Here Come the Muslim Fanatics

25 October 2011

Here Come the Muslim Fanatics

By Gwynne Dyer

Mustafa Abdul Jalil, chairman of Libya’s National Transitional Council and the country’s de facto leader, promised on Tuesday that sharia law would be the basis of all new legislation, and that this would involve getting rid of certain existing laws – like the ban on polygamy. On the same day Tunisia announced that Annahda, an Islamic party, had won the most votes in that country’s first free election. Here come the Muslim fanatics.

Or so the Western media think, at least. Even since the “Arab spring” began, they have been worrying aloud about the risk that in overthrowing the dictators, most of whom were secular rulers, the revolutionaries were simply opening the door to rule by religious fanatics. And the fanatics would, of course, hate the West and launch terrorist attacks against it.

This is part of the narrative, mainly of American origin but also widely popular on the European right, in which Islamist terrorists attacked the West not because of fifty years of Western meddling in the Middle East, mainly in support of dictators, but just because they “hate our values.” Or “our freedoms”; take your pick. That gets the West off the hook: it was just an innocent passer-by who got mugged by crazies.

That’s Step One in the process. Then the correct description of the fanatics, which is “Islamist”, mutates imperceptibly into “Islamic”, which just means a person, organisation or doctrine that prioritises the values of the Muslim religion. But if you don’t understand the difference (and lots of people in the West don’t), then you are likely to think that any political success by an Islamic party means that the terrorists win.

So an electoral success by an inoffensive Islamic party in Tunisia and some remarks by an Islamic enthusiast in Libya (who has already promised not to seek permanent political office in the country, like all the members of the NTC) add up to an victory for the terrorists. At least in the view of many commentators and analysts in the West. So let us dissect this notion.

Annahda, at least in its rhetoric, is a moderate Islamic party. “Tunisians have voted in fact for those parties that have been consistently part of the struggle for democracy and opposed to Ben Ali’s dictatorship,” said party spokesperson Yusra Ghannouchi, and that is the simple truth. Moreover, Ennahda’s leaders have explicitly pledged to create a multi-party, secular democracy, not an Islamic state.

And although Ennahda came first in the election, it only got 40 percent of the votes. Since the other five major parties, all centrist or centre-left, will together hold 60 percent of the seats in the new Constituent Assembly, the Islamic party could not impose extreme religious laws on the country even if it wanted to — and it swears it doesn’t.

The struggle will then be over the new constitution, which must be written by the assembly over the next twelve months. The Islamic party wants a purely parliamentary system, in which a prime minister is drawn from the largest party would control the government, provided that his coalition commands a majority in parliament.

The other, secular parties prefer a presidential system, with a directly elected president holding executive power including the right to appoint the prime minister (although the latter would still need a majority in parliament). The attraction of the presidential system is that it normally involves a run-off election between the two leading candidates – in which the 65-35 advantage of the secular candidate wins every time. And the secular parties will get their way.

So no Islamist victory there, and not much of an Islamic one. What about Libya?

Victory in Libya came not through non-violent action, but through six months of brutal war against the forces of Muammar Gaddafi. The people who rise to positions of influence in an armed uprising waged by volunteers are very different from those who come to power in normal, peaceful politics. They tend to be flamboyant, good at violence, and extreme in their views. Mustafa Abdul Jalil is all of those things, but he is not the next dictator of Libya.

He can promise whatever he wants, but he won’t be in power to deliver it. There will be an election: the foreign air support that gave the rebels victory also gave the foreigners the leverage to guarantee that. And few of the people elected are likely to agree with Jalil’s views on polygamy in particular, or even the political role of Islam in general.

For all Gaddafi’s posturing as a son of the desert, Libyans are no longer a tribal people, let alone a nation of semi-nomadic, socially conservative herdsmen. Nor are they a desperate rabble ready to follow the first radical to open his mouth.

Four-fifths of Libyans live in cities. They are pretty comprehensively detribalised, and they have modest but regular incomes and small families. Women have more freedom and equality than they do in most Arab countries, and the vast majority of Libyans own their own homes. These are not people who are going to vote for a return to some imaginary past of devout simplicity.

Repeat three times after me: “Islamic” is not the same as “Islamist”. And Arabs are not fools; they are grown-ups.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“The struggle…way”)