, but he is
certainly receptive to anti-Western rhetoric. If Islamists choose this path they
won’t have trouble winning popular support. But like other ideological
revolutions it will be ephemeral and, in the case of the Arab world, lacking the
military and economic strength to make it effective.
Islamists like to
make themselves into things they are not and to portray the complicated
political and social processes under way as leading in only one direction. But
like other revolutionaries Islamists have too much confidence in the
inevitability of their vision but no more than dreamy ideas about what it
is. What they will likely get is more pious societies, struggling with
joblessness and poverty and uninterested in revolution.