Political Islam in North Africa: dialogues with the willing optimist

Political Islam in North Africa: dialogues with the willing optimist

After Turkey, your willing optimist has found a new geography where he does cheer up over the rise of political Islam, hoping that the absurd experiment to reconcile Islamism (not Islam) with secular democracy and Western-style civil liberties is about to triumph – well, after a thousand or so attempts in the last century. This has become an industry.

Fancy words galore, too, such as overshadowing impressive tags like “post-modern Islamism,” which had once been deemed appropriate for the Turkish experiment. These days, we have, believe it or not, the “moderate Islamic radicals” and “Islamist democrats.” Be prepared for new entries like “terrorists for peace” and “democratic shariah.”

Unsurprisingly, your willing optimist is taking the rise of North African political Islam in good faith, like he had taken the rise of Turkish political Islam. Expectedly, the winner of the first free and fair elections in Tunisia is the Ennahda, which descends from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and which, for decades, had maintained the slogan “Islam is the solution!” That is, according to your willing optimist, a merry shift from ideological Islam to civic Islam. Let’s drink (orange juice) to that!

How can democracy, not just democratic elections, coexist with Islamic law? Ennahda’s leader Rached Ghannouchi said Islam and democracy are not mutually exclusive. Most probably. But are political Islam and democracy not mutually exclusive either? Mr. Ghannouchi is seeking reconciliation between Islam and modernity – so he says. Two wives instead of four? Mr. Ghannouchi is inspired by the Scandinavian socioeconomic model – so he says. Dissidents being carried into prison cells in Volvos?

Speaking of divine laws aspiring to modern laws, how can dissidents contest a law that the ruling class attributes to God? Remember the Tunisian Salafists who bombed the house of the owner of a television station because the station had aired the animated feature “Persepolis?” Oh, they will evolve and learn the virtues of democracy and give up violence. Will Mr. Ghannouchi, always keen on mentioning equal gender rights, amend legislation that, based on Quranic commandments, discriminates against women in inheritance rights? At least he wants to. And besides, the liberal Mr. Ghannouchi has firmly stated he will not enforce the veil. How very sweet of him.

Meanwhile, in Libya, National Transitional Council Chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil pledged “to adopt the Islamic shariah as the main source of law.” But he said that only to appease the Islamists. He had also reassured the West that his religious views were moderate. Moderate, yes… No cutting off the hands of thieves or stoning adulterers. Very generous of Mr. Jalil.

But there may be limits to how banks charge interest and an end to Gadhafi-era restrictions on male polygamy. Never mind, Libyan Ambassador to Washington Ali Suleiman Aujali relieved the democratic world when he said, “Shariah law, Islamic law, it is not against democracy.” Oh, that’s fabulous news! Now I understand why hundreds of thousands of al-Nour Party supporters in Cairo in recent months were chanting “Shariah State Now!” You want democracy? Have some shariah law. They are not mutually exclusive. But don’t tell this to an Egyptian Copt.

About a month ago, speaking strictly of the Turkish experiment, Stephen Kinzer, professor from Boston University’s Department of International Relations and the author of the book “Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds,” asked a very legitimate question: “Are we trading one form of authoritarianism directed by the military for another form directed by elected leaders?”

Isn’t it too late to ask questions of no importance as such?