Islamic Awakening: Review of Political Developments in Tunisia and Egypt

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Gholamali Khoshroo
Senior Editor of the Encyclopedia of Contemporary Islam

Social and political movements which started ten months ago in Tunisia before engulfing the most important Arab country, Egypt, have been both amazing and quite unprecedented in the Arab world. This great social phenomenon cannot be understood and analyzed unless in the context of economic, social and political situation of these countries. Various analysts have studied these developments by considering a certain set of factors and adopting them as the basis of their analyses. While one group lays the highest emphasis on economic factors, others attach the highest significance to political factors. Another group still considers social and cultural issues as the main reason behind widespread dissent and social unrest. A better approach, however, seems to be taking a collection of these factors into account through a more broad-based approach as follows:

- Presence of unelected, dictatorial regimes based on suppression and fear;

- Domination of regimes with cordial relations to the West and aligned with the policies of the United States and Israel, especially in the region;

- Organized and extensive suppression of the Islamist currents under such excuses as fighting terrorism, extremism and violence;

- Opposition to presence of religion in social and political areas and pursuit of secular goals through an authoritarian policy;

- A dependent economic system marked with widespread unemployment, poverty and underdevelopment;

- Injustice, discrimination and humiliation of people;

- Widespread corruption, especially among the top government levels;

- Promotion of imported Western culture.

Countries in the Middle East have traditional societies in which Islam plays a prominent role in everyday life of people. Islam not only delineates the relationship between the person and the Creator, but also strengthens a person’s relations to the society and, as such, acts as a very important factor in imparting identity to people. A collective religious identity is, thus, the most prominent common denominator of people in these countries. Religion is not limited to heartfelt beliefs of people, but it creates a sense of attachment and belonging to the society.

This form of solidarity, which is usually manifest in its traditional form in daily religious gatherings, gradually gives birth to an effective system of social life by taking advantage of modern institutions. Such institutions include charities which provide a wide range of services and social activities, including in the areas of health, education, public services and aiding the poor.

Although Islamist groups in North African and the Middle East have been systematically suppressed for political reasons during the past few decades, they have been able to survive through other means such as charity activities. Islamists in Tunisia and Egypt were restricted for four decades under such labels as reactionary, extremist, and terrorist. Creating fear and skepticism about political ideals and demands of Islamist elements and making people suspicious about their ultimate goals, had actually pushed them out of the area of public politics into virtual imprisonment, exile and isolation.

Similar conditions governed the pre-revolutionary Iran. The imperial regime was a close ally of both the United States and Israel, pursued Western policies, relied on imported cultural methods, and was skeptical toward all kinds of religious activities. The repressive regime did its best to cover up the widespread corruption in the society while introducing Islam as reactionary. Despite its authoritarian nature, the regime had big claims to development and civilization. The Pahlavi regime labeled every opposition and even well-wishing advisors as being affiliated with the Communists, lackey of the Soviet Union, or “black reactionaries” which were harshly repressed. That regime could not understand that there was a limit to capacity of the Muslim Iranian nation for putting up with pressure, repression and disrespect for their religious symbols. They ignored the fact that the day when people entered social activities on the basis of divine ideas of Islam, would be the last day of the regime. The people of Iran, then, staged their surprising and great revolution through peaceful means by carrying out street protests, strikes and through social unity which was brought to them as a result of the leadership of late Imam Khomeini.

That Islamic Revolution changed the balance of regional power to the detriment of the United States and the West and led to increased resistance to Western-oriented and repressive regimes. After the Islamic Revolution, the United States and the West decided to further strengthen dependent regimes in the region due to heavy blows which had been dealt to them by the Iranian revolution. As a result, they tried to suppress any form of opposition to dictatorship and authoritarianism under the pretext of fighting Islamist tendencies which were allegedly inspired by Iran.

Rashid al-Ghannushi, the leader and co-founder of Tunisia’s Ennahda Movement, was sent to prison many times on charges that he supported the Islamic Revolution in Iran and was an agent of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He barely evaded a death sentence by hanging and was then sent into exile. All kinds of Islamist activities were, likewise, suppressed in Egypt. Former President Hosni Mubarak’s regime tried to strengthen relations with the West and opposed all forms of freedom-seeking and Islamist tendencies. In most cases, he pointed an incriminating finger at Iran. This obsolete tactic is now in use in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.

What we currently see in Tunisia and Egypt is manifestation of people’s freedom seeking sentiments as opposed to dictatorships. Islamist tendencies of these countries’ peoples stand in contrast to imported policies as well as past violent methods used to deal with the religious culture and tradition. People’s justice-seeking spirit is at odds with corruption, discrimination, and poverty. At present, the political branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, called “Freedom and Justice Party,” is completely active. The name itself denotes that the Islamist figures consider freedom and justice as two missing virtues of the present society of Egypt.

Today, Islamist politicians have not come back to infuse the society with Islam by force, but they are fighting security and political barriers which have already restricted and isolated Muslims. Islamist figures in Egypt and Tunisia say they are going to remove all barriers on the way of inviting people to Islam. Then they will let people to choose on their own free will. They pursue to promote a compassionate lifestyle free from corruption, discrimination and repression and let people choose the correct path. They fight Islamophobia because it has been used as an excuse to muffle the voice of many Islamist movements. They also introduce Islam as an important source of lawmaking. At last, it is for people to make a decision about their lifestyle and their rulers by taking part in free elections. Freedom and democracy, they say, are not incompatible with Islam, but will benefit Muslims.

All told, the Islamic awakening is the best interpretation for the ongoing developments in the Muslim world. The Islamic awakening is rooted in the Prophet Mohammad’s (PBUH) Sunna and is based on people’s votes. Islam has shaped lifestyle and traditions of Muslims for the past 1,400 years and has been foundation of their faith and action. Islam has been mingled with souls of people in the Middle East and North Africa and is not an imported element to be isolated by creating false phobia about it. Now, regional nations are retrieving their original identity by toppling dictatorships which are dependent on the West. As an alternative to dictatorial methods of their rulers, people have chosen for freedom and democracy and have opted for Islamic values and pure human nature as alternative to such government’s Westernized and Islamophobic methods. Therefore, a new form of religious democracy is taking shape in these countries in proportion to specific conditions in each country.

Today, Islam is not just an abstract concept in countries to just propose mottos to people and then stand aside. Attention to elements of time and place and due consideration for economic, political, and cultural conditions in the society, are necessary to tackle the existing challenges. Major challenges facing the Islamist figures is their loyalty to people’s role and votes, on the one hand, and attention to religious values, on the other hand. The confrontation between secularism and Islamism is also a major challenge. It should be made clear to what extent Islam is compatible with democratic values. Are the Islamist politicians simply seeking to obtain power through democratic means, or will they be also willing to cede power through a similar democratic process. The minorities’ rights, basic liberties, human rights, and especially women’s rights are other stumbling blocks on the path of the Islamist politicians.

A difficult task in post-revolution societies is to fight off extremism and prevent sectarianism as well as religious and tribal differences. Stability, independence and integrity of no country can be easily guaranteed. Iraq has not been able yet to get rid of terrorist operations which have claimed the lives of thousands of innocent people and destroyed a major part of the country’s economic and social infrastructures. Foreign intervention as well as international and regional pressures should not dissuade Islamists in their pursuit of justice- and freedom-seeking goals. Therefore, the Islamists should get prepared for both scientific and practical jihads if they really want to be successful in the management of a democratic and Islamic society by promoting updated knowledge and insight.

More By Gholamali Khoshroo

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