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Middle East Roundtable

A post-Islamist age?
by Emmanuel Sivan

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We are already in a post-Islamist age, or so argue many analysts, mostly American and French. For Radical Islam, they claim, is on the wane all over the Muslim world, al Qaeda being just a final (but doomed) explosion of those revolutionary energies which have created so much havoc in the last three decades. In a way, they have a point, provided one considers only the Jihadi aspect of that broad socio-cultural and political movement that is Radical Islam.

Yet if one looks at the movement as a whole--made up of a plethora of groups, more or less structured, loosely coordinated and often overlapping--one perceives that it is still vigorous and exercises a lot of influence in various Muslim societies.

The greatest feat of Radical Islam is its sheer survival despite decades of ferocious state repression. It has, at the same time, made tremendous inroads into the hearts and minds of Muslim believers. Already by the 1970s the militant Islamic discourse, with its inbred suspicion of "imported" modernity, that "new apostasy", began to dominate the public sphere. It replaced pan-Arabism and Marxism, and maintains this hegemony to the present day.

Thus it has influenced gender roles, not just in the spread of the veil but also in shaping the attitude of high school educated females who tend to prefer family and child rearing tasks over career and self realization (the latter used to be more popular among this social group in the pre-Islamist era); it bought about an erosion of relations with indigenous Christians (for example, the situation of Copts in Egypt). Governments have succumbed to militant pressure, censoring books, plays and films critical of traditional Islam. The Islamist media--notably in the form of audio and videocassettes--is growing, and religious activism has become the major avenue for venting protest. Young militants engage in grassroots vigilantism against alcohol, pornography and TV satellite dishes, impose Islamic dress codes and monitor the behavior of tourists. Other activists mount court cases and press campaigns against permissive writers and artists, or mobilize mass demonstrations against the rising cost of living, which often succeed in deterring governments from abolishing subsidies for basic foodstuffs and cooking gas. They are practically the only ones to organize mass rallies in favor of introducing a constitution.

This success proceeds, above all, from organizational ability, as manifest in the strength of the voluntary associations fathered by Muslim radicalism. These not only create support and clientele networks for the movement, but also show that Islamic values can be implemented nowadays: in medicine (by clinics staffed by volunteer doctors and nurses), in social welfare (through neighborhood solidarity groups and Muslim, i.e., interest-free, lending associations), etc.

Moreover, the Islamists have a knack for tailoring the message to changing circumstances. Over the last 15 years or so, the message has been the failure of the all-providing nation-state, created by the populist-military regimes as well as by traditional monarchies. The blame is deftly put not at the door of the command economy for dependence on oil revenues, but rather on the moral dissoluteness and the secularism (implicit or explicit) of the powers-that-be.

The inroads of the Islamists are not limited to the lower urban classes, which are the worst hit by the economic policies cutting public expenditures. Islamist associations have sprung up among professional classes, whose high income and sophistication enable them to endeavor to act independently of the state, an unheard-of phenomenon in the 1950s and 1960s, and try to shape decision-making within their professions, and later to stake out a position on wider public issues, e.g., in favor of the immediate application of the Shari'a (Islamic law) or in backing court cases presented by "concerned citizens" against prominent secularist thinkers. The latter have a particularly telling chilling effect on liberals, whose voice has consequently become much weaker in recent years.

Perhaps more important is the osmosis of radical ideas into the conservative religious establishment. The tilt to the right, especially among young clerics, has been evident and is creeping inexorably into the upper ranks, where pressure groups vociferously clamor against changes in the divorce laws, against a ban on female circumcision, for stricter censorship on "public morality" issues and the like.

The difficulty the radicals have in translating social-cultural vigor into political influence is well known. The violent option has been tried time and time again and ended in utter defeat, most recently in the late 1990s. Some participation in the political process is allowed (in Jordan, Morocco, Kuwait, Algeria, Yemen), yet elections are tampered with and those Islamist candidates elected to parliament have seen their role restricted more often than not to mere protesting and posturing.

Participation in governments has usually been short-lived and quite disappointing in terms of policy-making. In other countries (Egypt, Syria, Tunisia) even this paltry political role is unthinkable.

The Islamists do limit, however, the margin of action of the powers-that-be through the deterrent effect of their public protest. Governments think twice before cutting subsidies, amending family status laws, or relaxing censorship on delicate moral topics. Yet the most politically pervasive impact of Radical Islam may be detected among the modern middle class. The latter favors broad human and civil rights and the evolution of a participatory polity. The bourgeoisie is fearful, however, of the rise of Radical Islam, the sole organized force likely to benefit from liberalization. The experience of Islamists in power (Iran, Sudan, Afghanistan) is there for every bourgeois to ponder. They thus have to acquiesce in the harsh regimentation of political life, which was the response of most regimes to the domestic terrorism of the 1990s. They embrace authoritarian regimes for fear of the alternative.

Herein lies the most devastating, long-term effect of Muslim radicalism-slowing down the march towards democracy. It is not the effect the radicals intended, yet the cunning workings of history make it all too real, nevertheless. -Published 31/7/03©bitterlemons-international.org

Emmanuel Sivan teaches Islamic History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Among his many publications are Radical Islam (Yale UP, 1990), Mythes Politiques Arabes (Paris, Fayard, 1995) and Strong Religion (Chicago UP, 2003).

Bitterlemons-international.org is an internet forum for an array of world perspectives on the Middle East and its specific concerns. It aspires to engender greater understanding about the Middle East region and open a new common space for world thinkers and political leaders to present their viewpoints and initiatives on the region. Editors Ghassan Khatib and Yossi Alpher can be reached at ghassan@bitterlemons-international.org and yossi@bitterlemons-international.org, respectively.

hagalil.com 05-08-2003



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