The Causes of the Irresistible Progression of Islamist Parties in the Arab-Muslim World

Turkey, Pakistan, Morocco, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Palestine … In the course of the last two years, everywhere in the Arab-Muslim world where governments have organized democratic elections (local or national), Islamist parties have enjoyed spectacular progress. It’s a general movement, an impressive, ideologically-founded current that it would be pointless to deny and dangerous for the West to underestimate.

    To understand where this current originates, it is useful to back up a little. Islamism is not new. Its founding father, Hassan el-Benna, was a pious school master in Ismailia (Egypt), who created the Muslim Brotherhood movement in 1928 to combat the pernicious influence of English ideas and morals on the youth of his country. Today, the Palestinian Hamas explicitly claims direct descent from his teachings.

    Islamism, that is, the political movement aiming to replace human laws with God’s law (sharia), took a long time to bloom in the Arab-Muslim world. Shortly after its birth, it was supplanted by the more powerful ideologies of the Twentieth Century, i.e., secular nationalism and socialism. The Baath Party, a movement of Arab renaissance founded during the Second World War that would later take power in Syria and Iraq, is at once nationalist, secular, and socialist. The same is true of Nasserism, which was to pitilessly decapitate the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Egypt.

    In Turkey, Mustafa Kemal, after re-establishing his country’s independence, secularized the State by force, abolished the Caliphate (1924), did away with religious courts, forbade polygamy, and imposed Western dress on the population. Ataturk must have turned in his grave at the news that Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan sent his daughters to study abroad so they could go veiled to class. In Turkey, the military – last guardians of Kemalism – make sure no one meddles with the prohibition of the Islamic veil at university.

    With its historic start between the First World War, which saw the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and the Second, which inaugurated the movements of decolonization and national revolutions, Islamist ideology did not succeed in taking root in the societies of the Arab-Muslim world at the outset. Even Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan in 1947, lived as a British gentleman up to the end of his life, drinking his whisky every evening. Alcohol was not forbidden in Pakistan until much later, during the 1970s, by a demagogic decision of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

    Yet one is forced to observe that in the Arab-Muslim world, the graft of European governance, implanted at the time of the decolonizations and founded on the central principle of the separation of religion and politics, was rejected by the people.

    How is one to explain such a transplant rejection? It derives first of all from the failure of the development models intellectually imported from Europe. In Algeria, socialism (collectivization of agriculture, creation of massive state complexes of “industrializing industries” أ  la USSR) has only produced poverty for everyone – with the exception of the FLN’s senior nomenklatura who sent their sons to private schools in Switzerland so they could escape the appalling “Arabization” of studies decreed at home. In Syria and Iraq, nationalism was confiscated by minorities desirous of maintaining themselves in power at all costs. In Egypt, nationalism chased out the Jews, and Nasserism, the Greeks: the country has still not recovered economically from the departure of these two communities, which formed the backbone of the private sector.

    The governments that emerged from decolonization all undertook a predatory relationship to power, which ended up being recognized and despised by the population. If Algerians, the first time they could freely express themselves at the ballot box (in the municipal elections of 1990), massively voted for the Islamic Salvation Front (ISF), it’s because they wanted to sanction those whom they called “the FLN robbers.” Yasser Arafat’s Fatah, which was notoriously corrupt, never quite succeeded at redistributing the money sent by the Arab states and the European Union to the Palestinian population. On the other hand, Hamas’s leaders have always lived modestly.

    The simplifying power across the Muslim world of the Brotherhood’s electoral slogan, “Islam is the solution,” is enormous. From Cairo to Gaza to Baghdad or Algiers, who could contradict such a slogan? Who there could prefer the government of men to that of God? Doesn’t Islam, a religion the power of which lies in its simplicity, forbid theft? Doesn’t it preach alms to the most deprived? Hasn’t the Brotherhood always shown an example? In Gaza, in Cairo, or in the southern suburbs of Beirut, it’s Islamists who assure the social services there where the state fails to.

    For poor people, Islam, which teaches submission to God alone, is a liberating religion. Equality before God has become an ideologically far more appealing product than the Western equality before the law, which has been experienced as hypocrisy.

    Simultaneously, the image the Western world presents to the Muslim masses has been considerably tarnished. Islamists have a field day teaching their co-religionists that Westerners “don’t believe in anything any more,” lost as they are in their hyper-consumerism. What sort of moral model do European societies offer now, societies that are afraid to have children and that abandon their old people in nursing homes?

    It would be useless for Westerners to try to interrupt this deep current. Now we need to allow the societies of the Arab-Muslim world to experiment freely with God’s government, in their own countries. As for ourselves, let us continue – without any hang-ups – to demand total human democracy in our own countries.

    Renaud Girard is Le Figaro’s star Foreign Service reporter.