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Political challenges facing the post-Arab Spring Middle East 7 mars 2012

Posted by Acturca in Middle East / Moyen Orient, Religion, Turkey / Turquie.
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The Nation (Thailand) March 7, 2012, p. 12A

Imtiyaz Yusuf *

Today, there are two models of Muslim polities in the Middle East: one, the theocratic models of Iran and Saudi Arabia; and, two, the post-« Arab Spring » movement towards the formation of a civil state, as being sought in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries affected by the Arab Spring.

The post-colonial Muslim world saw competition between the secular and religious nationalists setting up Middle-Eastern states around religious or secular models, such as Nasser’s Egypt, the Shah’s Iran, secular Turkey, and monarchical Saudi Arabia. Most of these were authoritarian states ruled either by a tribal hierarchy, military dictators sometimes in alliance with politicians, Arab socialist parties, or kings.

The 2011 Arab Spring revolts came as a clear demand for the civil state model, one in which there is respect for human dignity, human rights, gender equality, religious pluralism and constitutional democracy – where Sharia principles are a source of inspiration for the formation of law, and the parliament is not a religious pulpit. This was evidently clear in the recent objection by the majority of Egyptian MPs to the Salafist Asala Party member who called the adhan – the Muslim prayer call – during a parliamentary session. The Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated speaker of the parliament shouted back at the Asala member, saying, « There is a mosque where you can make the call to prayer. This chamber is for discussion. »

Along similar lines, Rached Ghannouchi, the leading Tunisian Muslim democrat, has called for the freeing of the state from religion, saying that religion is a personal matter and the state cannot impose religious rule on citizens.

In most Muslim countries, state authorities manipulate religion for their own political ambitions. Ghannouchi emphasises that religion is a source of moral values and principles; whereas matters of governance, industrial management and agricultural innovation lie in the domains of reason and science. States that enforce religious practices, such as the wearing of a veil, or which restrict religious freedoms for citizens, are self-damaging and unnatural.

In the face of continuing efforts by the Egyptian army to hold onto power and seek self-immunity, the democratic forces in post-Arab Spring Egypt are struggling to consolidate democracy. The constituent assembly will be elected on March 24, and it will have to be representative of all sections of Egyptian society.

At present, it is unclear what will be the shape of the future Egyptian government. Will it continue to be a model of a strong executive president, as before; a parliamentary model with a strong prime minister; or the French model of a directly elected president and a prime minister from the parliament? The Egyptian president will be elected in May.

Regarding how to manage the continued role of the military in politics, Egypt can learn from the current Turkish and post-reformasi Indonesian models of civil-military relations.

The moderate Islamist Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood also seeks to play a role in the formation of the Egyptian civil state, where there will be no coercion towards religious and cultural uniformity, unlike in present France and other European countries that seek to enforce hegemonic European cultural identity on their Muslim citizens over issues such as halal meat, the hijab, or mosque minarets – all of which contradict the principles of secularism. Globalisation requires revisiting the discussion about secularism and culture. Indeed, globalisation cannot only be seen as an economic phenomenon.

The recent election results in Iran show that politics in a theocratic Islamic state is no different from other states. Iran is witnessing a power struggle between two factions within the ruling group – the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini versus President Ahmadinejad – while the reformist opposition, whose leaders are under house arrest, has isolated itself. The early reports of a parliamentary victory for the Khameini faction will weaken the power and influence of Ahmadinejad. Iran is still reeling under the effects of its 2009 presidential election result, which has ruptured the Iranian society.

Thus, the developments in Iran and Egypt represent two different political models in the post-Arab Spring Middle East. The former resists internal calls for reform, while the latter, along with Tunisia, represents the emerging new model for democracy in the Middle East, which opts for open and free competition between parties with different political platforms, be they secular, leftist, liberal, Islamist or Muslim democrat.

In this latter model, while the country has an Islamic religious and cultural identity, the political space has to remain open. The formation of such a model will go through teething troubles, but hopefully it will emerge as a model of Muslim democracy in the Middle East.

The emerging Egyptian and Tunisian models are not much different from the face of Muslim politics in Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Bangladesh, which are not Islamic states but native models of Muslim democracy, each unique in its context.

In the face of Muslim diversity, internal Muslim debate about the role of religion in politics will take place from different angles. For example, the political discourse in contemporary Iran is conducted in the light of its recent history as an Islamic state and its resultant problems; in Pakistan the debate about the role of Islam in politics takes place in the light of the history of political competition between the army, ideologically diverse political parties and Jinnah’s founding political vision of a Muslim country in the modern age; and in post-reformasi Indonesia, in the context of politics of different shades.

Thus, contemporary Muslim political history shows that the recent discussions around the concepts of an Islamic state or a Muslim democracy is a continuing post-colonial conversation that has earlier passed through different phases and interpretations since the death of the Prophet Muhammad.

* Dr Imtiyaz Yusuf is professor of Islamics and religion at the Graduate School of Philosophy and Religion, Assumption University, Bangkok.

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