About Us
Back Issues
Forthcoming Issues
Print Edition
Contact Us
IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 8    Issue 5   16-31 July 2013

The Economist’s Special Report on the Arab Spring: A Critical Review

Professor A. R. MOMIN

It was about two and a half years ago, on 18 December 2010, when a tsunami of massive, unprecedented public protests shook the Arab region to its foundations. The uprisings represented a surge of pent-up resentment and anger against autocratic rule, rampant corruption and nepotism, incompetent and insensitive administration, poverty and unemployment, suppression of human rights and civil liberties, widespread inequalities of wealth and power and the marginalization of large sections of society. The uprisings led to the inglorious end of autocratic regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. The reverberations of the Arab Spring were also felt in Bahrain, Syria, Iraq, Algeria, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman and Sudan.

The current issue of The Economist (11 July 2013) carries a special report on the Arab Spring. The report focuses on some of the important dimensions of the uprisings, such as the Arab region’s diversity, inequality and uneven progress, constitution-building, the role of religion, youth unrest and future prospects.

The Arab population has tripled since 1970, and has touched 350 million today. It is expected to reach 600 million by 2050. The Arab region is characterized by great diversity, which is reflected in population density, natural resources, settlement patterns, levels of economic development, rural-urban differences, occupational structure, human development, social organization, ethnicity, and religious and sectarian distinctions. In Libya and Mauritania, the population density is just three people per square kilometer, while it is below two in the Western Sahara. In contrast, the Gaza Strip is packed with a teeming population. In Egypt, some 80 million people out of the country’s population of 85 million are crammed into the Nile valley.

The Arab region is endowed with rich and abundant natural resources. Nineteen Arab countries hold some 46% of the world’s total proven oil reserves and a quarter of its natural gas reserves. There are huge, untapped reserves of oil and natural gas in Iraq, Western Sahara and Jordan. Saudi Arabia holds the bulk of the Arab world’s hydrocarbon resources. However, the management of natural resources in the Arab world betrays an unfortunate absence of prudence and judiciousness. According to the International Monetary Fund’s estimates, the hydrocarbon industry in the Arab region as a whole generates about $750 billion a year, but nearly a third of it -- $240 billion – is frittered away on energy subsidies for domestic consumers. In Saudi Arabia, for example, petrol costs less than $0.20 a litre, and local petrol consumption gobbles up nearly a quarter of the country’s oil output. In the Gulf region, domestic oil consumption has been growing at an annual rate of 6% since 1980. The IMF reckons that in two out of three Arab countries energy subsidies account for more than 5% of the GDP, whereas food subsidies in the region average only 0.7%.

There are glaring income inequalities in the Arab region. On the one hand, Qatar’s GDP is $700,000 per person, and some 14% of households in the country are dollar millionaires, a higher proportion than in any other country. On the other hand, according to the Arab Human Development Report 2009, about 34.6 million Arabs are living in extreme poverty. Around 40% of the Arab population are living on less than $2.75 a day, spending more than half of their income on food. Nearly a quarter of all households in Saudi Arabia are living below the national poverty line. A joint study by the Arab League and the United Nations Development Programme indicates that rates of poverty remain high in the Arab region, reaching up to 40 per cent on average, which suggests that nearly 140 million Arabs continue to live under the upper poverty line. The report also notes that in the past 20 years there has been no appreciable decline in poverty rates in Arab countries. In Egypt, nearly 50 per cent of the population live below $ 2 a day. Nearly 23 per cent of the population in Algeria and close to 33 per cent of the population in Libya live below the poverty line. Youth unemployment in the Arab region is double the global average. A large number of Arab youth are unable to buy a house or to marry due to lack of employment opportunities. In May this year, a vegetable seller in Riyad, Muhammad Harissi, doused himself in petrol and set himself afire after the police confiscated his goods. Over the past two years, some 80 Moroccan youths have killed themselves in the same manner.

Drawing a comparison between Egypt and South Korea, The Economist says that the two countries had similar GDP and life expectancy in 1960. Today they stand wide apart. Egypt’s GDP is only a fifth of South Korea’s and the country is bedeviled by widespread poverty and malnutrition. The magazine says that Egypt’s misfortune is in large measure due to the autocratic, corrupt and repressive rule of Hosni Mubarak.

The Economist notes that the human development scenario in the Arab world presents a mixed and paradoxical picture. Life expectancy in the region has risen by 25 years since 1960, faster than in most parts of the world. Literacy in Saudi Arabia has risen from 10% in 1960 to 87% today. However, there appears to be a yawning gap between quantity and quality, especially in respect of education. Saudi Arabia spends a higher proportion of its GDP on primary education than most rich nations. Yet, in a recent set of standardized global maths tests, the trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), under half of 13-year-old Saudi students reached the lowest benchmark, compared with 99% of South Korean and 88% of British students. Barely 1% of Saudi children gained an “advanced” level, against 47% of South Korean ad 8% of English children. This suggests, according to The Economist, that Saudi schools are not just of generally poor quality, but that they fail to encourage brighter students. In the TIMSS tests Arab countries made up nine of the bottom ten out of 63 participating countries. Ironically, Qatar, with one of the highest GDP per person in the world, scored lower than impoverished Albania in reading, science and maths in the OECD’s PISA study in 2009.

These surveys revealed another startling phenomenon. In Arab countries, girls are doing better than boys by huge margins, and most universities in the Arab region have more female than male students. One may add that a similar trend can be observed in large parts of South Asia.

The Economist notes that Arab monarchies were comparatively much less affected by the Arab Spring. However, they had to bear the brunt of massive popular protests. Some 40,000 Moroccans took to the streets in February 2011 and more than 50,000 people took part in public protests in Kuwait. Saudi Arabia’s Shia minority, which makes up about 10% of the population, has become increasingly restive. Since February 2011, at least 17 Saudi Shias have died in clashes with the police. Arab monarchies have to contend with rising popular demands for democratization and transparency in governance. In Kuwait, for example, there is a rising demand for the repeal of an electoral law that vests the ruling Al Sabah family with excessive influence and control over parliament. Protesters in Jordan have demanded major changes in electoral laws as well as a more equitable distribution of wealth and power. In Morocco voices against corruption and for greater civil liberties have become louder. Arab monarchies have responded to popular protests in different ways, ranging from concessions to cash handouts to cooption. Kuwait’s Sheikh Jaber al-Sabah offered a cash gift worth about $3,500 to every citizen. In March 2011 Saudi Arabia announced a $120 billion package aimed at providing subsidies for housing, scholarships, pensions and temporary employment benefits. In Oman, Sultan Qaboos announced economic concessions for the citizens and granted law-making powers to the elected legislature. Jordan’s King Abdullah appointed a commission to explore and suggest ways and means to initiate political reforms and expand the sphere of civil liberties. King Mohammed VI of Morocco set up a panel to rewrite the country’s constitution. He appointed Abdelilah Benkirane, the leader of the Justice and Development Party, which won the majority of seats in the 2011 parliamentary elections, as prime minister. In Algeria, a 19-year-old emergency was lifted following large-scale protests and demonstrations.

The Economist observes that since the 1990s “Islamist” parties have won the majority of parliamentary seats in many Arab countries and have fared even better after the Arab Spring. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis won two-thirds of the seats in the 2011-2012 parliamentary elections while a large majority of people in Tunisia voted for the Ennahda party.

The Economist notes that more than two years after the unprecedented upheaval in the Arab region, stable and peaceful democracy continues to elude the Arab world. The death toll in Syria’s protracted, bloody civil war has exceeded 100,000, and more than a quarter of the country’s population of 21 million have been displaced. Essential commodities are in short supply and the spectre of food insecurity is looming large. The United Nations reckons that nearly half of Syria’s population will experience severe food insecurity by the end of this year. The civil war has forced nearly two million Syrians to flee the country and take refuge in neighbouring countries. Egypt’s first democratically elected president has been summarily deposed by the country’s powerful army. Tunisia, Libya and Yemen are passing through turbulent times. The six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council have not made any serious move towards political reforms or democratization. Instead, they have taken even more repressive measures to suppress political dissent and civil liberties.

The magazine notes that sectarian conflicts, especially between Sunnis and Shias, have escalated in many Arab countries, including Iraq, Syria, Bahrain and Lebanon, in recent years and have undermined political stability and societal harmony. The politicization and intensification of the Sunni-Shia divide in the Middle East is reflected in the political ascendancy of the Shias and the marginalization of the Sunni minority in Iraq, in the brutal suppression of the Sunni-dominated uprising in Syria by Bashar al-Assad, in the repression of restive Shia minorities in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and in the growing clout of the Hizbullah and in its involvement in Syria’s civil war. The escalating spiral of sectarian conflict in the Arab region has become increasingly violent.

This gloomy scenario has led some commentators to think that the Arab Spring, which seemed to be so full of promise just a couple of years ago, has failed. According to them, the situation in the Arab world has become hopeless because Arab countries have failed to develop democratic institutions like a constitution, an independent judiciary, a free press and civil society. They argue that the problem has been compounded by Islam’s incompatibility with democracy. The Economist says that this view is at best premature and at worst wrong. It argues the events that have unfolded in the aftermath of the Arab Spring suggest that the Arabs are determined to carry the torch of democracy forward. The Economist says that everywhere in the Arab region, people are calling for “more justice, transparency, accountability, limits to arbitrary rule, more equitable economic policies, freedom of speech and the devolution of central power.”

The Economists notes that the growing democratic upsurge in the Arab region calls for a new constitutional order. Iraq, Syria and Egypt have redrafted their constitutions in recent years, and Tunisia is in the process of writing a new constitution. Algeria’s government has proposed significant constitutional reforms. Libya, Yemen and Sudan are lagging behind in this matter. It may be added that the task of constitution-writing in many Arab countries, especially Egypt, Iraq and Tunisia, is surrounded by a good deal of controversy and contestation. In 2005, when it was under American occupation, Iraq embarked on writing a new constitution. The process was boycotted by most Sunni politicians, with the result that the Shia majority had a free hand in writing the constitution and used this leverage to maintain and consolidate its political dominance. This, coupled with the Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki’s authoritarian style of functioning, has fuelled widespread resentment and anger among the Sunnis and has revived the cycle of deadly sectarian attacks and counter attacks. In Egypt, the draft constitution, which evoked much controversy, was approved by 64% of voters in a referendum in December 2012. On 3 July 2013 the Egyptian generals deposed the president and suspended the constitution. They have tasked the Supreme Court with the writing of a new constitution, which will be put to a referendum. The Economist says that elections and a new constitutional order are not sufficient for a stable democracy. They need to be supplemented with independent courts and free media. Discussions in cafes and internet forums, which are intensifying, suggest that democratic institutions are taking root in the Arab region.

The Economist takes issue with those who argue that the ideological proclivities of the “Islamists” in the Arab world make them look askance at democratic institutions such as independent courts, constitution and a free press. It argues that in Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia, the Islamic-minded ruling elites have accommodated democratic institutions. “Turkey, for all its faults, is more democratic today than it was when the army lurked in the background,” it adds. The Economist is all praise for Tunisia’s governing Ennahda party for leading the country towards the goal of inclusive democracy and hopes that the rest of the Arab world would follow in its footsteps.

The Economist is highly critical of the Egyptian president Muhammad Morsi’s deposition by the generals. “The abrupt unseating of Mr. Morsi would seem to be setting a far more ominous precedent than the ousting of the last ageing tyrant,” it says, adding, “had the Muslim Brotherhood remained in power, they might have learned the tolerance and pragmatism needed for running a country.”. At the same time, The Economist blames Mr. Morsi for his authoritarian, patriarchal posturing, which was resented by the Egyptian people and which ultimately brought about his downfall. It criticizes him for putting “far more effort into trying to consolidate his own control than into dealing with Egypt’s dire economic and social problems,” adding that “his appointments plainly showed a preference for piety over competence.” The magazine showers praise on the Egyptian people for their determination and resilience. “They are an inspiration to Arabs everywhere,” it says.

Though the Arab Spring has not brought about a fulfillment of the high expectations and hopes it has generated, The Economist nevertheless takes a positive view of it, and says that “for all the pitfalls, the spirit of the Arab Spring remains alive.” The magazine cites, in support of its view, the findings of a recent region-wise survey of attitudes by the Qatar-based Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies to the effect that most Arabs see their revolutions as positive overall, are confident they will achieve their aims and consider democracy the best form of government. A significant finding of the survey is that, although most respondents described themselves as religious, a large majority among Arabs say that governments should not use religion to win popular support.

A Rejoinder

The Economist’s special report on the Arab Spring offers a largely unbiased, credible and perceptive analysis of a momentous phase – which is still unfolding – in the history of the Arab region. The magazine takes issue with the cynical view that the uprisings have been a failure and that the situation in the Arab world is beyond redemption. It takes a positive, hopeful view of the Arab Spring and notes that waves like the Arab Spring “cannot be turned back.” The magazine rightly observes that although the transition to democracy in the Arab region is fraught with formidable challenges and impediments, an unrelenting pursuit of the goal is worth the price the Arabs have paid and are likely to pay in the coming years. Though the magazine is highly critical of the conduct of the deposed Egyptian president Mohammad Morsi, it unequivocally condemns the army for summarily deposing him and says that the move sets a self-defeating and dangerous precedent. Unlike most Western commentators who harbor misgivings and mistrust about political parties and governments in the Muslim world which draw inspiration from Islam, The Economist takes a positive view of the governing parties in Tunisia, Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia. On the whole the special report deserves appreciation.

The special report can be faulted for leaving out some of the important dimensions of the Arab Spring and for some errors of analysis. These include the role and attitudes of Western nations, especially the United States, towards the Arab Spring, an unfair indictment of Mr. Morsi’s presidency and the uncritical espousal of the misleading notion of “Islamism.”

The Arab Spring and the West

For decades, Western governments have supported dictators and autocratic rulers in the Arab region and turned a blind eye to their shameful record of suppression of human rights, largely because such rulers were useful in protecting and augmenting the West’s economic, political and ideological interests and acted as a bulwark against the rising influence of Islamic groups. Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, for example, was disparagingly called the “lackey of the West” across large parts of the Arab world. During the 2011 Egyptian uprising, the US continued to support its long-time ally but quickly dropped him when the protests against him grew too widespread and vociferous.

Western countries have long feted the Tunisian model and heaped praises on its secularism, liberal economic policies and stability, while glossing over the nepotism and corruption of the ruling dispensation, suppression of human rights and civil liberties and lack of democratic, transparent governance. The US, France and Germany always backed the Ben Ali regime and praised the dictator for being a “friend of Europe” and for his suppression of “extremist Muslims.” In the past, Nicolas Sarkozy had hailed Ben Ali as a great democrat. When large-scale protests and demonstrations were being held across Tunisia, Hillary Clinton, former US Secretary of State, was asked about her reaction to the protests. “We can’t take sides, “she said.

The Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten released a series of US diplomatic cables from 2006, which show that the US was fully aware of the appalling levels of corruption in Tunisia, but chose to overlook it and continued its support for Ben Ali because of his role in suppressing Islamic movements and dissident leaders. In the middle of the protests, before Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, Michele Alliot-Marie, the French foreign minister, told the National Assembly, the lower house of the French Parliament, that France could “offer the know-how of (its) security forces to help control this type of situation” (in other words, to rescue the government of Ben Ali). The statement was so disastrous that the former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, former prime minister Francois Fillon and some of her cabinet colleagues distanced themselves from it and publicly criticized it. Rachid Ghannoushi, leader of Ehhahda Party, aptly remarked that “while the West criticizes Islamic governments for not being democratic, it also supports governments that are not democratic and that are keeping Islamic movements away from developing their ideas.”

In the Introduction to Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2012, Kenneth Roth has written that Western governments cannot credibly maintain a commitment to democracy if they reject electoral results when an Islamic party does well. The report calls on Western governments to come to terms with the rise of Islamic political parties and press them to respect human rights. “So long as freely elected governments respect basic rights, they merit presumptive international support, regardless of their religious or political complexion,” the report says.

Subversion of Democracy in Egypt

In a previous issue (6 July 2013), The Economist wrote that “most of the blame for the disaster that has befallen Egyptian democracy lies with Mr. Morsi.” In the special report, the magazine adds that most of the country turned against the deposed president because he “committed sins similar to Mr. Mubarak’s” and that “the Muslim Brothers turned out to be not something new but a relic from the past.” This is a highly simplistic observation and a grossly unfair indictment of Mr. Morsi’s presidency. The story is far more complex. Mr. Morsi was caught in an unenviable situation. He inherited the calamitous legacy of the Mubarak era, and had to contend with the remnants of the Mubarak regime, including the powerful military, judges, intelligence, chief prosecutor and the police.

The Egyptian military, which is often described as a state within the state, runs an incredibly vast commercial empire, which encompasses construction, mining, land reclamation, food and the production of consumer goods. It is estimated that nearly 40 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product is generated by companies owned by the military. The accounts of the establishments run by the military are kept secret and are beyond parliamentary or public scrutiny. The Egyptian military officials enjoy huge privileges, including palatial houses on the Mediterranean, free vehicles and paid vacations, free food produced on military farms and well-paid positions in military-owned businesses upon retirement.

The relations between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood have always been strained. In the 2012 presidential elections, the military extended its support to Mr. Ahmed Shafik, the last Mubarak-era prime minister and a former member of the SCAF, who openly declared that he considered Mubarak as his “role model.” Just before the declaration of the presidential election results, the SCAF issued a constitutional declaration whereby it exempted itself from civilian oversight and granted itself sweeping legislative powers, including the power to determine the defence budget and complete control over all army affairs. The declaration authorized the SCAF to oversee the formation of a new constituent assembly to write Egypt’s new constitution and gave it the right to veto it. The declaration stripped the new president of much of his powers. It said that the president could declare a war against any country except with the approval of the SCAF. The declaration gave the military de facto control over the country’s foreign policy as well as internal security.

Shortly after assuming office, Mr. Morsi began dismantling the legacy of the Mubarak era. In August 2012, he annulled the constitutional declaration that gave sweeping powers to the military and announced the retirement of top two generals, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and General Sami Anan. He fired the Mubarak-era chief prosecutor in October 2012. Since then the generals have been smarting from their loss of power and humiliation and have been biding their time.

Mr. Morsi had to face the grim prospect of a deeply fractured, polarized and fragmented society and polity. In the closing years of Mr. Mubarak’s presidency, the elite were divided into three distinctive sections: the Westernized, secular elite, including army officers, judges, bureaucrats and the professional class; the Islamic-minded educated class, represented by the Muslim Brotherhood; and the hardliner Salafis, represented by the al-Nour party. The fragmented and polarized character of Egyptian society was reflected in the results of the first post-Mubarak era parliamentary elections and in the subsequent presidential election. In the parliamentary elections held from 28 November 2011 to 11 January 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood won 37.5% of the vote, followed by the Salafis, who won 27.8%. The share of the other parties was negligible. In the 2012 presidential election, Mr. Morsi won 51.7% of the vote while his rival, Mr. Ahmed Shafik, won 48.3%. The polarization in Egyptian society was also evidenced in the massive protests for and against Mr. Morsi following his ouster.

US Complicity in Egypt’s Military Coup

Reports in The New York Times and Al Jazeera news website have revealed how the Egyptian military orchestrated a sinister conspiracy, in collusion with the opposition and in connivance with the Obama administration, to topple Mr. Morsi. The reports suggest that Washington quietly funded Egyptian opposition leaders and activists with the objective of inciting anti-Morsi feelings and encouraging protests against the government. The funds were channeled through a US State Department Programme called Democracy Assistance Initiative. The programme is ostensibly aimed at the promotion of democracy in the Middle East but its real, unstated objective is to win back American influence in the region in the wake of the Arab Spring and to encourage and support pro-Washington secularists. The beneficiaries of the funding included a coterie of opposition politicians as well as an exiled Egyptian police officer who has settled in the US. Under this programme, the State Department disbursed some $65 million in 2011 and $25 million in 2012.

Mr. Morsi’s ouster was the culmination of months of escalating tension between the government and the military. Days before he removed Mr. Morsi, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi held secret meetings with opposition leaders. According to a report published in The New York Times on 6 July, a few days before Mr. Morsi was overthrown, the Obama administration sent a feeler to him through an Arab foreign minister, suggesting that he should compromise with the opposition and appoint a new prime minister and a new cabinet that would take over all legislative powers. The US Secretary of State John Kerry even suggested Mr. Mohammed ElBaradei as prime minister. This would in effect mean that Mr. Morsi would remain just a figurehead. Mr. Morsi flatly rejected the suggestion. John Esposito has rightly observed that there is credible evidence to suggest that the US knew about the plot to overthrow Mr. Morsi well in advance and that it supported it. He notes that “the message the Obama administration is sending, whether intended or not, is that there is a double standard, much as there was in the decades of US support for authoritarian regimes of the past.” “The failure to recognized Egypt’s military coup will prove counterproductive for both Egyptians and Western policy makers,” he adds. It is note-worthy that Washington gives $1.5 billion in aid to Egypt every year, much of which goes to the military. According to Congressional legislation, the US is obliged to suspend assistance to an allied military if it is found guilty of overthrowing a democratically elected government. The Obama administration is clearly caught in a dilemma of its own making. If it declares that the military intervention was a coup, it will have to halt the aid package, which will alienate a “client” military junta. It is interesting to note that the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and UAE, who are US allies, were quick to send congratulatory messages to the interim president, Mr. Adly Mansour. The UAE has pledged to give $3 billion in aid to the interim government while Saudi Arabia, which detests the Muslim Brotherhood, offered to give $5 billion. Al-Arabiya, a Saudi-owned television channel, hailed the military coup as a “second revolution.”

The Obama administration has refused to say that the summary deposition of Mr. Morsi was a military coup and has failed to publicly condemn the military intervention, which lends credence to the growing suspicion that the US was complicit in the military takeover. The interim government, which took oath on 16 July, is led by Mubarak-era officials. Interestingly, General al-Sisi has been appointed deputy prime minister and defence minister by his hand-picked interim president.

Mr. Morsi cannot be absolved of his share of responsibility for the messy state of affairs in Egypt. Before the parliamentary elections, the Muslim Brotherhood had promised the Egyptians that if it came to power it would address the problems of food security, freedom and equal opportunity on a priority basis. Mr. Morsi failed to redeem the pledge. The economic situation took a turn for the worse in the past year. Unemployment rate among youth of under 24 years reached an unprecedented high of over 40%. Gas shortages, frequent blackouts and escalating crime rates added to people’s hardships and fuelled disillusionment and anger against the government. The allegations of authoritarianism, arbitrariness and “power grab” against Mr. Morsi are not entirely baseless. Mr. Morsi was not only guilty of giving himself sweeping executive powers but also failed to forge a nation-wide consensus on central issues like the writing of a new constitution.

However, his shortcomings and failures provide no justification for his removal by the army. The decision about his fate should have been left to the Egyptian voters. As Mohammed Adel Ismail, a young Egyptian social worker, put it, “He (Morsi) made some catastrophic mistakes, that must be said, but my understanding of democracy is you allow him to rule and fail and then vote him out.”

The Economist rightly suggests that the transition to democracy takes “not months, but years, even decades.” Considering that Mr. Morsi held office for just a year, it is unfair to lay all the blame for the tragic turn of events at his doorstep.

Fallacy of “Islamism”

Political commentators and the media in the West, including The Economist, frequently use the terms “Islamism,” “Islamist parties” and “Islamist governments” to refer to a wide range of ideological and political affiliations in the Muslim world. The Economist defines Islamism as the belief that “politics is and must be an extension of the faith,” and adds that Islamism takes on many shades “from the blacks of al-Qaeda to the dark green of Saudi-style Wahhabism to the palest of modernizing shades.” Thus, al-Qaeda, Tunisia’s moderate Ennahda party, the hardliner Salafis, the Muslim Brotherhood and the governing parties in Malaysia and Indonesia are indiscriminately lumped together as “Islamist.” Turkey’s Justice and Development Party and Morocco’s Justice and Development Party are described as “mildly Islamist.” At the same time, however, The Economist concedes that there are significant ideological and political differences among groups and parties that fall under the rubric of “Islamism.” It thus draws a distinction between “mainstream Islamist” – whatever that means – and radicals.

Much like “Islamic fundamentalism,” the term “Islamism” is extremely vague, obfuscating and misleading. It fails to take cognizance of the fact that the differences between the so-called “Islamist” parties overshadow the shared beliefs. For example, if one compares the views and ideological orientations of Rachid Ghannouchi, al-Qaeda and the Salafis (who are lumped together as “Islamists”), one can scarcely fail to notice that they stand wide apart and have very little in common. Ghannouchi, head of Tunisia’s Ennahda party, has consistently argued over the past three decades that democracy and political pluralism are compatible with Islamic values and principles. He espouses a tolerant and inclusive vision of society and polity and is against the forcible establishment of an Islamic state. He is highly critical of extremism and denounces all forms of violence. On the other hand, the al-Qaeda unabashedly espouses and glorifies the cult of violence in furtherance of its goals. The Salafi-dominated Syrian Islamic Front says that “democracy won’t give us Islam or godly law.” Can there be any logic or justification for joining these divergent views and ideologies under the rubric of “Islamism”?

The term “Islamism” not only beclouds our understanding of the phenomenon of Islamic resurgence in the contemporary Muslim world but it also has pejorative connotations and reinforces stereotypes and prejudices against Islam and Muslims. A magazine like The Economist, which has a well-deserved reputation for its objective and balanced reporting and perceptive analysis of events, should be wary of using terms and phrases that are fraught with semantic confusion and contradictions.

It may not be out of place to make a reference in this connection to Christian democracy, which seeks to synthesize Christian values and principles with democratic institutions. Christian democratic parties are particularly influential in Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Norway and France. Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is leader of the Christian Democratic Union. The European People’s Party (EPP), founded by Christian democratic parties in 1976, is the largest party in the European Parliament, the European Council and the European Commission.

It is interesting to note that Western commentators and the media describe Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government not as Christian-Democratic-dominated but as centre-right. Similarly, France’s Union for Popular Movement is described as a centre-right party. On the other hand, whenever Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan or Tunisia’s Ennahda party or the Muslim Brotherhood figure in the Western media, they are invariably preceded by the epithet “Islamist.” Ironically, while the ideology of Christian democracy has been accommodated in mainstream political discourse in the West, Western commentators and the media tend to have a negative view of political parties and governments in the Muslim world which are trying to synthesize Islamic values and principles with democracy.

There is a need to rethink the conceptualization of the state and democracy in the Western political discourse in the context of a globalizing world and to strip it of its Westphalian and Eurocentric presuppositions and underpinnings. Furthermore, the discourse on the state and democracy needs to be redefined in an inclusive and universalist framework.

Name * :
E-mail * :
Add Your Comment :
Home About Us Announcement Forthcoming Features Feed Back Contact Us
Copyright © 2013 All rights reserved.