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Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Were the Arab 'revolutions' Islamist in nature?

Khalil El-Anani acknowledges that not all the participants in the recent Arab revolutions wanted ‘secular democracy’ - or indeed any kind of democracy. However, the Islamists still believed that democracy was a good means to achieve something which is intrinsically undemocratic - an Islamic state with the implementation of full sharia law. That is, democracy, or democratic procedures, are used in order to advance Islam or Islamism.

The ‘first wave of revolutions came from the upper crust of the middle class’. It was they, the ‘Arab elite’, who wanted ‘secular democracy’, not ‘the masses’ or the Islamists. But, again, we can still safely say that just about every participant in the Arab revolutions believed that democracy was the best means, at the time, of achieving an Islamic state or of obtaining real political power for the Islamists.

In other words, the revolutions always had an Islamic or Islamist current within them. So much so that ‘mosques were used as a mobilising ground for the masses’. In addition, ‘political rallies often started from mosques’. It is clear that the mosques were not just convenient places to meet and plan. They were also the places which provided the ideological and/or religious fire which was needed to fight the various revolutions. (As with the Iranian 'revolution' in 1979.)

The ‘Arab elite’, or leaders, always had a problem with the Islamists; especially in Egypt, but also in Tunisia, Libya and Syria. More precisely, ‘the despotic nature of the Arab regimes excluded the Islamists from the political scene’. El-Anani says that the Islamists were the ‘usual scapegoats’ of these ‘despotic regimes’. None of this points to the Islamists wanting democracy in any form. Indeed it doesn’t mean that the Islamists are against despotic regimes per se. What they were and are against are the wrong kinds of despotism, those of yesterday and today, not necessarily those of the future. Indeed, if you create an Islamic state, with full sharia law, it almost follows by definition such a state will be, to a degree at least, despotic in nature. Only this time it will be Islamic or Islamist despotism. It will also be a case that such Arab states will be unfriendly towards the Western nations and also fiercely belligerent towards Israel (of course).

Because of the Islamists’ ‘scapegoat role’, they have ‘kept a low profile during the revolutions’. They did so for 'tactical reasons’, according El-Anani. Another reason El-Anani offers is that the Islamists 'were aware that the West would react with alarm to their presence’. And I think it is easy to agree with El-Anani here. The West, on the whole, is 'alarmed’ by the Islamists and it is so for many good reasons.

Despite Islamist reticence, the Islamists were quickly on the scene when the Arab revolutions arrived. El-Anani tells us that ‘a dozen Islamist parties [have formed] in Egypt since the revolution, including Salafi and Sufi ones’. (I always believed that the Salafists were not strictly speaking Islamists in the sense that they are against partaking in any form of ‘man-created’ political process.)

In addition, these Arab societies have Islamised themselves, to varying degrees, without the Islamists holding absolute power in any of the Arab states. For example, there are ‘increased instances of women donning the niqab’; a ‘mounting popularity of independent preachers’; a ‘rising demand on Islamic schools’; and ‘the growing influence of religious-leaning television stations’. Finally, ‘many [youths] seem to parade their religiosity with the enthusiasm usually reserved for fashion’. (Perhaps that’s because it is a fashion. Why should religion be automatically exempt from fads?)

El-Anani doesn’t seem worried about the rise of Islamism in these Arab states. Far from it. However, he does hope that ‘the process of integration [in democracies] will alter not only their notions but also their methods’. It could do. But it very well may not!

It is no surprise, then, that El-Anani ends his article on a very positive note vis-a-vis the Islamists. He says that ‘we need to start working on the normalisation of ties between Islamists and Arab societies’. Otherwise ‘our whole quest for democracy could be stalled’. Now, is that wishing thinking or is it wishing thinking?
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