In the wake of the Arab Spring, Islamists have flexed their muscles in countries as far apart as Morocco, Palestine and Yemen, and won handily at the polls in Egypt and Tunisia. Of the 22 legal political parties in Algeria, six are Islamist, and Islamists make up the most influential opposition force in Jordan. And in a remarkable display of prowess that would have seemed unthinkable a mere 12 months ago, the Muslim Brotherhood, in its guise as the Freedom and Justice Party, has secured in post-revolutionary Egypt the most seats in the country’s parliamentary elections. And last Monday, with the clear mandate they had gained at the polls, their parliament speaker, Mohammad Sa’ad Katatni, opened the inaugural session of the lower house of parliament.
Even in Syria, where the irrelevant phantasm of Baathism — an ageing concoction of pan-Arabist and Euro-nationalist ideology dreamed up by a Levantine secularist in 1940 — has retained its grip on government, the power of Islamists, albeit so far underground, is evident. There is not, in other words, a single country in the Arab world that does not have an Islamist vanguard.
These folks, as we speak, are preparing to play a dominant role in drafting new constitutions in their countries reflecting the new ideology of hope engendered by the Arab awakening, a movement that seeks to define a citizen’s right to live freely and independently not as a luxury but as a rigorous need. That indeed would be, well, yes, a revolutionary transformation for societies that, since independence well over six decades ago, have been broken in back and spirit, and whose people had for generations been socialised on an ethic of fear, defeat and despair. And it looks like the Islamists will be the agents of that transformation.
How do we explain this phenomenon, then, and what does it portend for the future?
To be sure, the Islamist revival in the Arab world may have begun, should we assume a point of departure for it, as far back as 1967, in the wake of the devastating military defeat of the June War, when Arabs collectively felt betrayed by the hodge-podge of secular ideologies they had put their trust in throughout the first three quarters of the 20th century, ideologies like Nasserism and Baathism, Communism and Greater Syria nationalism, socialism and pan-Arabism, that now were exposed as having been hollow and meaningless, essentially worthless imports from the West. As a massive silence descended upon Arabs at the time, which became a kind of rhetoric in its way, it seemed that there was no better ideology to turn to than the one that had grown out of the very bosom of their own culture — Islam.
Understandably, the activists who pioneered the Islamist movement, at the least in countries in the Levant and the Maghreb, were born again Islamists, originally secular ideologues who had turned to Islam after their secular ideologies began to appear impotent and irrelevant. These activists’ mass appeal became evident, even in traditionally secular societies such as Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Jordan, after they buttressed their vision with intimate responsiveness to peoples’ discontent with, disdain for and alienation from the ruling elite. And, above all, to peoples’ everyday, pedestrian needs.
When Uncle Ahmad, for example, the name we give the common impoverished Arab in these countries, needed a good school, a reliable clinic, a warm coat, adequate food and a summer camp for his kids, he did not turn to corrupt officials, who cared little about him in the first place, to address these needs. He turned instead to the mosque, seeking representatives of the Islamist group nearest him who he knew, from observing their modest life-style and moral rectitude, were above reproach. And a strong affinity inevitably developed between care-giver and the common man. The latter remembered all that when he went to cast his vote.
Truth be told, this state of affairs is characteristic of all deprived societies in which authority had callously turned its back on its people. In other words, when the state becomes corrupt and ineffectual, when it demonstrates its unwillingness to meet ordinary folks’ needs, civil society will in time establish an alternative order within the state, a shadow state, if you will.
All of which reminds us of the first scene in Godfather I.
Godfather I relevant to our theme here? Yes, very much so, I say. In that scene in Godfather I, an iconic film in American cinematic art, Amerigo Bonasera, a lowly mortician from New York’s Little Italy, fills the screen as he despairingly tells Don Corleone: “I believe in America, but ...” The Italian immigrant believed in America, but its justice system had failed him miserably. His daughter’s honour had been violated by two local boys who — after being apprehended and brought to court to stand trial — were acquitted on a technicality. To rub salt into his wounds, the boys even snickered at him as they walked out, free men. He wanted justice, and he wanted the Godfather to mete it out.
There is a zoom-out on the Don, played by the indomitable Marlon Brando, head of the Cosa Nostra Corleone family, who responds reproachfully in one of the most textually telling lines in the film: “Why didn’t you come to me first?”
Bonasera should have known better than to go to the authorities in the first place. Italian immigrants at the time, in the 1940s, were still anchored in their Sicilian culture and its norms: to settle a dispute or to right a wrong committed against you, you did not turn to the cops, who were corrupt and uncaring, but to that network of local Cosa Nostra chiefs who knew how to take care of their own. That is how it was in Italy in those days, and Italian immigrants brought that tradition with them to the New World. Cosa Nostra was born at the same time as the modern Italian state in the late 19th century, a weak state that could not, or would not, protect its citizens and guarantee them jobs and services, let alone social justice.
That’s also how it was, as well, before civil rights acts were legislated in the US, for African-Americans, who often turned to their church leaders because there was no one else to turn to for representation of their political and civil rights. And that’s how it was for Iranians, on the eve of the 1979 revolution, who had turned to their mosques to seek equity because the state had prevented them from, or punished them for, agitating for what was due to them.
Guess what? There are times when that shadow state, probably by fiat of the imagination inherent in history, comes to power. And when that shadow state itself becomes the state, you have to talk to it. No two ways about it. When you don’t, as the US did not in 2006 after Hamas became the ascendant authority, everybody ends up paying a heavy price in human suffering so that Washington will sustain a dysfunctional political system rejected by its people in fair, free and open elections.
Today Islamists are all over the place, all over the Arab world, poised to pre-empt and then define their societies’ tomorrow. And what the devil whimsical foreign policy will the US pursue then? Stay tuned.
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.