Islamist Surge?

Posted October 25th, 2011 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

WBUR’s Here & Now did a segment today on the success of Islamists in Tunisia’s elections, and the stated intent of Libya’s transitional rulers to base their new constitution on sharia (just like Iraq did during the American occupation!). Robin Young asked good questions, and was interested in probing the real debate within the Islamist political spectrum, to get past the all-too-frequent binary of scary Islamists versus nice secularists.

Her question:

The leader of Libya’s transitional council says Sharia Law will be the basis for the country’s new democracy; a moderate Islamist party is claiming victory in Tunisia’s elections; and, the Muslim Brotherhood is poised to do well whenever Egypt votes. Should the West be concerned or is this just the natural course of moving toward democracy in these Muslim countries?

My sense is that as political space opens up in Egypt, Syria, and other Arab countries, there will be an increased fracture between a “liberal” pole, made up of religious parties that advocate secular and civic governance, and a “conservative” pole, led by fundamentalists interested in theocratic governance. The cleavage won’t precisely map traditional differences between liberals and conservatives, and all parties to the debate will define themselves as religious Islamists. “Islamism” will cease to be a meaningful distinguishing label. Already, it’s hard to rely on the term when it applies equally to parties as different as Turkey’s AKP party, Tunisia’s Ennahda, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Noor Party, Salafists in the Gulf, Hamas, Hezbollah, and so on.

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