Free counters!
FollowLike Share It

Saturday 29 October 2011

PRICE OF DEMOCRACY - The Arab Spring may turn into a turbulent summer

- The Arab Spring may turn into a turbulent summer
Sunanda K. Datta-Ray
Habib Bourguiba
The Arab Spring is sweeping away some of West Asia’s most egregious dictators. But political trends in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere suggest that the vacuum might be filled by forces that draw inspiration from the “Islam is the Solution” slogan with which Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is wooing voters for next month’s parliamentary elections.
This was inevitable. Ismail Sallabi, a cleric and military commander in eastern Libya, is quoted saying, “It is the people’s revolution, and all the people are Muslims, Islamists.” Islamization is the other side of the democracy coin. Tunisia’s founding father, Habib Bourguiba, who called the hijab an “odious rag”, was probably one of the few genuine secularists among the region’s absolute rulers. Others, Muammar Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein, were secular because they feared rival centres of power under clerics with pretensions of access to a higher court, as Reza Shah Pahlavi feared the ayatollahs.
The outcome of last Sunday’s constituent assembly election in Tunisia — the first since French rule ended in 1956 and the first, too, anywhere in the region since a vegetable seller’s protest self-immolation sparked the Arab Spring — is a straw in the wind. Tunisia has an educated population. Given Bourguiba’s legacy, a large number of Tunisians take a relaxed view of religion, drink alcohol, wear revealing clothes and rarely visit mosques. The liberal atmosphere is essential for Tunisia’s buoyant tourist industry. Western diplomats hope that being largely funded by businessmen, Rachid Ghannouchi’s Ennahda Party, which attracted the highest number of votes, will reject radicalism for pro-market economic policies. Ennahda is also expected to have to form alliances with secularist parties which may further dilute its influence.
In those years when it was forced to operate underground, Ennahda wooed ordinary Tunisians chafing under aggressively enforced secularism by promising that Islam would have a greater presence in public life. How far that legacy will force Ghannouchi’s hand (assuming he is not personally committed to Islamization though lower-level provincial leaders might be) remains to be seen but the nomination of a woman who doesn’t wear the veil to preside over the constituent assembly is regarded as an encouraging sign.
Egypt is West Asia’s next marker. Although the Muslim Brotherhood was banned in 1954, it has been allowed to operate within limits since the 1970s. Greater permissiveness since 2005, largely due to American support for domestic democracy lobbies, allowed Brotherhood members to contest elections as independents. The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party hopes to win at least 40 per cent of the seats next month. Its platform seeks to quell concerns by saying it wants a pluralist democracy without seeking to impose Islamic law. Candidates are very properly committed to a “comprehensive vision” for the “Second Republic”. No one mentions a return to the Brotherhood’s fundamentalist agenda… as yet.
But even the United States of America seems reconciled to the shift for which it is largely responsible. While Hillary Clinton told Egyptian television that the US would be “willing” and “open” to working with a government that includes the Brotherhood, another American diplomat made a virtue of necessity by dwelling on the importance of being “in touch with all the emerging political forces… across the board”. Knowledge and contact help “to understand Egypt and the way the political system is developing”. He is right of course, but much more than Egypt’s future hangs in the balance.
Next door in Libya, the provenance of those who led the revolt against Gaddafi is shaping the future just as the US and Pakistan sowed the seeds of today’s violence in Afghanistan by arming and training the Mujahideen to fight the Soviets. The National Transitional Council and its chairman, Mahmoud Jibril, an American-trained economist, basked in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s embrace, while other tribal leaders proclaimed “No Foreign Intervention — Libyans Can Do It Alone.” A Muslim Brotherhood worthy led Tripoli’s municipal council. Qatar sent money and arms to Abdel Hakim Belhaj who has renamed his Islamic Fighting Group (accused of al Qaida links) the Islamic Movement for Change. Called Libya’s most powerful military leader, Belhaj now heads the Tripoli Military Council. Outlawed and persecuted under Gaddafi, his organization built up a network through mosques that no secular party can match. Jibril’s resignation after criticizing the Islamists, albeit obliquely, is attributed to Belhaj’s displeasure.
A shadowy Islamist umbrella group, Etilaf, is said to pull all the strings. Its proposedfatwa sought to bar women from driving. Some Tripoli council members want to ban theatre, cinema and arts that represent the human form. Islamists are suspected of the July murder of Abdel Fattah Younes, one of Gaddafi’s military comrades in the 1969 coup that brought him to power, who defected to the rebels in February.
Islamization is the price of democracy, but what kind of Islamization? West Asia’s dictators found it expedient from time to time to play footsie with fundamentalists but, on the whole, it was in their interest to keep Islamic militancy under stern control. Not even the most devoutly Muslim government will support al Qaida whose radical philosophy is to replace established rulers with its own caliphate. The US chose to disregard this inherent contradiction in its chargesheet against leaders who qualified for regime change for other reasons, whether for overrunning Kuwait or, as David Cameron recalled the other day, arming the Provisional Irish Republican Army.
Al Qaida and the Taliban dominate one end of the Islamist spectrum. At the other is the Justice and Development Party which has governed Turkey since 2003. In between are insurgent and revolutionary groups like Jemaah Islamiah, the Salafis, Hamas and Hezbollah. None of them claims an evangelical agenda; the purpose in each case is political though with the politics often spilling across frontiers.
Not that the world needs to sit up in alarm at the prospect of a revitalized ummahcombining the prestige of the Sublime Porte with the malign effectiveness of al Qaida or the Taliban. Not yet. As Faisal Devji, the Oxford historian, points out, “[T]oday there exists no great power in the Muslim world and no centre of gravity for its politics….” Iraq and Libya — and the threat to Syria — bear out his warning that the “Ottoman Empire’s successor states would be too small and weak to stand on their own in the international arena, becoming therefore clients and proxies of distant powers, plunging the entire region into a morass of petty squabbles and descending finally into rapacious and repressive regimes”. That also applies to Afghanistan though it was never an Ottoman province.
Devji’s novel suggestion that India “as the region’s only great power, has a particular role to play as far as the politics of Islam is concerned” — meaning it should assume the mantle of successor state also in respect of David Lloyd George’s claim of British India (whose head was styled Kaiser-i-Hind against the Ottoman emperor’s Kaiser-i-Rum) being “the greatest Mahomedan power in the world” — may be for the longue durée. What is of concern is the immediate fallout. Some apologists argue that while the West associates “religious freedom” with freedom from religion, in West Asia the phrase means freedom to practise religion. So an Islamist party can be as much about rejecting Bourguiba-style forced secularism as about promoting one religion.
The politicization of religion in West Asia is bound to impact on South Asia and farther afield. In a last fling of Ottoman grandeur, the last Caliph, who was a pensioner of the Nizam of Hyderabad, wrote in 1942 applauding “the re-establishment of the sovereign rights of my disciples, the Sultans of Johore and Malacca”. Southeast Asia’s Jemaah Islamiah testifies to the linkage. Even if cross-border aggression is ruled out, the combination of politics, religion and regional, tribal and personal rivalries threatens to turn the Arab Spring into a turbulent summer. The consequences could be far-reaching.

No comments:

Post a Comment