Islamist politics in the Middle East cracked wide open with the Arab awakening: Islamists have emerged on top in Tunisia, Libya, Iraq, and Egypt. Western publics, lulled by the sight of iPhones and other social media at work, assumed that the demonstrations, rebellions, and regime changes were all driven by Muslim wannabe Westerners and that Islamist politics were relics of the past.
But when dictators started to fall, it shouldn’t have been any surprise that Islamists quickly came out on top. This wasn’t a conspiracy. Islamists have paid their dues many times over for decades as the only group with a clear regional identity, a vision, a courage, and a willingness to suffer the harsh responses of dictators.
They spoke out, went to prison, and sometimes died. Brave doesn’t always mean correct, but it means they garnered the respect of the public. Western-style liberals couldn’t really fill up the main square on a good day, although the participation of a new generation of youth with idealism and drive is evidence of an exciting new generation of activists.
Islamists make Westerners nervous, sometimes with good reason. We have seen what the most fanatic and worst of them can do – 9/11, primitive Taliban forces, and backwards views toward women. But Islamists have also been driven by a Muslim nationalist zeal, fueled by hostility to past Western political domination and wars brought to their own lands.
Islamists were in a way lucky for a while. Excluded from the system, they could only deliver Islamist critiques but never had to shoulder the burden of office, the responsibility to make things work.
That has all changed. Islamists are being elected into office and will be assuming the daunting policy problems of their neglected societies. The voting public is excited at the change and will give them a grace period to start improving things. But that period will be limited. Islamists can’t go on winning elections on the basis of pious religious slogans or even anti-Westernism (assuming the West is no longer there with boots on the ground).
Islamists, too, will eventually be chucked out of office if they can’t deliver the goods. And they know it. They will have to make hard policy decisions on complex issues – or they too will soon lose their hard-acquired luster.
In the exhilarating new field of more open Middle Eastern politics, the once oppressed and cornered Islamist spectrum is now opening out, expanding into new space: liberal or conservative, pragmatic or rigid, cautious or bold, skilled or unskilled, politically savvy or not.
We see this spectrum in Tunisia and Egypt today: ultra-conservative Salafis, more moderate Muslim Brothers, a smaller segment of liberal Islamists – all in competition. What’s more, the field is not static. Islamists, now free to play, are evolving rapidly, gaining experience in the face of the hard political and policy decisions ahead of them.
The process has brought some heartening developments. Ultra-orthodox Salafis in Egypt have now surprisingly backed for president the most liberal Islamist candidate in the pack. But should we be surprised? Salafis, too, want to win elections, to back the candidate most likely to win.
Islamists, united by shared years in the dungeons, now differ with each other in the atmosphere of greater political freedom. They are not rejecting, but playing in, the political game. If a pious, well-meaning but isolated bearded sheikh can’t play in the political arena and manage the country, Islamists don’t want to go down with the ideological ship.
In Turkey 10 years ago, a secularized public voted for a party with Islamist roots, the ruling Justice and Development Party, not because it was pious but because it proved it could run municipalities, and it went on to major successes at the national level. It wasn’t about Islam, it was about the economy, services, smart politics. And it has prospered now for over a decade to become a model of what an Islamist party can become.
There are smart and stupid Islamists, competent and incompetent, popular and unpopular. Some will come to office and quickly flail and fail; others will demonstrate vision and management skills. Public demand and expectations will soon sort them out.
Above all, the West must allow these processes to unfold unhindered inside each country. Past Western support to Middle East dictators to “keep the lid on” have cost the West dearly, stirred up deep hostility against it, and have severely retarded the political learning curve of Middle East societies. Will some of them prove failures? For sure.
As the spectrum of Islamist politics widens, there will be periods of chaos, learning, and uncertainty. Look at the excesses of numerous Western countries during the 20th century – Spain, Portugal, Germany, Italy, Russia, Greece, or Japan – and the massive institutional corruption that characterizes so much of Western politics today.
Muslim political behavior in the end is just like that of other groups of people: similar hopes and aspirations, similar angers against oppression, similar hatred of invaders, similar resistance to hegemonic powers. There are no mysteries here. The daily tumultuous unfolding of events shows that Muslim politics are slowly crawling back on the road from the frozen tundra of the autocrats.