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'Arab Spring' breeze changes Islamists too

ISTANBUL- Hürriyet Daily News | 10/3/2011 12:00:00 AM |

Islamic movements are softening their tone to avoid scaring offpotential voters, with many pointing to Turkey and PM Erdoğan’s ‘neo-laicism' as a model

Emerging into the open following the overthrow of authoritarian regimes throughout the Arab world, Islamic movements are now wrestling with the idea of how to apply Islamic precepts to societies that are demanding democracy as one of the fruits of the Arab Spring.

Many such movements, such as the Tunisian Islamist Ennahda Party, are preaching a moderate line in an effort to avoid scaring off parts of society that are wary of parties with Muslim roots.

“We are not cut off from our environment ... All the values of democracy and modernity are respected by Ennahda. We are a party that can find a balance between modernity and Islam,” Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the Ennahda Party, said in a recent interview with Reuters.

Western powers and governments in other Arab states are watching Tunisia’s election closely, worried that democratically elected Islamists might impose strict Islamic law and turn their back on Western allies. But Ghannouchi, who returned to Tunisia from exile in Britain after Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s fall, said Western countries and Tunisian liberals had nothing to fear from a victory for his Ennahda party.

Two issues in particular, women’s equality and liberal moral attitudes, are seen by many Tunisians as a litmus test of how tolerant Ennahda will be if it gains power.

Ghannouchi’s remarks offering a more mild form of Islam came on the same day that the former leader of the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood said he wanted a “democratic” Syria, not an Islamic state to replace the regime of embattled President Bashar al-Assad, Agence France-Presse reported.

“We support the establishment of a modern, civil, democratic state,” Ali al-Bayanouni told a conference organized by the Brookings Doha center in the Qatari capital.

Before the Arab Spring hit countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, their strongman leaders defended themselves for years as the bulwark preventing their countries from sliding into Islamist hands – an approach which helped them secure baking from Washington and other Western powers wary that their countries could turn into another Iran.

Western powers, however, soon began to support the uprisings and the emergence of a new Arab world. The topic is now dominating talk in Western capitals so much that the European Council’s Parliamentarian Assembly put the Arab Spring at the top of its agenda Monday.

NATO, too, is planning to devote greater attention to the subject, announcing a special summit on the spring on May 21-22 in Chicago.

Indeed, amid growing indications that some in the West are ready to work with the Islamists, one U.S. governmental source said Washington had had limited but direct talks with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and was open to working with them.

Turkey an inspiration

Many in the region are pointing toward Turkey as a model for the Islamist parties in the region. Last month, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party, or AKP, is seen as a trailblazer by many Islamists in the region, staged a tour of the three North African Arab Spring states. Striking a moderate chord, Erdoğan emphasized the concept of “neo-laicism,” noting that while individuals could be religious, states should remain secular.

The comments were controversial among some older members of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, but his comments were well-received elsewhere by a new generation of pious Muslims who are eager to pursue religious-based politics within a democratic, tolerant and secularist framework.

Ultimately, Islamist leaders in the region are keen to stress the varieties of Islam that could be used as a political model.

“If the Islamic spectrum goes from [assassinated al-Qaeda leader Osama] bin Laden to Erdoğan, which of them is Islam?” Ghannouchi asked in a recent debate with a secular critic. “Why are we put in the same place as a model that is far from our thought, like the Taliban or the Saudi model, while there are other successful Islamic models that are close to us, like the Turkish, the Malaysian and the Indonesian models, models that combine Islam and modernity?”

In the end, even the hard-line Saudi model appears to be bending under the weight of the Arab Spring. Last week, King Abdullah decreed that women would be able to participate for the first time in the next local elections in 2015, a measure likely aimed at heading off Arab dissent in the kingdom. The same week he has also overturned a court ruling sentencing a Saudi woman to be lashed 10 times for defying the kingdom’s ban on female drivers.

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