Spring, fall, what next?
The tales of the Arab Spring and of “democratic revolution in the Middle East” were far from the reality. If it was a sort of revolution, revolutions need not be peaceful democratic transitions; on the contrary, they have always been messy.
Tunisia and Egypt were the best examples, yet it would be more sensible to call them popular uprisings. It is true that people with different political views were united against the Arab dictators, but there was no principled political coalition. That is why, soon after “the glorious Tahrir demonstrations,” Egyptian revolutionaries started to complain that Islamists stole the revolution. In fact, it was Islamists who were the best organized political group with an ideology and popular support, and it was not a surprise that they managed to take power.
After the terrible killing of a U.S. ambassador in Bengazi and atrocities against U.S. and Western diplomatic missions all over Muslim countries in reaction to an anti-Muslim movie by an obscure U.S. citizen, the talk of spring turned into talk of fall. Despite the fact that the violent reactions did not come from “moderate Islamists” but from extreme groups, the so-called moderates did not react against violence as strongly as Westerners expected. On the contrary, it is understood that even the Muslim Brotherhood website in Egypt published two different views on the terrible events; one condemning violence in English, and another one in Arabic celebrating the defense of religion.
In fact, the problem concerning the shattered image of the Arab Spring and “the rise of democracy in the Arab world” does not stem from the hypocrisy of the moderate Islamists. It mostly stems on one hand, from the wishful thinking by the Western supporters of the Arab Spring and on the other hand from the overconfidence of Western powers to manipulate the popular uprisings. Setting aside the terrible case of Libya, finally it becomes clear that the thesis on moderate Islam and the idea of Islamic democracy are highly problematic. Nevertheless, it will be a disaster if such a disappointment provokes another wave of Islamophobia and rise of neo-Orientalist discourses on the incompatibility of Islam and democracy or of new versions of the idea of “the clash of civilizations.”
Shallow understanding of the complexity of politics and society in the Middle East and elsewhere leads to one of two extreme views that either Islam and democracy are incompatible and Islam is a violent religion or Islam and democracy are perfectly compatible and moderate Islamists are the best hope for democracy in Muslim countries. Finally, it is quite misleading to regard Islamism either as an evil ideology which has nothing to do with the true religion or as an unproblematic good ally for democratization.
So far, all versions of Islamism are political ideologies which originated from the idea of reaction against modernism and the West as its predator. As such, all versions are skeptical not only of “Western liberal morals,” as they call it, but also critical of political and social liberalism in general. The root of the problem concerning Islamism is not only the socio-economic problems of Muslim countries, nor it is only a matter of religious sensitivity, the problem is also a matter of encountering liberal democratic values.