[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News, with readers' comments]
The Arab Spring, which began in Tunis and continued with Egypt, is spreading in a perfect domino effect. Of course, every Arab country has its own conditions, and its unique form of dictatorship. Some dictators are more rational, even reasonable, whereas some, such Libya’s Col. Gadhafi, are absolute lunatics. That’s one reason, along with the lack of strong political organizations and civil society in Libya, which has made the revolt in this country very chaotic and bloody.
My hope is that Gadhafi will be taken down as soon as possible, before launching a genocidal attack on his own people and a scorched earth policy against his own country.
Meanwhile, what is quite interesting in these three cases — Tunis, Egypt and Libya — is the lack of the Islamist bogeymen that most Arab dictators have used to justify their grip on power. “If I go, Islamists will establish a much worse dictatorship,” was the line that they were whispering to Western ears for decades, showing the Islamic Revolution in Iran as a case study.
Yet those scary Islamists seem to surface only in Gadhafi’s delusional speeches these days, in which he blames the uprising to his rule to be directed by both al-Qaeda and “drug addicts.” (How those seemingly not-so-compatible groups have merged so successfully is something you should not ask.) On the ground, however, neither the successful revolts in Tunis and Egypt turned out to be Islamic revolutions, and nor the Libyan case hints that way.
This doesn’t mean that parties that represent “political Islam” — a loaded term to which I will come back — are absent. No, they are right there. The NAHDA in Tunis and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt were among the forces who helped overthrow the dictators of their countries. But they claim neither ownership of the revolution nor an autocratic “Islamic state” for the future. They rather emphasize that they are a part of the democratic game.
That’s why French scholar Olivier Roy, one of the world’s foremost experts on political Islam, speaks of a “post-Islamist generation” in the Middle East. “This is not to say that the demonstrators are secular,” Roy notes in his excellent piece in the New Statesman. “But they are operating in a secular political space, and they do not see in Islam an ideology capable of creating a better world.”
This is the general mood, whereas the Islamists, such as the Muslim brotherhood, seem to offer Islam as a set of values and principles to be advanced within the democratic system — rather than an alternative “Islamic system,” which will, in practice, offer nothing other than the tyranny of the Islamists.
There are several reasons for this change. First, many, including the Islamists themselves, took lessons from the failures of Islamist regimes, in Iran or Sudan, which showed that the slogan “Islam is the solution” doesn’t really solve much.
Secondly, there is the helpful effect of free-market capitalism, which, in the words of Roy, led to “the embourgeoisement of the Islamists.” As a result, they abandoned the collectivist rhetoric of the 1980s, by which they “called for state ownership of the economy and redistribution of wealth.” Now the Muslim Brotherhood is “conservative with regard to morality and liberal on the economy.”
If this sounds familiar to you, recalling Turkey’s incumbent Justice and Development Party, or AKP, then you have the right senses.
For the AKP cadre has gone through the same transformation — from Islamism to post-Islamist “conservative democracy” — about a decade ago. They, too, became conservative on morality, liberal on the economy. And their subsequent success has been a source of inspiration for the more open-minded elements among Arab Islamists. Many among the latter have said this openly in the previous years, and especially previous weeks.
But how you see all this change is question which very much depends on your pre-suppositions.
If you are a die-hard secularist (or an Islamo-sceptic) who believes that any influence by Islam on politics will inevitably lead to tyranny, all this is bad news for you. You will conclude that Islamists have just become more cunning, and more dangerous, by learning the means to penetrate into democracy, which they will ultimately overthrow.
You will, in other words, see the Islamists as Senator McCarthy saw the communists in the 1950s: agents who only conspire and transform, but never get transformed. I beg to differ, and believe that a political party inspired and informed by Islam can become, and remain, a part of the democratic game.
That type of “political Islam” should not be condemned and banned, but tolerated and even welcomed. It is certainly a work in progress, which needs a lot of further progress. But it is also a must, if we really want to achieve a free and democratic Middle East.