Jan 28, 2013

Is the rise of political Islam a purely negative phenomenon?*

Two years after the outbreak of what has come to be known as the Arab Spring, the boldest outcome by far has been the rise of political Islam; that’s mainly because Islamic organizations have been among the only forums in which average citizens can express themselves or participate actively in the lives of their communities. However, the story of political Islam hasn’t started here, it has much older record; the wave has first started in Iran, Turkey later Iraq, way before the Arab Spring. Accordingly, the political Islam has been extremely varying from a place to another. Hence, the performance of political Islam has been as diverse as the rainbow, from the dogmatic fundamentalism of Afghanistan’s Taliban to much-praised liberal-oriented the justice and development party in Turkey; that being said, the political Islam is not a purely negative phenomenon.

Islamists versus Islamists
Interestingly all the Middle Eastern powerhouses govern by religious forces from Turkey to Iran, from Egypt to Saudi Arabia. However their models are notably diverse, for instance Turkey’s incumbent the Islamic-leaning justice and development party, more commonly known by the initials A.K.P. has been called by many scholars as a new model of political Islam. They have been called Liberal Islamists, liberal in the sense that it respects people’s liberty to choose between Islam and non-Islam, between piety and vice. This liberal experiment of Turkey’s ruling the A.K.P. is becoming a model for Islamist parties in the Arab Spring countries that they already won elections in both Egypt and Tunisia and formed governments. “If Turkey succeeds in that liberal experiment, and drafts its new constitution-in-the-making accordingly, it can set a promising example for Islamist-led governments in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere” Mustafa Akyol has written in a piece on The New York Times.
However in the same time, there is the model of Iran, where there is authoritarian theocracy with some elements of modern democratic states such as frequent periodic elections. Furthermore, there is also the model of Saudi Arabia where there is a mix of theocracy and tradition. This is a more totalitarian model of theocracy than Iran’s because of the strong presence of traditions that limit civic freedoms further more. Moreover, the Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood that found in 1928, but gained power in 2012 could be considered another and different model of political Islam. The Economist in an article that published in late 2011 defines the Muslim Brotherhood as “professing a fairly moderate version of Islam, the Brotherhood is known for its political savvy as well as its resilience and discipline.” This trend that could be considered the widest in the Islamic world is called: democratic Islamism. But, this model might not be liberal like Turkey’s because as Fareed Zakaria says in his book The future of freedom: Illiberal democracy at home and abroad “there are illiberal democracies, too, where the majority’s power is not checked by constitutional liberalism, and the rights and freedoms of all citizens are not secured”. Also in Egypt another type of political Islam is in emergence that is closer to Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabis. This trend has been called Salafism. They seek to purge the faith of modern masses and impose literal interpretations of dogma. 

Is the rise of political Islam purely negative?
Perhaps the negative image of political Islam is not based on nothing; many Islamists have a notorious history, particularly the ones that ruled before the Arab Spring with exception of Turkey. The Islamic models of Afghanistan, Iran, Sudan and somehow Hamas in Gaza have been considered failure especially with the lenses of the western democratic liberals. However despite the negative commonplace on political Islam that has become stereotype in the west, and in many Islamic countries equally, the rise of political Islam is certainly not purely negative.
A major positivity of the rise of political Islam is engagement of Islamists in the democratic system, while they have been for long perceived as opponents of it. In a country like Egypt, the ultra-Orthodox Salafis until very recently were denouncing participation in the elections or representation in the parliament, but now they have the second biggest share in the parliament. This could be considered an impressive change in the mentality of this fundamentalist group that has picked the ballot box rather than the gun barrel. Even further moderation in their ideology is expected as they face the responsibility of governing. 
The rise of political Islam has also become a strong setback for Jihadists, particularly Al-Qaeda. Many religious youths in the region has joined Jihadist group because they have seen no hope for peaceful change, and they have been oppressed, while it is believed that Islamists will become more moderate when they are not oppressed. Therefore, the rise of Islamists within the new democracies in the region is an automatic setback for aggressive Jihadists. Safwat Abdel-Ghani, the leader of an Egyptian Salafist group says, “Al-Qaeda has not been destroyed by the ‘war on terror' but by popular revolutions that made it unnecessary”.
Another good sign of the rise of political Islam is the diversity. In spite of their landslide popularity in many countries in the region, the range of Islamists can be a guarantee of democratic systems in those countries. Things would be more concerning if Islamists were united in a single worldview. A good example here would be Iraq. With the current Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, an Islamist, is consolidation power that threatens the democratic system in Iraq, his opponents that are mainly Islamists are moving to fade off his dream to establish another autocracy, in another form, in Iraq. Now if all Islamists were united in one worldview, the return of autocracy was much more likely. Here, Islamists are becoming guardians of democracy because pluralistic democracy can protect their interest.
A wave of conservatisms is surrounding the Middle East and elsewhere. Islamists can contain them, which is good, because otherwise they might not be controlled. In a country like Egypt only Islamists can reflect the mass, as an overwhelming majority is conservative. Here one can be optimistic, as Islamists are reflecting the majority, otherwise the option for many would be terror.
More positive than all what have been mentioned above is that Islamists can be even more democratic than seculars as in the case of Turkey. The ruling A.K.P. has swept the country toward further democratization since gained power a decade ago. The minorities rights that have always been a black stain on Islamists faces have been considerably widen for Kurds, an ethnical group, and Alevis, a secular sect of Islam. Furthermore political liberalism has been flourished and the country is expected to liberalize further with a new constitution is in the making.
With the rise of political Islam, science is also expected to come back, after centuries of stagnation. In countries like Egypt and Tunisia there are promising reforms in the way university posts are filled. People are being elected, rather than appointed by the regime. Even the other countries of the region that rules by Islamists are performing much better in science than other non-Islamic countries. According to a report by the Economist research spending in Turkey increased by over 10% each year between 2005 and 2010, by which year its cash outlays were twice Norway’s. In the category of best-regarded mathematics papers, Iran now performs well above average, with 1.7% of its papers among the most-cited 1%. 

The late rise of political Islam is gradually reducing the widely negative image on Islamists. The relative success of Turkish model of liberal Islamism may liberalize the other moderate Islamists in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the region as well. Yet, one cannot be in total optimism as there is fear that the soft and moderate version of political Islam may witness failure, in this case the re-rise of the violent Jihadists is expected. After all the rise of political Islam is still in the making, it has not been completed; that’s why positivity or negativities of it may unpredictably change.

* This is a university essay, but I have rewritten it in a less academic form.

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