The Islamism Debate

God's Counterculture

Political discourse without Islamist groups would be unthinkable in many Islamic-dominated countries. But what is Islamism actually? Is it more than a fanaticism of losers? And how should the West deal with the "moderate Islamists"? Answers from Sonja Zekri

A veiled Girl at the ballot box in Baghdad, Iraq (photo: dpa)
As a result of their flexible pragmatism, in many countries Islamists have risen to become the only serious opposition to repressive regimes

​​From Rabat to Damascus, religious groups are proving to be an alternative to decadent, despotic regimes, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the oldest, largest, and most influential Islamist organization. Yet we notice no shift and hear no rejoicing. Palestine, the highly symbolic reference conflict for the entire region, is in many respects an exceptional case, but most important, the Islamist movements in the neighboring states have long since renounced violence.

"Our governments know very well that the Muslim Brothers are not planning a coup," says political scientist Diaa Rashwan from the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.

One of the vital questions in the Arab world is whether the Islamist groups' commitment to nonviolence is sincere or merely tactical. Islam experts like Olivier Roy advocate dauntless positivism for the time being, however. Even Islamists must be judged by their actions, not their intentions: "Sincerity is not a political concept."

Nihilistic jihadism shocks the West with seemingly relentless terrorist campaigns across all borders, but moderate Islamism succeeds locally. In Morocco, the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) supported King Muhammad VI's "Mudawana," a startlingly progressive family law which grants women the right to a divorce, raises the minimum age for marriage to 18, and, in the event of separation, stipulates equal distribution of property. Muslim Brothers in Jordan condemned the Iraq War, while their comrades in Iraq sat in the Iraqi government.

Flexible pragmatism of Islamist groups

As a result of this flexible pragmatism, in many countries Islamists have risen to become the only serious opposition. In Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood is officially banned and puts forward only independent candidates, it would receive at least thirty percent of the votes in free elections, Rashwan estimates, and even more with a lower turnout at the polls, because their adherents can be mobilized at any time.

Socialists, liberals, and nationalists have long been marginalized. The fact that many regimes use the threatening theocracy as a pretext to deal with the secular opposition at the same time only plays into the hands of the Islamists.

As countries like Egypt and Tunisia have demonstrated, the price of suppressing Islamism in the name of freedom is the undermining of democracy. This presents a dilemma for the West. Today Islamists are among the most passionate advocates of freedom of speech, fair elections, and pluralism – genuinely Western values.

Unlikely alliances are forming. The now marginalized Egyptian protest movement "Kifaya" (Enough!), a melting pot of diverse political forces, marched together with the Muslim Brotherhood against the Mubarak gerontocracy. In Cairo, bloggers and Islamists have long protested jointly for more freedom in the Net.

Islamists' uncertain attitude toward democracy

No one knows whether Islamists have a more than functional attitude toward democracy, whether they will actually allow themselves to be voted out of office, or whether their understanding of pluralism amounts to nothing more than Bernard Lewis's phrase "One man, one vote, one time" – everyone has a vote, but only once. The young sociologist Mohsen Elahmadi from Rabat, who lived in Paris for ten years and is studying Islamist movements in Morocco, argues that the Islamists operate with "holiness" on the unholy terrain of politics and history. "They have never understood that democracy is an essential value of our age."

Palestinian militant in the area of Sidon, South of Lebanon (photo: AP)
"No one knows whether Islamists have a more than functional attitude toward democracy, whether they will actually allow themselves to be voted out of office", scruples Sonja Zekri

​​But party arithmetic alone does not do justice to Islamism anyway. It is not a political phenomenon, not even a religious one, but a giant social and cultural transformation. Elahmadi calls it a "counterculture," and the German Islamic studies specialist Gudrun Krämer compares it to the Greens.

"The Greens are not politically dominant today, but Green opinions are extremely influential. From a purely functional standpoint, it is much the same with the Islamists. They determine how one dresses, what one eats. In these areas, they are incredibly successful."

Giant social and cultural transformation

Even if the Islamists never come to power, they have transformed their countries. Not only with hospitals, kindergartens, and social services, which probably have a socially stabilizing effect as well. The headscarves in Rabat, Algiers, and Alexandria, where short skirts and sleeveless dresses were still fashionable thirty years ago, are only the obvious component of the change.

Prayer niches in Cairo's metro stations, the word "Allah" set with stones in the middle of the desert, prayer watches with compass (Mecca) and Hidschra mode (Ramadan) – despite all the tricks with which an individual avoids religious obligations, the religious saturation of society is nevertheless based on a widespread consensus.

There are demonstrations against Israel and America, against the Muhammad cartoons and terrorism, even against their own government, but never against Islamization – not even by women. In this respect, any attempt at a Marxist explanation that interprets religiousness merely as a reaction to poverty and need falls short. First of all, Islamists are recruited in particular from the middle-class, technically trained intelligentsia, and, second, the Gulf States prove that affluence and reactionary narrow-mindedness are not mutually exclusive.

Thus, although Mohsen Elahmadi mocks the spiritual background noise – "We are fixated on the hereafter, as though we were going to die tomorrow!" – he also welcomes it as immunization against the great leveler, globalization. "The Islamist movements are the sign of a culture that is defending itself against an outside aggressor." The Islamic world just sets the imperialism of spiritual values against the imperialism of material values, he says. That sounds like Samuel P. Huntington.

Dialectics of Islamism

Even secularists counter the issue of the rights of women and social minorities by pointing to old people's homes in the West. Justice, consideration for weaker persons, tolerance toward people of different faiths – it is all in the Koran. Even the oppression of women cannot be blamed on the Prophet but rather his exegetes. Homosexuality is banned in many Arab countries with secular governments – yet it exists. Hatred of Israel and America is not a prerogative of the Islamists; it is only with effort channeled by official bodies.

All attempts to isolate or neutralize religious persons have thus far resulted in bloody acts of terrorism (Algeria) or repression (Egypt). They have not been able to halt either the radicalization of individual groups or the creeping Islamization of the masses.

Old, cautious Europe, which achieved secularism and victory over nationalism and fascism only through wars involving heavy losses, views this utopian infatuation with even greater horror, since no country has ever been able to save another from a painful experience.

Most important, however, the dialectics of Islamism question the liberating effect of democratic processes in general. The phobic reaction to all demands for participation by Islamists is also the result of a profound European feeling of insecurity.

Sonja Zekri

© Süddeutsche Zeitung / 2008

Translated from the German by Phyllis Anderson

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