The Tunisian revolt: Where have all the Islamists gone?
The protesters who toppled Tunisia's dictator weren't advocating sharia or Islamic law. They were calling for freedom, democracy, and multiparty elections. Across the Arab Middle East, the generation that is leading the protest against dictatorship does not have an Islamist character.
The novel characteristic of the first peaceful popular revolution to topple a dictatorship in the Arab world is that there is nothing Islamic about it.Skip to next paragraph
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The young Tunisian street peddler who triggered the revolt by publicly burning himself reminds us of the Vietnamese Buddhist monks in 1963 or of Jan Palach in Czechoslovakia in 1969 – an act of precisely the opposite nature from the suicide bombings that are the trademark of present Islamic terrorism.
Even in this sacrificial act, there has been nothing religious: no green or black turban, no loose white gown, no “Allah Akbar,” no call to jihad. It was instead an individual, desperate, and absolute protest, without a word on paradise and salvation.
Suicide in this case was the last act of freedom aimed at shaming the dictator and prodding the public to react. It was a call to life, not death.
In the street demonstrations that followed, there was no call for an Islamic state, no white shroud put by protesters in front of the bayonets as in Tehran in 1978.
Nothing about sharia or Islamic law. And, most striking, no “down with US imperialism.” The hated regime was perceived as an indigenous one, the result of fear and passivity, and not as the puppet of French or US neocolonialism, despite its endorsement by the French political elite.
An end to kleptocratic rule
Instead, the protesters were calling for freedom, democracy, and multiparty elections. Put more simply, they just wanted to get rid of the kleptocratic ruling family (“dégage!” as said a popular motto in French).
In this Muslim society nothing about an “Islamic exceptionalism” was manifest. And at the end, when the real “Islamist” leaders came from their exile in the West (yes they are in the West, not in Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia), they, like Rachid Ghannoushi, spoke of elections, coalition government, and stability – all the while keeping a low profile.
Have the Islamists disappeared?
No. But in North Africa, at least, most of them have become democrats. True, fringe groups have followed the path of a nomadic global jihad and are roaming the Sahel in search of hostages, but they have no real support in the population. That is why they went to the desert.
Nevertheless, these highway robbers are still branded as a strategic threat by Western governments at a loss to design a long-term policy. Other Islamists have just given up politics and closed their door, pursuing a pious, conservative, but apolitical way of life. They put a burqa on their wives as well as on their lives.
But the bulk of the former Islamists have come to the same conclusion of the generation that founded the Justice and Development (AK) party in Turkey: There is no third way between democracy and dictatorship. There is just dictatorship and democracy.