by Khaled Hroub
Election results in the post-revolution countries emphasize the prevailing long-term expectation, which is that the next stage in the Arab region will be characterized by the presence of Islamists in power one way or another in more than one Arab country. The Islamists’ victory in the Egyptian elections came after that of the Justice and Development Party in Morocco, which in turn came after victory of the Renaissance Movement in Tunisia. In Libya, there are expectations, not far from reality, for the victory of similar Islamist parties or those close to them in the event of organized state elections. In Jordan, Yemen and Algeria no one can underestimate the size of Islamic currents and their access to high ratings in state elections. Although the experience of Arab Islamists in government has not been bright, at least in the cases which we have witnessed in past years in Sudan and Gaza, that has not reduced popular support for these currents. Any failure of these experiments was attributed to external factors — Western pressures and/or Israeli policies in the case of Hamas — more than to the ability of the Islamists and their efficiency in government. Thus, the vast majorities of Arab electorates seem bent on entrusting the Islamists with power for a period of time. Arab publics need to delve into a real and broad experience with the Islamists so they can judge them objectively, away from religious passion and semi-blind support.
Islamists: “Our Turn Has Arrived”
Many Islamists say that their turn has arrived and that it is their right to govern after rule by the nationalists, liberals, socialists, conservatives and traditionalists in Arab countries. Thus, there is no doubt concerning the legitimacy of such a right as long as it is achieved through democracy and elections. Any real democrat, however opposed to Islamists’ agenda, should have no other option but to recognize this democratic right. Recognizing this right is one thing; approving or disapproving ideological and political agendas is another. Yet, what remains a subject of controversy, debate and a deep and justified fear is the level of the Islamists’ entrenched belief in democracy, the broad terms of its content and their commitment to the logic of a peaceful transfer of power without holding onto it if they acquire authority. This fear still awaits what will be revealed in coming years concerning the Islamists’ exercise of power. However, what should be reflected upon now are aspects of this Islamist electoral boom, such as their control over the street and how they were able to push their supporting currents into power, taking into consideration the long-term results.
“Islam Is the Solution”
Any state election that takes place now in an Arab or Islamic country takes place after decades of the post-colonial independent state’s failure. This state was looked upon either as being a protector of fragmentation, inherited from colonialism, controlled by secular and non-true-Muslim forces or a sum of the afore-mentioned elements. This failure, with its complex mechanisms and overlapping circumstances, was reduced to a simplified cause: the non-implementation of Shari’a Law; a claim that was marketed with great skill by the Islamists over the past decades. All solutions, governments and authorities failed, according to the Islamists, because of the exclusion of Islam from government; so the simplistic motto in force, adopted by the Islamists, was, “Islam is the Solution.” This vague and loose slogan does not provide any strategic, political, economic or international relations programs, but has great impact as it addresses the conscience of the peoples who consider Islam, and religion in general, the deep structure underlying their consciousness of history. The motto’s impact has doubled as it has been put forward by currents and movements that have been suppressed over long periods; thus their image as victims has been imprinted in peoples’ imagination.
In addition, Islamists have been working hard to make their own people afraid of “Westernization” and shocking new forms of modernity considered a direct threat to Islamic identity and religion. The dynamic of this intimidation during the past decades has kept the issue of identity at the forefront of attention within “the street,” and Islamic currents were able to take refuge in this issue while adopting a vanguard stand in its defense. Thus, in parallel with this situation, issues of social justice, economic development, political freedom and democracy fell behind and could not occupy a status similar to that occupied by issues concerned with identity. The latter issue is closer to ideological mobilization and incitement than to an approach to rule and authority — effective mobilization carried by the slogan “Islam is the Solution” that lazily moves the substance of serious issues and dilemmas aside from the public agenda. This slogan had served the Islamists hugely while they were in opposition, and the failure of the ruling elites in the Arab countries in building effective states, communities and economies only worked to strengthen the motto, adding a magical, metaphysical aura in anticipation of the arrival of the “Savior” and carrier of the slogan. In conjunction with all that, the issue of identity and religion has enhanced Islamist movements’ explicit or implicit claim of speaking in the name of religion and its representation. The many expressions of secular extremism, either by the ruling system, or parties, far from meaning to participate in the embodiment of that claim, unintentionally caused the general public to take refuge in the Islamists as they considered them the protectors of religion.
In the next era these two issues, or mechanisms — the slogan of “Islam Is the Solution” and speaking in the name of religion — will be subjected to an open and comprehensive public test. This may take a long time, the life span of an entire generation, but it seems that it is inevitable and the passage of this historic stage of the life of the Arab peoples is necessary to gradually turn their exaggerated mania concerning identity into an understanding of the political, social and economic reality. Or, in other words, to turn people’s awareness and public opinion from placing their hopes on dreamy ideological and utopian slogans to confronting reality and holding parties and movements accountable according to the information provided in their actual programs and reality on the ground.
No Magic Solutions or Shortcuts
There is no magic solution or shortcut leading to the completion of a complex process such as updating and deepening popular awareness and its purging it of the control of wild slogans. The only solution is practical experience and to engage in facts, while lowering ideological slogans from their high pedestal to the realities of application on the ground. Only then will the effects of ideological mobilization adopted by parties and movements diminish, and thus dim support for movements based on religious identity or ideological slogans. Support or lack of it will thus be governed by the accomplishment of political, economic and other aims. Only then will communities be able to move toward healthy, balanced and true politicization, and without doubt this will require a long and perhaps bitter period.
In the era of the next test of Islamic currents in power, wholesale or gradual de-representation of Islam will occur. Representation of Islam was previously held by the Islamic currents, due to the latter’s claim of capacity or to a set of circumstances and factors. In parallel with neutralizing the Islamic movements’ representation of religion and the development of collective and popular methods of evaluation, or building on policy and achievement and not on identity and allusion to religion, the crucial issue that will evolve will be to enhance the separation between these movements and their monopoly of the representation of religion. They will be considered political parties with a right to compete politically, while religion is considered something separate. As a result, public awareness will gradually be free of the overwhelming weight of guilt that erupts on the eve of every election and haunts all religious voters who did not give their vote to the movement involved. In parallel, and while facing the enormous challenges in Arab societies such as poverty, lack of social justice, development and employment opportunities for young generations, the real problems will creep up and occupy the top priorities at the expense of the false popular question of identity. The issue of identity and fear for it will be exposed and it will become evident that it is inflated. It will return to its normal spontaneous and harmonious size. There is no fear for Arab and Muslim identity in the world, and it will sustain itself as is and as it has been for centuries. This is a feature of rooted identities and civilizations in the world that is absorbed in world culture automatically. The Arab world will keep its Arab and Islamic identity, just as the identity and religion of China remained Buddhist and Confucian, while Europe’s identity and religion has remained Protestant and Catholic Christianity, Russia has remained Orthodox, and India primarily Hindu-Sikh (though with a 13.4 % Moslem minority). This has occurred in parallel with and perhaps despite the prevalent secularism within these civilizations. Civilizations and countries have only developed when identity has stopped being crudely considered, thus clearing the way for politics of coexistence, while giving a chance for realism, history and compromise to be the method for leading communities.