By Soumaya Ghannoushi
A collective sigh of relief was almost audible across Washington and other western capitals when Abdel Fattah el-Sisi accomplished the mission and successfully staged his blood-drenched military coup. They could all go back to business as usual with the Arabs. No need for the newly devised strategy of containment. No need to sing the praises of freedom, or pay lip service to the emancipation of nations or the popular will. Sisi’s US-furnished tanks and Gulf Sheikhdom petrodollars took care of tarnishing and demolishing the unwelcome Arab Spring. Time to rewind to pre-January 2011 and reconnect with old friends and companions. They have been sorely missed, indeed!
Ditch the new rhetoric of “change”, “transition”, “democratisation”, “the popular will” and “mutual respect”, and pull the worn out familiar dictionary in constant use since World War II out of the drawer. It’s now back to “stability”, “security”, “our interests”, and all the other euphemisms for forced political stagnation, active obstruction of change, and the coercively imposed status quo.
Voices which had been muted since the toppling of dictators in Egypt and Tunisia are reverberating once more. Take Dennis Ross who, writing in the New York Times recently, urged the US administration to go back to supporting its “friends and partners” in the region. Lest there should be confusion over who these may be, Ross does not hesitate in his article entitled “Islamists are not our friends” to define them in explicit terms. They are “the traditional monarchies, authoritarian governments, and secular reformers who may be small in number but have not disappeared.” They offer the only glimmer of light in an otherwise dark Arab ocean. They populate the tiny island that should serve as America’s sole gateway to the region and unique foothold therein. Forget the one and a half billion Muslims around the globe: “our” interests lie exclusively with these chosen few and the policies “we” pursue should wholly depend on them.
Everyone else is banished into a vast and vague category labelled “Islamism.” In this gigantic pot, the moderates of Tunisia’s Ennhadha, Malaysia’s Abim, and reformists of Iran suddenly find themselves thrown alongside the lunatics of al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) on the opposite end of the Islamic spectrum. The enormous intellectual and political differences that set them apart no longer matter. Sunnis, Shias, democrats, moderates, Salafis, extremists, and violent anarchists are bundled together and forced into a single monolithic block in a flagrant example of reductionism, oversimplification and colour-blindness.
Like many pseudo-liberals, Ross’s discourse is replete with contradictions. While calling for the support of hardened autocrats and ruthless dictators, they still feign an unwavering commitment to “our values” and “democratic pluralist traditions”. Democracy, rights and liberties thus turn into a thin veneer conveniently deployed to disguise the ugliness of egoistic strategies and policies pursued on the ground, a fig leaf behind which narrow myopic self-interest hides its nakedness.
Dismissing the Muslim scene as a homogenous entity outside history, these either ignore or willfully turn a blind eye to the intellectual and theological movements and conflicts unfolding there. For alongside thunderous political and military encounters, a more significant, though less visible confrontation is under way on Islam’s battleground. Three divergent strategies of interpretation are actively competing for Muslims’ allegiance.
The first, which traces its origins to the 19th century reform school, both in its Sunni and Shiite manifestations, sees no contradiction between Islam, democracy, human rights, women’s emancipation, and civil and public liberties. This is the brand of Islam endorsed by the likes of Tunisia’s Ennahdha party, Morocco’s Justice and Development Party and Turkey’s AKP. They are Islamists, but they are also democrats. Islam is their frame of reference, the same function performed by Christianity in the case of the Christian democrats and socialism for the Social democrats.
Against this competes an Islam espoused by autocracies and Gulf sheikhdoms, with their official clergy, government preachers, and ruthless religious police, tasked with legitimising the status quo, authoritarianism and repression in the name of religion and the protection of public mores. Their religion is a state ideology at the service of despotic rulers. This would appear to be the brand of Islam which friends of the Arab world’s autocrats and dictators, such as Ross, favour and would like to see the American administration support.
Sharing much with this form of Islam, particularly its orthodoxy, literalism and absolutism, proponents of the third interpretation endorse a different type of politics, however. They are Wahhabi anarchists. Their most vocal representatives are al-Qaeda and IS, who are determined to propel the Muslim world into senseless and endless wars with infidels, both within and without. Like “autocratic Islam”, this is virulently opposed to democracy, human rights, and individual freedoms and openly hostile to democratic Islam.
This is the current intellectual map of the Muslim world. The American administration needs to ponder which direction it would rather the region take. It must decide which Islam it wants: a peaceful, democratic Islam, crucial to any pursuit of real long term stability, or the anarchical and destructive Islam of al-Qaeda and IS, with its roots in the absolutism of Saudi Wahhabism.
At the apex of the neocon project, Condoleezza Rice had admitted that “For six decades…, a basic bargain defined the United States’ engagement in the broader Middle East: we supported authoritarian regimes, and they supported our shared interest in regional stability” confessing that “this old bargain had produced false stability.” It is astonishing that over a decade later, after two American military defeats and consecutive hasty retreats, as well as numerous popular revolts across the region, the American administration is being dragged back to the same disastrous strategy – which Obama had come to power on the pledge of revising and relinquishing.
The first wave of the “Arab Spring” may have receded under the crushing weight of “our” Gulf allies’ conspiracies to destroy political life – with petro-dollars and manufactured anarchy – wherever an Arab will to change has registered itself. But the demands at its core show no sign of ebbing away. Ross’s friends, who danced and cheered when Egypt descended into the bloody abyss of military coups, may succeed in delaying change. But that would only be for a while. They and their patrons in Washington and Europe may soon realize that the Arab masses’ demands for self-determination through democratic constitutions, freely elected parliaments and representative accountable governments may prove too difficult to bury, for the simple reason that they are genuine and entirely legitimate.
- Soumaya Ghannoushi is a British Tunisian writer and expert in Middle East politics. (This article was first published in Middle East Eye.)