Guest Columnist: A few words on the prophet motive
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 to believe.
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 least.
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 there.
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 for Islamism: 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.