Understanding the Arab Spring and the Islamists

Robert Hunt, SMU's director of Global Theological Education, says journalists of all types, especially those who prepare two- to five-minute pieces for radio and television news, often use shortcuts that are too brief to convey complex information about the Arab Spring.

By Robert Hunt
SMU Perkins School of Theology

The Islamist have won! The Arab Spring is moving toward installing authoritarian theocracies under Islamic law!

Maybe? Maybe not?

Journalists of all types, but especially those who prepare two- to five- minute pieces for radio and television news, must use shortcuts to convey complex information in what are essentially sound bites. The term “Arab Spring” was one such short-cut: a name for events in North Africa and the Middle East that drew on the power of pro-democracy movements in Eastern Europe decades earlier. Now these same journalists, from NPR to CNN to Fox News, are talking about the “Islamist Victory” in recent elections. The problem is that neither the term “Islamist” nor the term “Victory” accurately conveys what is happening across the region. So let’s have a quick survey.

In Tunisia the party with the largest number of votes in parliamentary elections, but still no majority in the soon to be formed parliament, is committed to making Islam an active part of the government process, using the political theories of its aging theorist; Mohammad Ghannouchi. The party itself has disavowed the term “Islamist” and the other Islamists have disavowed the party. The reason? Ghannouchi and his followers apparently don’t believe in implementing a so-called Islamic state, but rather in using democratic institutions to build up a society based on Islamic values. Their natural allies in the new parliament will be so-called secularist parties who agree with them on maintaining full and open democratic processes.

In Libya the head of the largest faction of the victorious rebels, and de-facto head of government, stated that his government will institute Shari’a law. Maybe – but Libya has had no elections and he isn’t the elected head of his faction. Nor do we know what he means by Shari’a law, a highly contested term across the Islamic world. We know where he stands, but not at all where a future Libya will go.

In Egypt, the big kahuna, the Muslim Brotherhood has won the largest plurality, followed by so-called salafist parties who wish to restore the supposedly pristine Islamic environment of the first four rightly guided Caliphs. What the MB may have won is not control of the government, but control of the process by which a new constitution will be written before a second round of elections. And the MB has specifically disavowed working with the salafist parties for a good reason: They disagree fundamentally on the shape of a government for an appropriately Islamic society. The MB has spent decades cultivating widespread public support by essentially providing government services (schools, clinics) that the Egyptian government failed to provide. The salafists have garnered their strength by promising the return to a golden age. They are long on vague dogmatic ideals but short on government services. To maintain its popular support the MB needs a constitution that will give it a practical mandate to govern a modern state. The salafists need a constitution long on dogmatic promises.

The Palestinian Territories? No Spring. Hamas has a brutal grip on the Gaza Strip and is at war with Israel. Fatah controls the West Bank and is, in turn, controlled by Israel. What is essentially a three way civil war will continue until there is a Palestinian state.

Syria? A political struggle for freedom from a dictator is mixed with a sectarian struggle between Alawites (sectarian Shi’ites) who hold power and Sunnis who are the majority. This means that the Arab League is also divided on how to respond, since it has both Sunnis and Shi’ites. Regional powers must consider relations with Iran as well. What will emerge is anybody’s guess right now, and everyone from the Libyans to the Turks to the Iranians to the Lebanese to the Iraqis is trying their hand at influencing future events. Don’t count on any local party, Islamist or otherwise, to emerge soon or easily.

Jordan? The King desperately hopes it isn’t springtime in Jordan.

Lebanon? Virtually a client state of Syria whose population has been immersed in war and civil war for decades. Its future won’t emerge from the fog until Syria does.

My point? We don’t know who has won, or will win, or what they will become once they have actual power. That doesn’t have the ring of “Islamist Victory,” and it can’t be contained in a sound bit, but it is actually the truth.

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