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OP-ED: Islam Is Not the Solution to What Ails the Middle East

WASHINGTON, Jul 8 2013 (IPS) - During the decades when Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood was a barely tolerated opposition party, it campaigned against the reigning secular autocrats under the banner “Islam is the solution.”

With the military’s removal on Jul. 3 of the Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi, the region’s oldest exemplar of political Islam has lost its best and perhaps only chance to validate that slogan. Indeed, the rise and abrupt fall of the Morsi presidency are a timely comeuppance for a world view that, starting with Iran’s 1979 revolution, seemed to be gaining adherents throughout the Muslim world.

Political Islam has had a long arc, reviving in the modern era with the founding of the Brotherhood by Hassan al Banna in 1928 in opposition to a monarchy largely controlled by Western interests. Over the decades, monarchs and military-run governments of assorted Arab nationalist, socialist and capitalist hues have suppressed the Brotherhood and its various offshoots. Then came spring 2011.

While Islamic movements did not lead the rebellions against aging autocrats, they were well placed to benefit because of superior organisation, a history of providing social services to the poor and a record of repression by the state.

Once in power, however, these movements frequently overreached. Nowhere was this more evident than in Egypt, where the Brotherhood reneged on initial promises not to seek a parliamentary majority or the presidency – promises made to avoid provoking a backlash from secular forces.

Then, Morsi – a substitute for a more powerful Brotherhood official, Khairat el-Shater, who was disqualified from running – misinterpreted his narrow victory in a runoff a year ago as a mandate to  consolidate  power and essentially gut the Arab world’s most important democratic transition.

Given the magnitude of the problems Egypt faced after the removal of Hosni Mubarak, only a government that truly reached out beyond its political base stood a chance of succeeding.  Without that broad popular support, the Brotherhood was loathe to implement crucial economic reforms and incapable of concluding a bailout agreement with the International Monetary Fund.

The constitution rammed through by the Brotherhood last spring disappointed those looking for major improvements from the Mubarak era.  Morsi was also tone-deaf  in many of his appointments, going so far as to name a member of the once-violent Gamaa al-Islamiya that had massacred foreigners in Luxor to govern one of Egypt’s most important tourism hubs.

The Brotherhood mistook the piety and religiosity of ordinary Egyptians for allegiance to a largely one-party religious government. This is a common mistake among Islamists. Many people in the Middle East might like to have a pious Muslim as a president but even more, they want competent leaders who will listen to others and forge constructive relations with the outside world.

Morsi’s removal is a warning that Islamic parties cannot count on religious identity alone to govern successfully and need to work constructively with others. This lesson seems to have been internalised by the Al-Nour party, a nominally more hard-line group that supported Morsi’s ouster and pushed for a consensus choice for prime minister instead of Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel laureate and champion of secular forces.

The fate of the Brotherhood experiment in Egypt has important ramifications throughout the region – for Tunisia, still struggling to write a constitution, and for Syria, whose opposition includes numerous Islamic groups and whose regime is banking on the support of religious minorities terrified by the notion of Islamic rule.

Morsi’s fall is also a sobering lesson for Iran, the world’s only theocracy, and Turkey, whose ruling AK Party has strong Islamist roots. Both initially welcomed the Brotherhood victory but instead of validating an Islamic world view, the events in Egypt have underlined its limitations.

In Turkey, Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan is still reeling from protests in Istanbul and other major cities against his government’s authoritarianism and creeping efforts to legislate Islamic morality. Erdogan’s behaviour in recent years has contrasted with the AKP’s tolerance of opposing views when it first came to power a decade ago. Increasingly, Erdogan has come to resemble previous Turkish autocrats with an Islamic veneer.

In Iran, meanwhile, the 1979 Islamic Revolution died years ago. Iran is now one of the least religious countries in the Middle East, a place where Muslim holidays such as Ramadan are barely observed compared to ancient Persian celebrations such as Nowruz.

In urging Iranians to vote in last month’s presidential elections, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had to resort to appealing to the electorate’s patriotism as Iranians, not their religious identity as Shiite Muslims – a telling sign that he recognises how unpopular the system has become. Iranians promptly chose the least hard-line candidate allowed to run, Hassan Rouhani. One of the reasons his victory was surprising is because he is a cleric and clerics are notoriously unpopular among the citizens of the Islamic Republic.

In a speech shortly after his election, Rouhani indicated that he understands that religious ideology is no substitute for competence and accountability. He promised to listen to the “majority of Iranians” who voted for him and added:

“In our region, there were some countries who miscalculated their positions, and you have witnessed what happened to them…The world is in a transitional mood, and a new order has yet to be established. If we miscalculate our national situation, it will be detrimental for us.”

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  • lightweaver1213

    Yes it is true. Islam is not the solution to what is happening in the Middle East. I was following some coverage earlier about how the Muslims will check the tongues of people to see if they have been fasting or not, and one other way as a double check to see that the people are adhering to their beliefs and following the ‘structure’ of Islamic/Muslim doctrine.

    What the leaders, like the Muslim Brotherhood, or other Islamic heads in the various sects need to realize is that your citizens are not always going to be Muslim or Islam just because they live in the Middle East. Getting along has ALL to do with providing choices to people and allowing them to make their own decisions based on those choices. In this sense, your government should not be one based on any one religious preference. Instead the government members comprising the presidential cabinet should be those politicians or individuals already involved in the government or those with docorates working at local universities who would have the education to make their involvement a success.

    Throughout the Middle East, there are Christians, Arabs, Jews, Protestants, and the like forming a varied community(ies) at-large. Keeping this in mind, you cannot target one group of one religion without those of the other groups being affected. No one likes to see their personal religious beliefs being attacked or compromised. Therefore, if you want ‘peaceful coexistence,’ then you need the separation of church from state.
    I think you would find you would have a lot less uprisings and contention if you would try it in a different light. Obviously the way things have been run isn’t really going all that well is it? I don’t think you could say your way is successful could you now, in all honesty that is?

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