Islamism: The Phobia of Arab Elites

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Islamic movements across the Arab world have increasingly been deep-rooted in the social structure. (Photo: Ali Garboussi)

By: Rami Khrais

Published Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The rise of Islamic movements after the “Arab Spring” uprisings has provoked various anxieties concerning the feasibility of political change in the Arab world if such change brings Islamists to power. Indeed, the term “Islamic winter” has become largely used by journalists, intellectuals, and politicians when they describe the political consequences of the Arab Spring.

From the perspective of these individuals, the overthrow of repressive regimes has paved the way for Islamists to occupy the political landscape. They believe this might enable Islamists to threaten individual rights, culture, arts, and the very notion of democracy itself. Thus, there are some who believe the uprisings against Arab regimes have have lead to the worst possible scenario since those regimes were able to guarantee limited margins of freedom by ruling out the threat of Islamists.

In fact, this approach, which tries to make a trade-off between so-called “secular” and Islamic despotism, is just another attempt to deploy these illusions of a threat.

Moreover, such an approach is evidence of the failure of intellectual and political elites in the Arab world to draft an alternative intellectual project outside the umbrella of repressive regimes. The attempt by those elites to draw an alarming image about the coming “Islamic era” in which women will be forced to wear the veil, the education system will be more based on religion, and all kinds of cultural activity will be banned, is a profound manifestation of full ignorance of reality in Arab societies.

Basically, Islamic movements across the Arab world have increasingly been deep-rooted in the social structure. The failure of the modernity project of the national state has resulted in stimulating the Islamists to forge their own system of social welfare and education on the ruins of state institutions. Consequently, most of these Islamic movements have succeeded in offering a complete political and social alternative to the corrupt and repressive regimes in the eyes of people at the grassroots level.

However, in contrast to the prevailing outlook which perceives the Islamic movements as a political representative of only poor and illiterate people, these movements have actually attracted a broad spectrum of middle-class members.

For instance, beginning in the 1970s, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has largely dominated the professional syndicates and students’ guilds in Egyptian universities. The problem of the frightened elite is that it continues to ignore the fact that that Islamists have always enjoyed a preeminent presence in politics. More to the point, they constituted an actual social force which has its own institutions, supporters, and ideological discourse.

In response to the rising role of Islamists, the Arab regimes have predominantly resorted to violent strategies to deal with such groups. Those strategies have left two negative effects. The first is pushing more Islamists to use violence as an expression of social frustration and political opposition. The second is that the repression against moderate branches of Islamist movements – which have been the majority within the Islamist spectrum – has partially hampered their ability to renew their political and ideological thoughts to be more compatible with the values of citizenship and democracy.

Does this mean that these Arab regimes are secular? Have they ever owned a secular project? The answer is absolutely not. In fact, the Arab regime has opted to ally itself with a conservative “version” of Islam. The Salafi preachers, religious media, and education have all thrived under the patronage of the Arab regimes. The latter have allowed a notable margin for those conservatives since they have stayed away from the official and mainstream politics of the state. As a result, religious discourse and practice has largely prevailed at a civil-society level. Subsequently, this indirectly benefited the banned Islamist movements whose political goals involve the “Islamization” of the civil society as a key to future political hegemony.

The case of Nasr Abu Zayd sheds light on the approach by which the dictatorship dealt with the elite. The Egyptian Islamic thinker sought to re-read the Quran from a historical perspective and present a new more rational Islamic discourse. However, he was accused of apostasy by an Egyptian court after he had applied for academic promotion at Cairo University.

The Islamic thinker, moreover, was forced to divorce his wife since he had been considered an apostate, i.e. a non-believer. In that case, the Egyptian state had nothing to do and Abu Zayd eventually left Egypt to live in his exile in the Netherlands. Abu Zayd’s ordeal reflected the “real face” of a regime that seeks to maintain its interests regardless of freedom of expression or belief.

Ignoring the powerful presence of Islamists in our societies along with believing that the Arab regime is a citadel of secularism can not be the proper strategy to counter the challenge of political Islam. The importance of the “Arab Spring” is that it has liberated the Arab public sphere from the hegemony of both the Arab regime and religious discourse by allowing more people to be involved in reshaping of the state’s politics.

Instead of looking back and sighing, the Arab elite should exploit this watershed and get more engaged in the battle.

The track to establish democracy will not be that easy, it will be full of difficulties, but it is worth the attempt. The former repressive regime is gone and will not be present again, and it is likely that the power of Islamists will last in the future. So, it is worth an attempt to avoid wasting more time, to stop spreading the fear of Islamists, and to not sit and wait for a miracle which surely will not come.

Rami Khrais is a Palestinian writer.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.

Comments

Islamist or securlist, the Arab spring uprising all over the Arab world is people's last cry for obtaining their democratic rights. Since Islam provides moral support for the uprising, doesn't mean the uprising is for establishment of Sharia. Actually it is response to decades of brutal repression by Western and American backed dictators on the people.
While regimes in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen have been toppled, Saudi Arabian regime should be next.

". The Salafi preachers, religious media, and education have all thrived under the patronage of the Arab regimes. "

Even the tens of thousands of them who were rotting in Arab dungeons?

"Islamic movements across the Arab world have increasingly been deep-rooted in the social structure"

this is a joke right. It was the secularist that tried to separate us from our heritage.

"Moreover, such an approach is evidence of the failure of intellectual and political elites in the Arab world to draft an alternative intellectual project outside the umbrella of repressive regimes"

Like the Bashar al Assad secular scenario

can you tell me please how many secularist are actually sitting in iranian parliament.

wait a minute. Shia Islamist domination of Lebanon is al right. right?

who is this Abu Umar, Karim Khari or is it Duri. I know they're all one and the same person.

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