The future of the Arab Spring

2011-12-07 11:35

Hussein Solomon

Faced with repressive rule by autocrats backed by the armed forces it is understandable when ordinary Tunisians, Egyptians or Libyans rise up against such a regime.

It is also understandable when these citizens, given the right to exercise their vote in a free electoral system, choose to vote Islamists to power. The Islamists, too, bore the brunt of the brutal repression of the previous regime. Whilst these autocrats plundered state coffers and remained unresponsive to the needs of their citizens, Islamists were providing food, medical care, education and shelter to the poor and disenfranchised. 

No surprise

It should, therefore, come as no surprise that Tunisia’s Islamists secured 40% of the votes cast. In Egypt, the scene is set for a bigger landslide victory for Islamists parties. In preliminary electoral results from 9 out of Egypt’s 27 governorates, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party secured 36.6% of the votes cast whilst the hardline Salafist Al Nour secured 24.4%.

By comparison moderate and liberal parties performed poorly with the Egyptian bloc securing 13.4%, the al-Wafd 7.1% and the al-Wasat a measly 4.3% of the votes cast. There is no indication to suggest that the Islamist juggernaut will lose momentum in the elections in the remaining 18 governorates.

These Islamist parties, however, need to be made aware of an important fact - that sympathy on the basis of previous repression and gratitude for charity work done in communities does not translate into voters buying into every aspect of their agenda.

Indeed voter turnout in Egypt was only 52% - a very low figure considering this was the country’s first truly free and fair poll. The relatively low voter turnout also suggests popular voter disillusionment with the choices on offer.

What is needed

Societies such as Tunisia and Egypt emerging from corrupt authoritarian rule need healing, reconciliation and the need to reach out to the proverbial other. They do not need more fractures undermining the cohesion of their respective societies.

This is a lesson which the Islamists have unfortunately not learned.

In Tunisia, Islamists have clashed with secular students demanding an end to mixed-sex classrooms at universities and compelling female students to wear the niqab or full-face veil. In Egypt, assaults on Coptic Christians and attacks on their places of worship have become tragically routine.

For pessimists, the point gleaned from this is depressingly familiar: political Islam is incompatible with liberal democracy. Turkey’s AKP Islamist party, once considered, the poster-child of a modern functioning Islamist democracy coupled with a vibrant market economy is increasingly demonstrating its illiberal nature in the manner it is dealing with its Kurdish minority as well as the numbers of its incarcerated journalists.

As a progressive Muslim, I reject the notion that intolerance is the norm of political Islam. As a Muslim scholar I reject the notion that political Islam is incompatible either with liberal democracy or secularism. Indeed, Islamists in Tunisia and Egypt can tap into the wealth of Islamic literature to chart an alternative future - one in which peace, tolerance and respect for the other becomes the norm.

The key principle underlying this is the Qur'an verse 2: 98 that there can be no coercion in religious affairs. This is again repeated by the Qur'anic verse 18:30: "This is the truth from your Lord, let him who will, believe, and let him who will, disbelieve". In the 39th chapter of the Qur'an, the Prophet is ordered to tell unbelievers: "It is Allah I worship in sincerest obedience".

Now as far as you are concerned, "Worship, what you like, besides him". At other places, the Qur'an is even more explicit, ‘For you, your religion and for me, my religion’. In a similar vein, Allah asks a rhetorical question. Addressing the Prophet, He says: "If thy Lord had enforced His Will, surely all those on earth would have believed, without exception. Will thou, then, then take it upon thyself to force people to become believers?"

The underlying point here is that where religion is enforced, faith itself is undermined.

Multi-party democracy

At the political level, too, Islam is entirely compatible with liberal multi-party democracy. In Islam one could draw a clear distinction between the religious and political spheres. Karen Armstrong, for instance, powerfully argues that the Qur'an insists that the Prophet Muhammad had no political function but that he was simply a nadhir ("a warner"). Of course, he did become head of the first Islamic state but this was more due to the political vacuum existing at the time as opposed to some divine pre-ordained plan.

Also contributing to this separation between religion and the public sphere was that throughout Islamic history there never was a single voice that represented the canons of religion or Sharia law.

As Khaled Abou El Fadl has asserted: "Historically, the Islamic faith and Sharia law have been represented by several competing schools of theological and jurisprudential thought, the most powerful and notable of these organized into privately run professional guilds. Although the state often claimed to rule in God’s name, the legitimacy of such claims were challenged by these professional guilds."

Political maturity?

A secular state is not an anti-religious one; rather it sets the basis where people of different faiths can co-exist harmoniously. This is especially important in our modern heterogeneous and conflict-prone polities. More importantly Islamic concepts such as freedom (al-hurriya), equality (al-musawat), justice (al-adl), and consultation (shura) are all norms that can be found in a liberal, multi-party, secular polity. Furthermore, the first four caliphs in Islam, beginning in CE 632, were all elected by a majority vote.

In addition, as early as the 9th century a rationalist movement, called the Mu'tazilites was established in the Islamic world which promoted secularism.

The underlying point, of course, is whether the Islamists in North Africa have the political maturity and acumen to tap into this rich Islamic tradition and embrace inclusion and diversity into their political programmes.

- Prof Solomon lectures Political Science at the University of the Free State.

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  • Julian - 2011-12-07 13:27

    Fascinating and informative. So that's why the Islamists won so much support. Thanks for this Professor Solomon.

  • Arno - 2011-12-07 13:30

    Hussein Solomon, 'The key principle underlying this is the Qur'an verse 2: 98 that there can be no coercion in religious affairs. This is again repeated by the Qur'anic verse 18:30: "This is the truth from your Lord, let him who will, believe, and let him who will, disbelieve". In the 39th chapter of the Qur'an, the Prophet is ordered to tell unbelievers: "It is Allah I worship in sincerest obedience". ' In sincerest obedience... Please tell me how you can ignore the following passages from the Qur'an, for they are clearly against your views. Also ' I reject the notion that political Islam is incompatible either with liberal democracy or secularism', please tell me how you can marry your view with Islam, as your view clearly contradicts the edicts of the Qur'an. O you who believe! do not take the Jews and the Christians for friends; they are friends of each other; and whoever amongst you takes them for a friend, then surely he is one of them; surely Allah does not guide the unjust people – (Qur'an Chapter 5: Verse 51)] 9:5, But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem. (please see next post for completion)

  • Arno - 2011-12-07 13:36

    9:29, Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued. 9:111, Allah hath purchased of the believers their persons and their goods; for theirs (in return) is the garden (of Paradise): they fight in His cause, and slay and are slain: a promise binding on Him in truth, through the Law, the Gospel, and the Qur’an 9:123, O ye who believe! fight the unbelievers who gird you about, and let them find firmness in you: and know that Allah is with those who fear Him. Qur'an 9 is the last chapter of Muhammed and therefore abrogated all those with which it contradicts. If taken out of context, please provide context, otherwise I can only assume the Qur'an is clear and needs no interpretation as the Qur'an 11:1 states: This is a Book, whose verses have been made firm and free from imperfection and then they have been expounded in detail. I propose a true Muslim is one that follow the Qur'an. If you do not follow those prescripts then you are not a progressive Muslim, since you are not a Muslim, for you do not adhere to the Qur'an. You might try to marry the Qur'an with liberal values, but that does not make you a Muslim. Albeit the notion of a progressive Muslim is most welcome.

  • Ask - 2011-12-08 13:11

    @Arno - In sincerest obedience ? With all this knowledge; it is amazing that you are not divinely inspired. It is amazing how many Christian Evangelists have quoted the Qu'ran since 9/11 All out of context. I'm assuming you are one of those because; had you studied the Quran, you would not be writing this to instigate disharmony. After first reading these passages, it has become apparent, the reason why these verses were revealed; was probably to protect Muslims from people like you. If you had been inspired by the teachings of Jesus; you would embrace all people with love rather than acting out a scene from 'how the disciples all screwed their Lord and then wrote scriptures in his honour many decades after his Crucifixion.'I remember reading one verse, many years ago, which I thought was revealed specifically for the previous Apartheid Regime - "and Slay them wherever you see them, until oppression stops" - Absolutely brilliant. Perhaps you should have the courtesy of reading the Entire Qu'ran, the Bible (all 26000 versions) and the Torah; you may learn something and NO, I'm not going to enlighten you. How dare you propose who is a true Muslim; you are not GOD, in the same way that I cannot say that you not a TRUE Christian (because you are not). I abhor your statement 'the notion of a progressive Muslim is most welcome' you have some nerve.

      BA - 2011-12-09 13:18

      ASk is appropriate since you do not answer. It is no good trying to justify these teachings by claiming they are all out of context and misinterpreted and other religious texts have similar quotes. Please explain how all these quotes are out of context. What context shuold they be in? Why do other muslims, who murder and terrorize in islam's name, do so in the name of the same quotes? On the face of it, islam is a violent, oppressive religion, and I want to know on what basis you deny that.

      Arno - 2011-12-09 15:28

      @Ask. You assume to be the only one who truly understands the topics discussed. That is incorrect. I did not insult you or Islam, but I admit, those questions seem abhorent, although they are purely based on the Qur'an. You made your own conclusions, and chose to go on the defensive without reason. It was a prime opportunity for you to spread the loving and peaceful message of the Qur'an, but again you chose not to engage in what is a very basic concept of a liberal democracy, and therefore only succeeded in confirming the stereotypes that exist as true. I am not trying to insult you, so please accept my humble apology if it seems so. I did note however that you cry fowl, and yet enage in the same backward accusations you accuse others of. It does not matter if you are Jewish or Hindi or whatever, what matters is the article which suggest Islam and liberal democracy are reconcileable. This is true only as long as the factions/parties vying for power are all Islamic. My questions(not statements or insults) were directed to highlight the incorrect conclusions of Professor Hussein based on the Qur'an of which he claims to be a follower. To vilify me for asking questions only confirms the incorrect conclusions made by Professor Hussein.

      BA - 2011-12-09 16:50

      At ask: I find your insults faintly amusing, but you should work on your material, it's a bit boring. The old, "Jews have big noses" slander is really ancient. Wow. that hurts. I'm really going to cry about that one. And your comment that Moses was "gatvol with you people"? Is that the best you have? Come on, you can do better than that. Bottom line is, you don't and can't respond to the facts, issues and arguments raised, so you play the man. Finally, I would bet my bottom dollar that the closest you've come to a Jewish person is insulting them behind your keyboard. You're half Jewish like the Pope is my father.

      Ask - 2011-12-10 12:24

      @Arno I'm glad you think that I'm the only 'one' who understood the topic. I see you still don't get my point, although, I do detect a tone of sarcasm in your response. I'm glad that you do not disagree with my previous comments about your subtle attempt in causing disharmony and everything else. Don't insult my intelligence by telling me what a good opportunity this is. If your intentions are genuine; do your own research – I said I’m not going to enlighten you. Boet... trust me; I’m not ‘defensive’... I know your kind too well... again... why do you think such revelations came into being... against people like you - how prophetic... interesting apology, contents noted.

      Ask - 2011-12-10 12:26

      @BA It is ok for you to attack the man... but it is not ok for me to attack the man... let me make you feel better; my nose is bigger than yours and I’m proud of my Jewish heritage... and I see you also do agree with my previous posts – you made no comments or tried to convince me that I’m wrong in what I said about you. The story of Moses may be old; but this proves again that you have short memories... you are an ungrateful lot... My advice to you... start off with the Torah, skip the New Testament... and then maybe you will gain GOD’s favour and you will have less hatred in your heart. Perhaps than you will not be so quick to jump on the bandwagon and try to belittle everyone. You are a fine one to talk about hiding behind a keyboard... you cannot even be traced on Facebook... how do you do that? Remember what I said about Sir Isaac Newton...

  • Rory - 2011-12-15 09:11

    Seriously, why can't we just accept that there are other religions and other people, and try to learn to understand that there are others who believe differently to ourselves and learn to live with that. I am not religious at all, have not studied any Bible or religious text - I don't prescribe to any one religion. Very often I feel guilty about that, but perhaps that is for the better? Because I also don't believe that 1 religion is better than the other or more just or higher. What I do believe in is acceptance and understanding that there are people with different views to my own and I should not judge that. Sure, the actions of some are terrible and should be punished here on Earth - like radical Muslims who terrorize or Holier than thou Christian Evangelists who profit from the Word of God....But, if we all just left each other alone to get on with what we wanted and gave each other enough space to do it in - maybe we could all just get along (and yes, I do get the very cheesy nature of that last sentence)

  • Ask - 2011-12-15 12:54

    @BA Firstly, I have no idea what you are saying and it appears that you have not taken my advice ito going back to school and applying for a refund... smoke dagga with the money... Secondly, you enjoy insulting other contributors; on other articles; WITHOUT understanding the issues. Thirdly; based on my response above you assume that I'm Muslim, well I'm half Jewish... the other half is none of business. Therefore; if you take your fingers out of your big nose and read the Qu'ran and the Torah maybe GOD will give you guidance (although I doubt it). The only violence and terrorism committed are from you and your forefathers - maybe you from Austria... Sir Isaac Newton said... For every action; there is an opposite an equal reaction... you only look at the one side... open your heart and be honest; look at both sides and then you will know why Moses was Gatvol with you people... This is such a good article - but yours and Arno's post are only interested in causing disharmony... now think about why such revelations would appear... makes sense, doesn't it. (someone is deleting my posts again.. here is another copy)

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