Between Freedom and Islamism in the Arab World
Euphoria generally accompanies revolutions – built as it is on the expectations of a better tomorrow. However not all revolutions meet these hopes. The French Revolution of 1789 promised liberty, equality and fraternity but delivered Robespierre and the guillotine. The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution promised a worker’s paradise but delivered Stalin and the gulag. As we watch the breathtaking developments across the Middle East and embrace the cause of freedom for long-suffering Arabs living under kleptocratic regimes, we also need to be aware of the very real danger of these revolutions being hijacked by radical Islamists who seek to impose their own version of authoritarian rule on their hapless citizens whilst at the same time posing a threat to all the free world.
In Tunisia, the cradle of the Jasmine Revolution, Islamist elements are beginning to flex their muscle as they seek to marginalise more liberal elements in the opposition to the Ben-Ali regime. More militant elements have already physically attacked brothels in Tunis as they seek to test the security forces commitment to secularism.
Bahrain’s top opposition cleric, Sheikh Isa Qassim, meanwhile has demanded that sharia law (presumably his version) be implemented in the Gulf state. Anti-American sentiment here has increased with demonstrations outside the US embassy in Manama. Given the fact that this is where the US’ Fifth Fleet is based, this ought to worry Washington. However, there are other developments which Bahrain reflects that should worry the Obama Administration even more. There is a sectarian element to the conflict in Bahrain – with the majority Shiites opposed to the ruling Sunni establishment. This raises the question whether a Shiite victory would also imply a victory for Shiite Iran? Indeed, Iran is already making use of the instability in the Arab world to expand its strategic reach. This, in turn, would have implications for the issue of the Iran nuclear standoff. I believe that a resurgent Iran in a chronically unstable Arab world might well result in yet more limp-wristed responses from the international community. Appeasement as opposed to more assertive measures will be pursued which would only serve to encourage the ayatollah’s further with their hegemonic regional designs.
In Egypt, meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood – always masterful chess players – have begun a campaign to capture control of Egypt’s Islamic institutions. As Barry Rubin noted, if successful, they would have access to vast amounts of financial resources which they could use to slowly capture state power itself. The concomitant rise in religious violence – the attacks on churches and Coptic Christians – should also be a source of concern. The growth of such radicalism, if unchecked, might well be reflected in Egypt’s foreign policy and specifically threaten its peace treaty with Israel.
Perhaps more than any of the previous countries, developments in Libya, are particularly ominous. Whilst Al Qaeda’s role in the current uprisings in Libya is definitely overstated by Gaddafi, the reality is that the eastern regions of the country notably Benghazi, Derna, and Ajdabia which is the core of the opposition to the regime in Tripoli, have also been the areas where much of the Islamist opposition resides. Indeed, this was a concern recently expressed by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Thus there is a real danger that militant Islamists might well piggyback on these uprisings to expand their appeal and recruitment. J. Peter Pham recently noted that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb issued a statement in support of the uprisings against Gadaffi whilst at the same time strengthening its own manpower and operational capabilities. The longer the fighting lasts in Libya, the more it strengthens the Islamists.
It is imperative that the international community acts far more decisively to assist the region away from an Islamist future and towards a future which embraces freedom. Short term measures like a no fly zone in Libya is a must. But other more longer terms measures like proving the compatibility of Islam and democracy also needs to be taken. Here, the world’s largest Muslim country – Indonesia – with a population of over 200 million has a role to play. Having undergone a similar move from authoritarianism to democracy in the 1990s following mass student protests, the country has demonstrated its democratic credentials with consecutive elections held in 1999, 2004 and 2009.