An upside of Arab revolts: Islamists talk democracy
Egypt opened the way for new dialogue between Islamists and secularists. That could foster Muslim democracies.
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
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One of the most important may be the opportunity for a badly needed dialogue between secularists and Islamists.
For decades, authoritarian Arab regimes restricted free speech and public debate, especially when it came to religion and politics. In the ensuing intellectual stagnation, a deep rift developed between those active in Islamist organizations, or political Islam, and those who saw this trend as dangerous for democracy.
The common cause that they might have struck against repressive governments never came to pass because of their mutual distrust and dislike – often expressed in pithy epithets.
"Secularist!" Islamists would cry at their political rivals who wanted religion-free politics. The label, commonly regarded as a code word for "Western," implied that one was an apostate in Islam.
"Fanatics!" secularists would retort.
This polarized, ossifying divide is now being left behind.
It dissolved in the 18 days in which Egyptians of all political persuasions, young and old, male and female, stunned the world with their stamina and courage in Tahrir Square and set an example for Arabs pining for change.
People are no longer concerned about whether you are secular or Islamist, says Abdulaziz al-Gasim, a Riyadh attorney who comes from an Islamist activist background. "There is no longer any meaning to talking about these details."
They only want to know "are you with the revolution or not? This is national. This is the silent majority taking the initiative," he adds. "For me, this was a very important event in Arab history."
The stage is now set for serious community debate in the political arena over the next few years on essential issues still unresolved in most Arab countries:
•What is the role of Islam in political and public life?
•What does secularism mean in a predominantly Muslim country?
•When does free speech become blasphemy?
•What rights do religious minorities have?
•What does it mean to live under sharia, or Islamic law, and what exactly is an Islamic state?
In short, public discussion can begin with a new paradigm for political and religious discourse in the Middle East. Nothing could do more to unleash the stifled creative potential of the region's people. A new discourse with input from both Islamists and secularists holds out the promise of a dynamic, indigenous Arab identity that can find widespread, grass-roots acceptance.
What happened in Egypt "could change the political and cultural landscape in the Arab world," says Khalid al-Dakhil, a sociologist in Riyadh.
Arab sights set higher now
Before Egypt's uprising, the strongest and most organized opposition throughout the Arab world usually came from Islamist organizations. Because they had the conviction of their faith, members were motivated and ready to sacrifice.
By contrast, secular-oriented political groups were much weaker in organization and impact. As the late Egyptian political analyst and intellectual Tahseen Basheer once observed: "There are secular forces, but no secular ideology."
But secular forces emerged fortified from the revolution – if not with an ideology, then at least with concepts that had found a deep, new resonance among an entire population: freedom, social justice, and dignity. And the country's most significant Islamist organization, the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood, emerged with the freedom to operate openly.
Mr. Gasim, the Riyadh attorney, says that the profundity of events in Egypt has eclipsed the issues that divided people in the past and brought a new focal point for unity. "We've gone beyond the old debates about Islam or modernity," says Gasim. "The issue is freedom and the guarantee of good governance by democracy."
What is political Islam?
Political Islam spans a wide spectrum of organizations. Its adherents and activists have a religion-based vision of a state and society, and want a high profile for Islam in the public arena. At one end of the spectrum of political Islam is a minority that has turned to violence. That would include groups like Al Qaeda.
Most other Islamist groups reject violence, however, and seek to advance their Islamist agenda through peaceful means such as proselytizing, doing charitable works, setting a good example, and participating in electoral politics. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood is one of the oldest organizations that falls under the rubric of political Islam.