Muslim Election Implications

A few posts ago I predicted, along with others, a coming Muslim empire in the Middle East. The early signs are pretty supportive of this prediction. I don’t want to be naïve and appear as if Islam will play no role in governing Middle East countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, or Libya. Islam is a significant cultural category in this area of the world and responsible for the identity of many of the citizens. But even at the risk of sounding alarmist we need to keep our eye on the triumph of Islam in the political process of many states.

We are supposed to be seeing the beginning of democracies in places like Tunisia and Egypt, but such a transition is by no means assured given the results of elections. In Tunisia the Islamist party, Nahda, may present itself as a roadblock to Tunisia’s recently gained freedoms. We might expect Tunisia’s largest Islamic political party to do well in an election, but it still raises worries about the future and whether or not the modern and secular Tunisia will remain that way.

There are instances of Nahda’s founder insisting that the rights of women and others would be respected but then appealing to more religiously conservative members of the electorate. The party is a relative of the Muslim brotherhood with the documented message of radicalism that sometimes contradicts the moderate message.

We are beginning to see a trend in the discourse emerging from many media and academic critics that condemns any declarations of Islam as extremist. It’s becoming the case that if one expresses fear of revolutionary Islam, they’re accused of alarmism at the least and fear mongering at the worst. And even though I do not want to contribute to either, we are seeing the beginning of the Muslim empire I have referred to and the conditions for slipping into revolutionary Islam are delicate. It is the dominant ideology in Tunisia, Iran, Egypt, and Libya, and cannot help but find its way into the political system. There are three interesting links between Islamists and their success in the coming Muslim majority.

The first was a failure of Arab nationalism. When the military took over Egypt in the early 1950s there was the possibility that nationalism would govern as the dominant political ideology in the region. But after economic failures, war losses, and general threats to their identity the nationalist failed to convince a population that they had anything to offer. Waiting patiently in the wings was the Muslim Brotherhood.

Political skill and manipulation, almost in the tradition of American electoral campaigns, is a second reason for the rise of Islam. Increasingly, political leaders express messages of modernity and moderation but behave more extremely. One Muslim brotherhood leader stated that he was more interested in elections than the work of bin Laden because elections were easily winnable. The brotherhood has learned the public relations methods of the West and this has resulted in their claims as victims and oppressed by imperialism, racism, religious intolerance, and Zionism. Note the sympathetic stance toward Palestinians and international condemnation of Israel – a strong democracy trying to defend itself.

And third, American confusions and misplaced international policies have too often humiliated and misunderstood Islamist groups. Even given the oft cited number of times we have defended Muslims (Bosnia, Kuwait, attempts to rid Iraq of oppressive leaders) the US and Western powers have failed to make the case.

There is a tide. The once banned resistance party in Tunisia, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and The National Transitional Council in Libya have all declared support for Shariah law. Perhaps some of these religious campaign strategies are designed to appeal to an electorate and will moderate in the future. Tunisia is an excellent test case. It is far more impressive democratically and economically than many other states. It has a high rate of female literacy and a strong national identity. It was the first to overthrow an autocratic leader and demand democratic rights. Let’s hope that the election of an Islamist political party does not roll back the progress made by Tunisians.

About Donald Ellis

Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on November 9, 2011, in Democracy. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Muslim Election Implications.

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