Regional observers increasingly feel the real contest for power in the Arab world will take place within political Islam.
Having blown away three odious dictators — Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Muammar Qadhafi of Libya — pro-democracy campaigners are now seeking a new set of leaders, hopefully on the basis of free and fair elections.
Even as Tunisia awaits its election later this month and Egypt in November, and as Libya's fractious amalgamation of political groups deliberates on a transition road map, new formations are entering the political arena in the hope of making an impression on their country's destiny. In the heat of political activism, not confined in the region to Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, political formations of a wide variety, with Islamic roots, appear taking the lead in preparing for victory in the polls whose conduct is soon likely to become the focus of intense debate. As people in large parts of West Asia and North Africa (WANA) wade through the political flux, many of them seem drawn to two fascinating trends within political Islam — one which supports co-existence of democracy and religion, and the other which eventually wants to establish a theocracy, after cleverly bottling up the effervescent forces for change that continue to rock the Muslim world.
Many astute observers of the region are beginning to conclude that the post-Arab Spring battle of the ballot would be held, not primarily between Islamists and secularists. Rather, the battle for political space will be fought among Islamists themselves: between those who take their cue from Turkey and Malaysia that separate politics from new-age Islam, and others which want governments to abide strictly by their interpretation of a pristine Koranic code. Some of the most creative Islamic scholars, well attuned to the historic changes taking place in WANA, are asserting that it is misleading and dangerous to stereotype, as violent and intolerant, their religion which, they say, is infused with a mind-boggling variety of ideological currents.
In a recent debate with a secular challenger, Tunisia's Islamist politician and theoretician, Rachid Ghannouchi said: “If the Islamic spectrum goes from Bin Laden to (Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip) Erdogan, which of them is Islam?” He added: “Why are we put in the same place as a model that is far from our thought, like the Taliban or the Saudi model, while there are other successful Islamic models that are close to us, like the Turkish, the Malaysian and the Indonesian models; models that combine Islam and modernity?” His Ennahda party is expected to do well in Tunisia.
Mr. Ghannouchi is not the only one who accepts secular state principles, while welcoming Islamic values and practices as a positive force within the cultural and social domains. In Libya, Ali Sallabi has emerged as a leading Islamist, who claims that relations between Islamists and secularists are “strong.” Al Jazeera quoted him as saying: “We support pluralism and justice. Libyans have the right to build a democratic state and political parties.” Mr. Sallabi, who established himself as a powerful orator, has on many occasions vowed to support ideological inclusiveness. Critics, however, warn against gullibility, saying Mr. Sallabi may show his true colours only after he has scaled current obstacles and assumed a position of power.
Many of the region's Islamists, trying to strike a balance between religious conservativeness and demands of liberal democracy, are taking their cue from Turkey, which, under Mr. Erdogan's leadership has ignited hopes for a better future among millions in the predominantly Muslim-populated region. The premier has arguably demonstrated that it is possible to have a winning combination of Islam, democracy and secularism that will yield a society which, at the same time, is prosperous, sophisticated, tolerant and extrovert. The reasons for Turkey's popularity in WANA are not difficult to gauge. Despite their limited resources, the Turks have struck a chord among vast multitudes, demonstrating self-confidence and assertiveness in taking up the cause of the Palestinians — a move that has deeply and positively resonated among the region's masses. Turkey's decisiveness has in turn, imparted credibility to its vision of modernising the region to a level that is at par with the best in the world.
In an interview with The New York Times, Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey's cerebral Foreign Minister, who, many believe is the architect of his country's imaginative foreign policy, talks about the prospects of regional integration. He recognises that Turkey, not alone but in collaboration with the Arabs and the Iranians, can steer the former enclaves of the Ottoman Empire to prosperity and peace. An advocate of “regional ownership,” Mr. Davutoglu appears engaged in framing a model of regional cooperation, which resembles the European Union in its incipient stages. His vision is strong on economic integration and political alignment, and leaves open-ended the possibility of military cooperation in the future.
Sensing his electrifying influence, especially among youth, Mr. Erdogan last month, made a strategic visit to Egypt, Libya and Tunisia — the crucible of the Arab Spring. In all three countries, he was accorded a welcome befitting a rockstar. Mr. Erdogan's charismatic presence in Cairo caused one admiring television talk show presenter to gush that the Prime Minister is “a man who is admired not only by a large sector of Turkey but also by a large sector of Arabs and Muslims.”
The “Turkish model” has found a wide following among youthful Islamists, many of whom have been associated in the past with the Muslim Brotherhood, a well-entrenched party which was long suppressed by Egypt's authoritarian and military-oriented secularists, including the deposed President Hosni Mubarak. Abdel Moneim Aboul-Fotouh, a former Muslim Brotherhood heavyweight, has been expelled from the party after he unilaterally declared his intention to run for presidency, post-Arab Spring. He has advocated that the State distance itself from the interpretation or enforcement of Islamic law. It should also not be involved in regulating religious taxes. Gender or religion, he asserts, must not be the yardstick for barring an individual from running for presidency.
The Al-Wasat Party, also known as the New Center Party, which earlier splintered from the Muslim Brotherhood, has been significantly influenced by Mr. Erdogan's Justice and Development Party. It has two Coptic Christians and three women as part of its top 24-member leadership. It also advocates that women be allowed to stand for presidency, which, in any case, should not be the preserve of any religion. The Al-Wasat has been accorded formal recognition after Mr. Mubarak's exit
So powerful is Turkey's appeal, that it has antagonised many in the conservative ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood. It is, therefore, not surprising that when Mr. Erdogan, during his Cairo visit, said Egyptians should aspire for a “secular state,” Muslim Brotherhood leaders roundly rebuked him.
While Mr. Erdogan's appeal rooted in post-Islamism — a movement which reconciles liberal democracy and Islam — has spread rapidly in the region, it has also been received with deep animosity by hardliners belonging to some of the traditional Islamic parties. With the growing influence of the “Turkish model,” Salafi groups rooted in the belief of restoring pristine Islam in the modern era are emerging as Mr. Erdogan's fiercest critics. These groups are also reorganising themselves rapidly throughout WANA. In Egypt, the Salafists have announced their intention to run for parliamentary elections under the banner of the Al-Nour, which acquired legitimacy after Egyptian authorities officially registered it as a political party. It may not be surprising if, in the coming days, Turkey is targeted by its detractors as a country which has imperial ambitions of establishing Pax Turkana, inspired by the 400-year reign of the Ottoman Empire in the region.
The Turkish leadership is also facing an uphill task in Syria, where President Bashar Al-Assad's regime has rejected its call for military restraint and reform. Its inability to force Mr. Assad to budge from his authoritarian ways can also be attributed to Turkey's insufficient engagement with Iran. So far, Iran, Syria and the Lebanese Hizbollah are united in defence of Mr. Assad's regime. It may, therefore, be possible to move the pieces on the Syrian chessboard, only if Turkey, instead of confrontation alone, engages this trio meaningfully, in line with its larger vision of inclusive regional integration. Achieving ideological success across the region would be vital for, failure to do so would leave open the political space for radical rejectionists, whose long espoused disdain for democracy and liberty has been well established.