It is indeed the Islamic Spring (but don’t panic)

It is indeed the Islamic Spring (but don’t panic)

Some commentators argue these days that the much-celebrated Arab Spring is turning out to be an “Islamic Spring.” For as they point out, Islamist parties have won the ballots in Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt. It is very safe to expect similar results in Libya, and, once the tyranny of Bashar al-Assad and his fellow thugs hopefully falls, in Syria. A more democratic Arab world, it seems, will also be a more Islamic one.

Of course, for some people, this is bad news, if not a nightmare. I beg to differ, though, and rather suggest a cautious optimism. 

Here is my first reason: Those who fear that incumbent Islamists will be “radical” – in the sense of waging terrorist campaigns under the banner of “jihad” – are missing the whole point: In the recent past, some of the Islamist parties in question indeed had some violent offshoots, but this was simply because that they were suppressed by the secular dictatorships that are falling in the Arab Spring. (Even then, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Ennahda in Tunisia never endorsed terrorism.) Incumbency is most likely to be a reason for the further moderation of these parties, not their radicalization.

As a good omen, just look at the latest news from Hamas, which is basically the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. A spokesman for the party’s Gaza-based prime minister, Ismail Haniya, said last weekend that they would be “shifting their emphasis from armed struggle to non-violent resistance.” He added that all Palestinian factions operating in the Gaza Strip have agreed to halt the firing of rockets and mortars into Israel.

Let’s move on to the second concern, which is more valid than the one relating to radicalism: The fear that incumbent Islamists will impose “Islamic law,” which can be bad news for Christians, women or secular Arabs. 

I grant that there is a risk here, and that’s why I have been pointing out to the trouble with illiberal democracy. But we should see that the approach to Islamic law is not the same with all Islamist parties. If the ultra-literalist and ultra-conservative Al-Nour Party realizes its vision for Egypt, for example, you can indeed expect some “medieval” rules and standards. But the Muslim Brotherhood is more pragmatic, and is speaking about “the intentions of Islamic law,” which creates room for great flexibility.

Here again, the effect of incumbency is something that should be seen as a moderating factor. When parties such as Ennahda or the Freedom and Justice Party (the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood) form a government, the number-one public expectation they will face will be boosting the economy and creating new jobs. They will not be able to do that by banning alcohol (and thus killing tourism) or imposing “Islamic banking” (and thus irritating foreign capital). Unlike Iran and Saudi Arabia, they don’t have rich oil resources to finance their political zeal or religious puritanism. So they will have to be pragmatic.

I am speaking out of experience, for the moderation and pragmatization of the Turkish Islamist movement, which ultimately culminated in the Justice and Development Party of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has been no different. In the early 1990s, the vision of Erdoğan and his comrades were not too different than today’s Muslim Brotherhood. But the experience they had in the municipalities they won and ran in the 1990s taught them a lot. 

And even if the incumbent Arab Islamists take some ultra-conservative steps, such as some restrictions on social life, they should be allowed to do that and see its consequences. Let’s do not forget that alcohol was prohibited in nowhere other than the all-liberal United States less than a century ago. Muslim societies need to make their own mistakes and infer their own lessons, too.