Can the Islamists win?
Monday, December 12,2005 00:00
By by Barry Rubin

Can the Islamists win?

BARRY RUBINHow far can Islamist movements go in gaining power in the Arab world? This is an urgent question given massive gains by Islamists in Egyptian, Palestinian, and Iraqi elections.
  The answer depends on the specific country but also on some other interesting factors that are usually ignored.

  First, most Arab Muslims are what might be called “conservative traditionalists.” They follow the form of Islam that has been practiced for centuries: a religious faith which may be piously observed but more a matter of personal behavior than political doctrine. They may well prefer that the state reflects their general preferences -- discouraging open secularism, carrying out cultural censorship, financing religious institutions, for example -- but hardly want a revolutionary transformation that would impose a “pure” Islam on all aspects of society.

  Given this view, the majority of Muslims do not support radical Islamists, who they may even see as heretical. The conservative traditionalists don’t want doctrinal or social change, but this is precisely what the Islamists demand. One major reason why Islamists have not taken over any Arab state is that the conservative traditionalists oppose them. This is as true in Saudi Arabia as it is in any other country. It’s just that the Saudi mainstream Muslims are even more conservative than their neighbors.

  It is also true, though, that in recent years mainstream Muslims have been sliding somewhat toward the Islamists though this process has limits. A good example is suicide bombing. Twenty years ago Muslim clerics would not have hesitated a minute before declaring that such acts are against Islamic law. Today, they often accept the same view as is held by Usama bin Ladin on that issue. Certainly, it is important to understand that mainstream Muslims are much closer to the Islamists than to liberal reformers. But this is still a long way away from joining a violent revolution or even voting for an Islamist party, at least so far.

  Then there is what might be called the ethnic politics of Islam. Some communities are inclined toward or away from Islamism given their collective interests. In Algeria, for example, the non-Arab but Muslim Berbers, who comprise about 20 percent of the population, see Islamism as a threat to their identity. The same can be said of the Muslim Kurds in Iraq, who comprise about 20 percent in that country and have virtual autonomy in the north. Obviously, too, non-Muslim Alawites, Druze and Christians in Syria (more than 30 percent of the population); Christians and Druze in Lebanon (around 30 percent), and Coptic Christians in Egypt (10 percent) view Islamism as a deadly enemy.

  Sometimes, it is also a question of which view of Islam would prevail. Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia (10 percent) are not happy to have a strict Wahhabi form of Sunni Islam ruling over them. While the Shia in Iraq (60 percent) have a strongly Islamic leadership, they certainly are not going to accept an Islamist dictatorship of Sunni Muslims (15-20 percent) some of whom are bin Ladin supporters.

  This is also an issue in Iran, where almost everyone is a Muslim but only half the people are Persians. There are many Sunni Muslims among the Kurds, Turcomans, Arabs, and Baluch. Iran is not an Islamic state as such but a Shia Islamist state that does not even permit a Sunni mosque in Tehran despite the fact that one million Sunnis live there.

  Speaking of Iran, the Middle Eastern country which has the most experience of Islamist rule, the majority of its citizens demonstrably -- based on their votes when they had a real choice -- prefer a liberal democratic state to the current theocracy. They have no illusions about what it is like to live in an Islamist state and have seen that this ideology does not solve their problems. Indeed, even many Iranian clerics now feel that the revolutionary Islamist regime has hurt Islam itself by associating it with corruption and oppressive rule.

  The three places where Islamism seems most threatening, though in very different ways, are in Egypt, Syria, and among the Palestinians. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has scored major gains in the recent elections and poses as the main alternative to the current regime. They are clever and energetic at creating welfare institutions and community groups. In contrast, the liberal reformers are a tiny minority and restricted to intellectual activities.

  Egyptian liberals argue that the Brotherhood can be tamed into greater moderation. But while the Brotherhood has been restrained this has been largely due to government repression. What happens if the regime is seen as too soft or weak, will the Islamists become bolder? Ironically, while the Brotherhood has officially refrained from violence, it has incited physical attacks on the liberals themselves.

  Among the Palestinians, Hamas has greatly increased its support to the point where it rivals the nationalist Fatah group. It has largely done so by proclaiming that it is more militant against Israel, more effective in staging terrorist attacks against Israeli citizens, and unflinching in its call for that country’s destruction. Already, Hamas is so strong and well-armed that even if Fatah were to become moderate -- which it isn’t -- the Islamists alone could block any real peace for decades.

  Syria is a place where an Islamist revolution could unseat a dictatorship but set off a bloodbath. The Sunni Muslims (60 percent) generally hate a regime dominated by Alawites (12 percent). If they ever revolt, probably behind an Islamist flag, it would make the violence in Iraq look like a picnic by comparison.

  The point is that there have been a number of factors which have prevented Islamists from taking over any Arab state in the more than quarter-century since Iran’s revolution. This failure could continue but in some places the nationalist defenses against Islamism are wearing thin and the liberal camp is far too weak to pose any alternative. * Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest book is The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). He can be contacted at [email protected].

 

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