An upside of Arab revolts: Islamists talk democracy

Egypt opened the way for new dialogue between Islamists and secularists. That could foster Muslim democracies.

Carsten Koall/Getty Images
Women participated in a rally at Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Feb. 22. Some analysts see the national conversation in Egypt since the overthrow of its authoritarian government as an opening for broad reforms in the Arab world.

Egypt's Tahrir Square revolution is leapfrogging across the Arab world, opening a landscape of new possibilities in the Middle East.

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."

Gasim is right when he points out that people's sights are now set higher. But once the nitty-gritty of creating transitional governments begins, the national conversations that ensue are likely to be messy and lengthy.

The religious nature of most Arab societies means that if concepts endorsed by secularists such as democracy, human rights, and constitution are going to become widely accepted, they will have to be articulated in a way to be seen as compatible with Islam. On the other hand, Islamists have to recognize that individual rights are universal, not a Western import, and that these rights need legal protections.

As a Riyadh-based diplomat puts it, Islamists may have to come around to the idea that "individuals have a political voice simply because they are humans, not because they are good Muslims."

"It's growing, this idea of freedom and democracy [expressed] in Islamist terms," says Mohammed al-Hodaif, a conservative religious writer in Riyadh. He points to recent comments from Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a spiritual leader for Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood who attracted hundreds of thousands of Egyptians when he returned home after the fall of former president Hosni Mubarak.

In a recent interview on Al Jazeera, Mr. Qaradawi said that "preserving the people's freedom is more important than setting up a system of sharia [Islamic law], even though freedom remains part and parcel of sharia."

Facebook generation more flexible

Younger Islamists are positioned to take a lead role in bridging the historical divide with secularists. They appear to be more discerning than in the past, says Mr. Hodaif. They distinguish, for example, between secularism in the United States, where it is not antireligion, and in places like Tunisia or Egypt, where the old regimes oppressed Islamists.

"The Facebook generation is having a happy medium between the two. It has no problem with the two ideas. They are flexible," says an Arab diplomat in Riyadh, calling the Islamist-secularist disconnect a thing of the past. "They like aspects of Islam and they like aspects of democracy.... It's not the end of Islamism. It's the beginning of a new wave of Islamism.... This generation has its own ideas and experiences, which are not related to the problems of the past."

His observation is reflected in the generational divide already apparent within the Muslim Brotherhood itself, whose younger generation of activists is more open and willing to cooperate with their secular peers than their elders are.

Olivier Roy, a French scholar and author of "Secularism Confronts Islam," calls these young, politically attuned Muslims "a post-Islamist generation." They have seen the failure of Islamist states in Iran and Sudan, and are not eager for the restrictions on their freedom that come with life in an Islamist state like Saudi Arabia.

The Tahrir experience forged a bond that should make it easier for Islamists and secularists to talk, says Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Essam al-Erian. "They lived together 18 days, or more than two weeks, facing the danger of death … living, sleeping, talking to each other.... I think this brings them closer together."

Mr. Erian says that "a moderate interpretation of secularism, which is not against religion, not against morality, not against Islamists" is acceptable "so we can have common goals, common values that can be making tolerance in the society."

Right now, he adds, the Brotherhood's main goal is to work toward "a democratic civil state, a new constitution, a multiparty system, rotation of power, a president who is not a pharaoh but who is an ordinary man ... because we believe, as you know, that Islam is compatible with 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.

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