The post-Islamist revolutions

Asef Bayat writes:

How should we make sense of the revolts that have engulfed the Arab world? Some observers see them as postmodern revolutions, diffused and leaderless, with no fixed ideology. Others view them as the next wave of democratic and liberal revolutions. Most commonly, they are described as youth revolutions, since young people played a key role in initiating them. Still others argue that they may be Islamist revolutions and will turn the region into a theocracy resembling Iran. In the United States, this is the position that many Republicans hold. The Iranian hard-liners concur, insisting that the Arab revolts are inspired by Iran’s 1979 Islamic takeover.

Religious factions have been involved in the Arab protests to an extent — al-Nahda has in Tunisia, the Muslim Brotherhood has in Egypt and Syria, and the Islamic opposition has in Yemen, for example. But in truth, the revolutions transcend the Islamist politics that reigned in the region just a few years ago. In a 2008 essay on the future of Islamic revolutions, I suggested that the Iranian experience “may well remain the first and the last Islamic Revolution of our time,” for the “growth of democratic sensibilities and movements [in the Middle East] is likely to push Islamism into the ‘post-Islamist’ course, paving the way for a democratic change in which an inclusive Islam may play a significant role. The outcome may be termed ‘post-Islamist refo-lutions’ [a mix of reforms and revolutions].”

Post-Islamism is not anti-Islamic or secular; a post-Islamist movement dearly upholds religion but also highlights citizens’ rights. It aspires to a pious society within a democratic state. Early examples of such movements include the reform movement in Iran in the late 1990s and the country’s Green Movement today, Indonesia’s Prosperous Justice Party, Egypt’s Hizb al-Wasat, Morocco’s Justice and Development Party (PJD), and Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Each was originally fundamentalist but over time came to critique Islamist excess, its violation of democratic rights, and its use of religion as a tool to sanctify political power. They all eventually opted to work within the democratic state.

The protest movements underlying the current revolutions seem set to follow these earlier post-Islamist experiments. So far, religious rhetoric has been remarkably absent, even though the participants of the Middle East’s many uprisings remain overwhelmingly people of faith. In Tunisia, protesters’ central objective was to establish a democratic government. Rachid al-Ghannouchi, the founder of Tunisia’s main Islamist party — Islamic Nahda — has publicly rejected a Khomeini-style state and has declined to run for president in future elections. Similarly, in Egypt the revolution demanded “change, freedom, and social justice” and was broadly secular. In fact, the major religious groups — Gamaiyya Ansar al-Sunna al-Muhammadiyya, a Salafi movement that controls 500 mosques and scores of schools and associations; al-Azhar, the main establishmentarian Islamic institution; and the Coptic Church did not initially back the revolution. The Muslim Brotherhood’s old guard joined reluctantly and only after being pushed by the group’s younger members.

Libya’s rebel movement and provisional government, the National Council, is composed not of Islamists or al Qaeda members but of a mix of the secular and faithful, including doctors, lawyers, teachers, regime defectors, and activists working to end Muammar al-Gaddafi’s oppression. According to their spokesman, Abdul Hafidh Ghoga, a human rights lawyer, Islamist presence is minimal, since the country’s Islamists were, for the most part, crushed by Qaddafi long ago. And in Yemen and Syria, where protesters are also demanding democracy, there has also been no evidence of a major Islamist presence. In Bahrain, of course, the protests have taken on a sectarian dimension, since the monarchy is Sunni and the population is Shia, but the mainstream opposition still has largely secular demands: an elected government, a free press, the right to establish organizations, and the end to religious discrimination.

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