The ‘Arab spring’ was hailed by many western observers as the long awaited democratic uprising of the downtrodden of the Arab world. At least, that is what I’m guessing it looked like if you had no idea of the political history of the region and the longstanding battle between politics and religion that has marked that history.
The ‘Arab Spring’ -pundits have coined the much more appropriate term ‘Arab Winter’- in essence forms the next stage in a centuries old power battle between two interest groups: on the one hand the pragmatic worldly rulers whose main interest was the accumulation and preservation of power and maintaining the social order, and on the other hand the religious groups whose interest was the submission of the entire social-political body to the religious law (shariah).
This power struggle began right after the death of Islam’s prophet and has marked the history of Islamic societies ever since. The problem lies in the fact that this is, in effect, a binary proposition. It’s either secular authoritarianism (which defers religious affairs to religious authorities as long as the latter do not interfere with the affairs of the prior) or religious authoritarianism (which does not accord the same courtesy). What are missing are those forms of political discourse we know from societies that have moved beyond this dichotomy; the Liberal-democrats, Social-democrats, or my personal favorite, the anarcho-syndicalistic vegan libertarians, are simply missing from the Arab political spectrum. That is not to say their appearance on the scene is impossible, of course it is not. But as with the historical evolution of western political thought, the transition towards that point is a long one.
Throughout Islam’s history, attempts have been made to come to a more subtle relationship between the rulers’ worldly interests and the interests of the religious scholars (ulama). More often than not, this resulted in the ruler bribing the religious scholars into silence and a hardening of the positions of the side of those ulama who did not want to sacrifice their religious integrity. This battle is where the Islamist impulse is to be located. What started shortly after the prophet’s death and begot its first clear outlines in the 14th century has come to adulthood in the 20th century. It is in that timeframe that thinkers such as the Muslim brotherhood’s Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb, their Shi’a counterpart Ayatollah Khomeini, the Paksitani Mauwdudi and the salafist jihadism of al-Zawahiri formulated the clearest response against the non-implementation of shariáh law.
And now, with the ‘Arab Spring’ of the 21st century, it is definitely the moment in which the Islamists will make their bid for power.
Is this a bad thing?
In order to compensate for their lack of legitimacy the more-or-less secular regimes ruled through a careful balancing act between corruption, oppression and nepotism on the one hand, and directing internal resentment outward through carefully designed animosity against Israel and ‘the West’ on the other. By attacking the enemies of Islam (and thus appearing pious) the secular dictatorships could at least pretend to have some sort of religious legitimacy; something which is very important in Islamic political philosophy for this minimal requirement protects the ruler from revolt. What the Islamists bring to the table, and this is a strong selling point, is not cynical abuse of religious feelings nor an appeal to nationalism, self-interest or the division between the members of society. Their appeal is founded upon what is already widely recognized by the people as being the representation of ‘the good’: a ‘volonte generale’ materialized in religious law. Moreover, animosity towards Israel or ‘the West’ is no longer a tool of political diversion, but an essential requirement of a sincere religiously inspired foreign policy. The religious doctrines of the Islamists also demand a rejection of everything considered its opposite; the ‘irreligious’, the unbeliever, the secularist and above all the arch-enemy of the true believer, the ‘corrupter of mankind’: the Jew.
Unlike their secular counterparts, the Islamists will not attempt to bribe away any lack of support among the population; their legitimacy derives from the most supreme source of all legitimacy- giving away bribes would be considered an insult to its legitimacy. No, any lack of support from the population will be seen as opposition to divine authority itself and how can one oppose that which is ‘good’ and not declare himself an enemy of mankind? The example of Iran, where a secular dictatorship was replaced by a religious one, hovers threateningly over the Arab world. The fate of the now free Arab nations depends on the ability of their societies to formulate and mobilize an alternative to the secular or religious dictatorship dichotomy. Seeing that the Islamists have waited for this opportunity for a very long time and the political non-experience of their liberal opponents, I fear the Islamists will have the upper hand. The price of such an Islamist take over will be paid for primarily by the Arabs themselves who will have their freedom taken from them not in the name of political opportunism but in the name of religious fanaticism. Of these two, the latter is a vastly more ferocious political predator.
David Suurland will defend his dissertation "Secular Totalitarian and Islamist Legal-Political Philosophy" on September 27th 2012 at 15.00 pm at the Academy Building, Rapenburg 73 in Leiden.