The Islamist Complex: Will the Left Rise to the Challenge?


A young boy waves a black flag inscribed with Islamic verses at a rally of Tunisian Salafi Islamists in the central town of Kairouan 20 May 2012. (Photo: Reuters - Anis Mili)
Published Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Since the Arab uprisings were not class-based, have no philosophical backbone, and lack a leading revolutionary party to drive the movement towards defined socio-economic and political change, the ground was set for the rise of institutionalized currents that already had a substantial presence, chiefly the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist factions.

Historically, political Islam served as a close ally to Arab despotic regimes, especially in the 1950s and 1960s when it was used as a tool to confront the expansion of nationalist and leftist currents. In Jordan, for example, the Islamists were allowed to stay legally active during the period of martial law (1957-1989) while all other parties were banned. They were permitted to establish institutions, associations, banks, hospitals, schools, universities, and a huge network of social support organizations, in addition to their leading of Friday prayers and their activities in key government institutions like the Ministry of Education. The Salafi movement was completely nurtured and backed by the US and its subservient ally Saudi Arabia during the Cold War. It was used primarily in Afghanistan against the Soviets and later spread throughout the world.

It was only when Islamist groups grew too strong for government manipulation and became a possible threat that the regimes unsuccessfully tried to move against them. It was too late. The Islamists had already opened channels with the US administration, and began to present themselves as a possible, more efficient and more popular replacement for the Arab regimes.

It was only when Islamist groups grew too strong for government manipulation and became a possible threat that the regimes unsuccessfully tried to move against them. It was too late.The Muslim Brotherhood of Iraq (The Islamic Party) were part of the US occupation’s governing council headed by Paul Bremer. It also continued to participate in the puppet Iraqi government that was erected under the occupation, with its leader Tariq al-Hashemi taking the position of vice president. In Syria, its local Muslim Brotherhood chapter entered into a coalition with former vice president Abdul-Halim Khaddam, a pro-Western Syrian renegade official. Egyptian former Muslim Brotherhood leader Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh (now running for presidency in post-Mubarak Egypt) had no problem declaring that the Brotherhood would respect all international agreements signed by the Egyptian governments and that they acceptIsrael’s right to exist. Hamas (the Muslim Brotherhood of Palestine) went through the election process in the West Bank and Gaza based on the Oslo agreements, and after their victory and taking over of authority in Gaza, they have declared many times that they would accept a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, thus acknowledging the legitimacy of “Israel.”

I have extensively written in Arabic as far back as 2007 that the Arab regimes’ crackdown on Islamists is a result of their perception that Islamists are becoming more powerful and are presenting themselves to the US and Europe as a possibly more efficient alternative. Arab regimes feared that the external factor would play the decisive role, so they continuously launched PR campaigns about Islamist extremism, intolerance, terrorism, and so on. The Arab regimes were afraid of the day when Islamists might take their place with American/European blessing. That day came, but the external factor had little to do with it.

Post-Uprisings: Islamist Rise to Power

The Islamist landslide win in the post-uprising elections was not the intended result of the Arab uprisings, but it is the logical one.

When a regime falls in the absence of a revolutionary alternative, the political forces that will rise to power are those that are the most organized, most opportunist, and most accepted by the global powers.

Egyptian, Tunisian, Iraqi and Moroccan Islamists have already begun suppressing liberties, especially related to the arts and media.Decades of US and Arab regime sponsorship of political Islam, allowing it to grow and hold a strong ground while other progressive currents were oppressed under the banner of the “battle against communism,” is one of the main important factors that led to Islamist growth. Even the “war against terrorism” and its underlying theoretical ground (“the clash of civilizations”) further empoweredIslamist currents and deepened their social penetration by creating a propaganda-driven identity crisis that found its solution through a mechanical defensive back-to-roots reaction.

Aftermath: A Step Forwards or Backwards?

After one year of the Arab uprisings, the general perception in Egypt is that the regime is still holding on strongly with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in power. The catastrophic oppression of the January 2012 demonstrations around the Ministry of Interior is testimony to the military’s lingering power. As far as Egyptian revolutionaries are concerned, none of their desired goals have been fulfilled.

The Islamists rose to power through elections in both Tunisia and Egypt, and they would probably win similar elections in Syria. Egypt’s Islamists backed the SCAF against the demonstrators during their pre-presidency-elections honeymoon, while Egyptian, Tunisian, Iraqi and MoroccanIslamists have already begun suppressing liberties, especially related to the arts and media.

That does not mean that the uprisings were a step backwards. On the contrary, breaking the curse of fear, realizing people’s power, fearlessly taking the streets and ousting long-lasting dictators, paying the price of blood for liberation, dignity, basic rights, social justice and political participation have broken the shackles of the past. It will be embedded in the collective consciousness of people for generations to come. The experience is indelible in a historical perspective, and people will rise up again in the face of any possible future oppressor, albeit Islamists, NATO or the military apparatus. Liberty obtained by blood is hard to surrender.

If the second step of a revolution has yet to arrive, that does not dismiss the initial step toward change, nor does it discount the eventuality that progress will indeed occur. Revolutions are usually preceded by turbulence, and need time to mature and ripen.

The people of the Arab world never had the chance to mature as a social structure, going from Ottoman domination to colonialist subjection to division and the rule of Arab regimes. The internal social mechanisms were obstructed and deformed. The time has come for the emergence of a social and political conscience now that space for public discourse has finally become available following decades of authoritarian repression. The rise of Islamists will be accompanied by the rise of an opposing secular trend that will clearly defend its rights and convictions. There will no longer be an alliance between Islamists and progressives against imperialism and Zionism. Islamists have opted for dialogue with imperialism and they have few objections to a capitalist economy. In fact the so-called “Islamic economy” is nothing but a capitalist economy with Islamic spices, as Maxime Rodinson clearly elaborated in his book Islam and Capitalism. While the Arab uprising has its roots in economic frustration from a vastly impoverished Arab population, the Islamist option offers little economic change that would improve their livelihoods. The Islamists now are required to deliver heaven on earth, not in the sky, and since they have no alternative program, they will ultimately fail.

The rise of Islamists will be accompanied by the rise of an opposing secular trend that will clearly defend its rights and convictions.So why fear the Islamist rise? Let the Islamists rule, and fail. Let the Islamists expose their opportunist positions on imperialism and Israel. Let the Islamists contradict their double speech on liberties by suppressing social freedoms, arts and literature. Let the Islamists maintain the capitalist model which will leave impoverished Arab populations with no hope. Exposing the Islamist shortcomings will aid the formation of a true unashamed secular, leftist, and anti-capitalist current, which will be forced to present theoretical arguments, confront reality and deliver answers and programs.

Social and political maturity will take time in a region where modern political culture is being born. Its development will not come without a cost, and unless Islamists can fulfil the extremely high expectations of an agitated Arab people, the future looks promising for leftists.

For the people of the Arab world to win their liberation, they need: a trans-border, trans-ethnic, trans-religious, trans-sectarian unity, a unity of the oppressed; social justice outside and beyond the capitalist model; true freedom of expression, of the arts and literature, coupled with social freedoms.

Only the Left can deliver. So it’s time to get to work.

Hisham Bustani is a writer and activist from Jordan. He has published three volumes of short fiction in Arabic.

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