Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Larger Context (Part 2)

Islamism and the Tunisian Test Case
When Hazem Amin was researching the life of Abu Qtadeh, the mufti of al Qaeda in North Africa, for The Orphaned Salafi, he went to Ras al Ain, in Amman, Jordan, where the mufti grew up. During the course of an interview with one of the neighborhood residents, the gentleman explained to Amin that “religion here is the stuff of life.”

This statement encapsulates the remarkable achievement of Islamism over the past four decades. For political Islam has never been only about politics, but about social transformation—and hence the catchall “Islam is the answer.” The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) might own this motto but, today, millions of Muslims, many of whom don’t belong to the party, live by it.

That the Gods were smiling upon Islamism, whatever its creed, from the 1960s until well into the 1990s is a well-known fact. Had the US not embraced the trend to fend off Soviet influence; had Saudi Arabia not pumped massive amounts of money to saturate the region with fundamentalist notions, particularly its own Wahhabist version; had the mullahs not taken over Iran in 1978; had the supposed secularism of our dictatorships, monarchies and “republics” alike, not been so self-serving, dubious and capricious…Islamism’s hard work would have turned much harder.

And you’ve got to hand it to them, they did work hard: home-to-home, school-to-school, mosque-to-mosque, law-by-law, rich and poor, one veil at a time, until whole sections of Arab society imbibed and finally internalized the social and political precepts of fundamentalist thought.

The true  measure of Islamism’s success is this magnificent reach and not the specific clout of any individual politico-religious party.


A public arena divvied up between Islamic fundamentalism and the pseudo-secular Arab state: this is the dynamic that came to dominate the regional scene in the last quarter of the 20th century.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that in the latest (December 2010) Pew/Gallup Poll on Muslim Attitudes, pluralities of Egyptians (85%) and Jordanians (76%) approve of Islamic influence over political life, just as they do gender segregation (Egypt/54%, Jordan/50%), the stoning of people who commit adultery (Egypt/82%, Jordan/70%) and the death penalty (Egypt/84%, Jordan/85%) for those who leave the Muslim religion. 

It’s not surprising as well that all responses cut across age and gender: men and women, older generations and younger are more or less on the same page.

Extraordinarily, this mindset sits almost oblivious next to the respondents’ favorite form of government. Yep, you guessed it! Democracy (Egypt/59%, Jordan/69%). As if to say, these tenets are givens (mussalamat), matters of belief, where democratic practice has no say and no business.

I have my quibbles with the poll,* among them the unhelpfully small number of Arab countries (Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon) covered in it. Therefore, these results, although echoed in other studies, are best appreciated as qualitative insights, although it is hard to imagine, for example, how the Arab Gulf would exhibit more liberal inclinations.

Still what is instructive about the survey is the stark contrasts it reveals between societies that espouse different systems. In Turkey, a full 31% of respondents view Islam’s role in politics negatively, as opposed to 38% who view it positively. Moreover, the Turks’ aversion to gender segregation (13%), stoning for adultery (16%) and the death penalty (5%) for those who abandon Islam becomes all the more telling when juxtaposed against Jordan and Egypt’s keen support for them.

One does not want to give in easily to the temptations of oversimplification, but, surely, Turkey’s relatively stable democracy and the longstanding secular streak of the state are relevant factors in it’s notable lack of enthusiasm for these “harsh laws,” as the poll describes them.

(I would have liked to include Lebanon in these quick juxtapositions, but I still have too many questions about the research methodology for that country).


All of which makes extremely annoying the exclusion of Tunisia from the survey, for this first country to walk out on the so-called Arab order also happens to be the one state that insisted on its secular character.

Part of the exceptionalism of the Tunisian revolt is that Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was thrown out for bread and butter without any meddling from God and Crescent. Where other regimes were content to spar with fundamentalism all while incorporating quite a bit of what it preaches, the Tunisian one was vociferous about combating it everywhere it could catch it, along with all other forms of opposition. Which pretty much explains the near absence of any organized effort behind the recent street protests that helped flip the army and bring down the tyrant.

As Tunisians begin their baby steps into a suddenly unpredictable future, and as we watch how the wind will blow in other Arab corners, this difference between Tunisia and its Arab sisters may prove the most salient yet.


No one really knows if Ben Ali’s fall will turn into a contagion. If anything, Tunisia’s bad circumstance was still palpably better than that of its neighbors. Clearly, the answer lies just as much with the top echelons of intelligence services and armies as it does in the people’s readiness for serious (and necessarily fatal) action.

But since pundits are beginning to indulge again in ritual speculations about the Arab status quo, it seems necessary to remind those who are captive to stale conventional wisdoms that Islamism, over the course of the past 40 years, had in fact grown into a main fixture of it, in power (Sudan, Gaza, Saudi Arabia…) and out (Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Kuwait, Algeria…).

Track records are just as available for Sudan’s Bashir and Hamas as they are for the Palestinian Authority, for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood as they are for Mubarak, for Jordan’s Brothers as they are for the Hashemites. There is no need for head scratching and conjecture here.

Needless to say, after September 11 and Iraq, you need not be curious about the kind of life Salafi-Jihadis propose for the Middle East.

This has been our Arab order for a long time now. If age has been unkind to it, it has been unkind all around.

Islamism, no doubt has considerable mass appeal, but these are not the 1980s, and success did bring with it extreme exposure. If walls begin to fall and the space that opens up is, in fact, allowed or forced to be capacious, Islamism, strong as it is, very likely will have to contend with competing forces, faint though they currently are.

So far, the 21st century has proved anything but dull. Perhaps one of the more interesting recent developments of the past five years is the way energized civil societies have been surprising the powers that be, fundamentalists included. In these testy times, neither they nor the pseudo-secular states need feel entirely too comfortable should the time for change finally come.

* Most of the questions do not have more focused follow-ups; bizarrely, the questionnaires did not include definitions to certain concepts before testing them; and, most inconceivable of all, in Lebanon the team apparently conducted the survey in Hezbollah territory without a chaperone.