In the U.S. mainstream media the developments that have followed the misnamed “Arab Spring” have been curiously under-reported. The reason seems clear: In recent weeks those developments have taken a clear turn away from Western-style democracy, pluralism, tolerance, respect for human rights, etc. (as we’ve warned, repeatedly, that they would). The turmoil has undermined the region’s authoritarian secularists to the benefit of far more authoritarian Islamists.
In Tunisia, Reuters reported on July 7, “religious tension is rising as Islamists challenge the dominance of liberals in what was once a citadel of Arab secularism.” Last week an Allahu-akbar chanting mob attacked a cinema in Tunis that had shown Ni Allah, Ni Maitre (“No Allah, No Master”), a documentary film by Tunisian-French director Nadia El-Fani, an outspoken secularist. The police were slow to respond to the calls for help from the cinema, having previously advised that the screening be cancelled. According to Reuters,
Police later arrested 26 men, but Salafists—a purist trend within political Islam advocating a return to the ways of early Muslims—gathered outside the justice ministry two days later to demand their release, leading to scuffles… Secular media and intellectuals have reacted with alarm, warning that freedoms in Tunisia—a bastion of secularism under 23 years of tough police rule by Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali—are in danger of being lost if Islamists… are not stopped.
“Have we replaced one dictatorship for another,” asked Taieb Zahar, chief editor of the French-language monthlu Realites. “This is a foretaste of what is in store if firm measures are not taken against these sorcerer’s apprentices.” Tunisians are Muslims with an Islamic mentality and secularists are “victims of a system that is the agent of colonialism,” responds Abdelmajid Habibi, a leader in the Salafist Tahrir party which was behind the attack on the cinema. To him Fani’s documentary, which advocates the preservation of secularism in post-Ben Ali Tunisia, was “like a declaration of war, and people wanted to say that they were against it.”
The attack on the cinema is only the latest indicator that “after the overthrow of President Zine al-Abedin Ben Ali radicals have dramatically intensified their activities.” The are emboldened by the clear signs that the Islamist party, Al-Nahda (Renaissance) will score a victory in the upcoming elections for the constituent assembly scheduled for October 23. Its leader, Sheikh Rashid Al-Ghannoushi, returned from exile in London after the “Jasmine Revolution” and has rapidly become the most important figure in Tunisian politics.
If victorious, Al-Ghannoushi and his movement will use the tools of “democratic process” to transform Tunisia into an Islamic state, Sharia, veils, and all the rest of the package included. The Rebirthers predictably reject such allegations. As Muqtedar Khan notes in Al Ahram Weekly, they say they are just another political party, albeit one that emphasizes Tunisia’s Muslim character and the potential contribution of Islamic values to political governance:
The success of Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey has given hopes to secularists that Islamist parties elsewhere can thrive in a democratic context without undermining or endangering democracy. It has also given Islamist parties a roadmap to legitimacy… Al-Ghannoushi says one thing when the secularists and the West are listening and another to his followers.
In other words, he practices taqiyya, the art of lying for the greater good of Islam, as it has been practiced by Muhammad and his faithful emulators for the past 14 centuries. When he shows his true face—as he surely will if the elections are allowed proceed on an already delayed schedule—it will be too late.
Al-Ghannoushi and his Egyptian and Syrian counterparts know what they are doing. “Islamists have not been the leaders of the uprising,” Bassam Tibi correctly points out in the latest issue of Telos. “[O]n the contrary, like cautious Leninists, they are hoping to take over, eventually with the help of the exceptional sophisticated organizations of their movements.” Indeed they are, as evidenced in Teheran in 1979. Unlike the hard-core jihadists, the “moderate Islamists” disguise their agenda of pursuing a Sharia state and eliminate it from discussion, Tibi says, but only civic non-Islamists offer hope for a better Middle East:
This is the hard choice facing the West: will it work with the civic Muslims, liberal democrats who oppose Islamism? Or will it prefer to work with moderate Islamists, treating them as alternatives to the jihadists, but at the price of selling out the Muslim liberals. Lynch in Foreign Affairs unfortunately upgrades the Islamist movement to a worthy partner for the West, and the U.S. State Department has invited him to speak and to consult. Yet his defense of moderate Islamism is deeply misplaced; we need to encourage a civic Islam, appropriate for a democratic society, not to promote Islamism, of any stripe.
The U.S. State Department has indicated its preferences, since Tibi’s article was written, by legitimizing the Muslim Brotherhood, which is not even a “moderate Islamist” group by any stretch of imagination. Quem deus vult perdere, dementat prius. [Next: Egypt]
Dr. Srdja Trifkovic, Foreign Affairs Editor of Chronicles, is the author of The Sword of the Prophet and Defeating Jihad.