A Discussion on Political Islam

Recently, The Bookshop at The American Colony Hotel hosted a discussion with the Spanish Consul General in Jerusalem Juan Jose Escobar Stemmann and Spanish journalist Javier Martin Rodriguez entitled “Arab Revolution and Islamic Activism”. In this discussion, both men presented their views on the current state of affairs in the Middle East in the aftermath of the Arab Spring and the past and continued role that Islamic Activism had, will have, and should have in the politics of the region.

Islamic Activism Explained in Threes

Stemmann began with a brief history of Islamic activism. According to Stemmann, there have been three main waves of Islamization. The first began in the 1980s, when a series of popular protests for political liberalization broke out in many of the large, oil-producing nations of the Middle East. In the midst of this turmoil and political instability, Islamists first established themselves as a political force. The second wave of Islamic activism came in 2004, due to antipathy toward American interventionist policies in the Middle East, and led to the establishment and further strengthening of Islamist governments, such as with the election of Hamas in Gaza. The third wave of Islamic activism followed the Arab Spring.

In all of these situations, according to Stemmann, there was first a call for political liberalization or change coming from the grassroots, which Islamic activists took advantage of in order to establish themselves within the political arena. However, following their political takeover, these newly established governments would often act in a way that was not in the spirit of the call for liberalization, nor in the best interest of their populace. In this way, Stemmann saw Islamic activism as in opposition to liberal notions of political rule.

Stemmann divided Islamic activism into three types: Political Islam, Religious Activism and Jihadi Activism. Political Islam promotes the establishment of a state of Islamic character based on the traditions and teachings of Islam; it prioritizes political, non-violent actions as a means to achieve its aims and only advocates violence in the case of occupation. Religious Activism rejects political activism and focuses on preaching faith and sustaining moral order. Jihadi Activism advocates the use of violent means to entrench Islamic power throughout the land. In this way, not all Islamist governments are the same, as each government usually ascribes to one of these three types, and thus when discussing Islamism, one must take the nuance of the specific Islamist movement into account.

The Three Sectors of Middle Eastern Governance and their Contribution to Democracy

Stemmann also determined that there are three main political forces fighting for power in Middle Eastern countries: Islamists, the secular establishment and the security establishment. These three groups, according to Stemmann, rarely, if ever, work together. In such a polarized, divided society, fair rule is rendered impossible. Stemman found that Islamists often preach an ideology to which the masses are drawn, but are often neither capable nor willing to follow through. The secular establishment, similarly, acts as if it supports democracy, as this is a good way to get the vote, but upon being elected, often begins to act in ways far from democratic. The security establishment, on the other hand, is blatantly militant, not even pretending to be otherwise. Stemmann argued that, separately, all of these movements are incapable of addressing the demands of the people in these countries, and that it is only through the mutual cooperation of all three of these disparate movements that a democracy could be achieved in the Middle East.

Rodriguez, on the other hand, felt that Political Islam had entirely failed and that the only way for Political Islam to become a successful and democratic political force would be for it to secularize.1 Only with a secular government could a true, Middle Eastern democracy come into being.

Despite this difference of opinion, both held up Tunisia as an example of the Arab Spring gone right—as a reform and revolutionary process that all other Arab states should strive to emulate. Tunisians, through the means of street demonstrations in the winter of 2010-2011, led a successful, non-violent revolution in which they ousted their standing president, held fair and democratic elections and, as of a few weeks ago, became the first Arab country to create a democratic constitution following a popular revolution.

My Analysis of Rodriguez’s Argument and the Possible Good of Islamism

What I felt went unacknowledged in both Stemman’s and Rodriguez’s reading of history was the fact that Tunisia was able to successfully enact the aforementioned democratic reforms under an Islamist government. The majority party elected in Tunisia’s 2011 elections was the Ennahda Movement, a moderate Islamist party, which formed a coalition government with two non-Islamist parties. Additionally, in January, Ennahda Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh announced his willing resignation from his office in order to allow for another round of free and democratic elections following the resolution of the constitutional assembly. This does not seem to fit Rodriguez’s bleak description of Islamist governments as unable to act democratically.

I found Rodriguez’s argument to be overly dismissive of the possible good that Islamist governments could bring to the Middle East, for while he is right in his claim that past Islamist governments have often not succeeded in putting their ideology into action, there is something to say for the fact that in most cases of free elections in Arab states, Islamist parties tend to receive the majority vote. Arab countries want Islamist parties for a reason: the ideology of Islamism is appealing to the majority of the Arab psyche. Thus, rather than demanding that Arab governments secularize, maybe we should better enable Islamists to enact their ideology—the ideology with which most of the populace identifies—under political conditions. In the west, we tend to be fearful of any government or party that chooses to identify as Islamic, but as Stemman mentioned, there is nothing inherently violent in Islamism; only one of the three types of Islamism that Stemman defined is violent. Thus, I find our Western fear of Islamism to be orientialist, racist and unnecessary.

And what about the Palestinians?

What both Stemmann and Rodriguez also failed to mention, despite much prompting during the question and answer session, was the current and future prospects for a democratic state of Palestine. While it is true, as Stemmann mentioned, that the Arab Spring did not touch Palestine, I do not believe that this demonstrates a lack of desire within Palestinian society for governmental reform or democratization. It is nearly impossible for a people to fight for internal reforms within their own “nation” when those people do not, as of yet, truly have that nation, and are instead being militarily occupied by an outside party. I believe that the occupation must first end and the Palestinians be granted full autonomy before one can criticize them for not democratizing. Perhaps an end to the occupation and the granting of full autonomy to the Palestinians—a right they have never before in history been awarded—would allow Palestine to establish itself as the first constitutional democracy in the Middle East.

1 What does it mean for a religious movement to secularize? Is this a contradiction in terms, and is it possible?