Political Islamism is not to be feared

The Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate for president of Egypt has moved on to the second round of voting. As fear mounts over the rise of Islamists, nostalgia for the old Arab world is stirring among many inside and outside the region. Some are starting to push the argument that former regimes restricted personal freedoms and stifled economic development but at least we all knew who we were dealing with and where we stood. And chaos was held in check.

Today, a glance at headlines around the globe leads one to believe that Islamism is pitted against secularism in the battle for control over the new Arab world. This rise of Islamists clearly stokes fear in the West and leaves many clamoring for the good ol’ days when the good ol’ boys were in charge.

Don’t buy the hype.

This thinking ignores reality. It whitewashes the problems of the past, reflects unrealistic expectations for instant political transformations in the wake of revolutions and mislabels the battle being waged in the Arab world.

This is not a clash between Islam and the rest — this is a battle for pluralism. It pits the believers in pluralism from both secular and Islamist camps against those who cling to outdated notions of exclusion or superiority and insist on disenfranchising others.

For this battle to be won, we can’t ignore three critical lessons emerging from the ashes of the old Arab world.

First, constituent politics are unavoidable and necessary. Reforms imposed from above are not enough to achieve political maturity. All groups and parties need to shift gears and participate in politics on the ground to fulfill society’s wants and needs.

This is perhaps the most important lesson, and Islamists seemed to figure it out decades ago. One need only point out the success of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Some secularists, on the other hand, alternated between elitist political theorizing and smearing partisan politics. This thinking left many of them out of touch and lacking sufficient networks on the ground to be successful. In the short term, this is good news for Islamists, but constituent politics is the only way to defend individual liberties and protect political rights.

Second, the reliance of certain groups or minorities on dictatorial regimes to safeguard their rights and guarantee their way of life — while usurping the rights of their fellow citizens — is simply untenable. For example, Tunisia’s former regime defended women’s rights but ignored the rights of many others. Many Syrian Christians have supported the government of Bashar al-Assad, which has killed thousands over the past year, purely because Assad’s Alawite regime protected their religious rights when alternative rulers might not.

These are unacceptable, unsustainable bargains. Instead of ignoring the mistreatment of others, groups should fight for the rights of all, regardless of affiliation. This is the only way they can be seen as fellow citizens rather than as minorities.

Third, Islamists lost their holiness the moment they entered politics. Whether religious or secular, conservative or radical, in or out of government, all those who enter the political fray can no longer adopt a holier-than-thou approach. Electorates across the Arab world will now view all who aspire to lead them equally.

The field in countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya and elsewhere is now open to all, and the people alone are the true source of authority. Society has claimed the right to bring in or remove anyone from power. Religious parties can’t hide behind religion or indulge in pretensions of sainthood — slogans such as “Islam is the solution” won’t fly without being accompanied by actions. And secularists can’t ban Islamists from politics under the pretext that the latter are uncommitted to pluralism, particularly because secular forces were often the ones curtailing open politics in the past. Both parties’ “holiness” is over.

Groups will be held accountable if their programs succeed or fail in meeting citizens’ needs. Rhetoric and slogans will ring hollow if they are not matched with their promises — concrete programs that create jobs and defend rights. This is what will end up being the main criteria for political parties’ success or failure in the Arab world — the ability to deliver rather than to pontificate.

This means that all must work together to defend basic rights and transition to true democracies. Policies of exclusion must give way to inclusion. Only a coalition of pluralists can succeed in building a democratic society where the majority rules, where minority rights are respected, and where individual rights are safe and the rule of law applies to all, without favoritism.

The battle for pluralism has begun.

Marwan Muasher is vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He was foreign minister of Jordan from 2002 to 2004 and deputy prime minister from 2004 to 2005.

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