Six months after a coalition of activist groups in Egypt toppled Hosni Mubarak from power, many in the West are once again raising alarms that the so-called Arab Spring is merely the harbinger of an Islamist takeover of the Middle East.
The latest salvo comes in response to a rally held in Tahrir Square last Friday that was dominated by Islamist and Salafist (ultra-conservative Muslim) groups, many of them associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. The sheer size and strength of the demonstration was, for many, a sign that the dream of democracy in Egypt may be giving way to the reality of theocracy. The Washington Post wrote that the Islamists’ presence at the rally “was a stunning show of force that left the liberal pioneers of Egypt’s revolution reeling.”
It is true that Islamists comprised the largest and most vocal of the more than 25 different Egyptian organizations, most of them labor and youth groups, who organized last week’s mass show of unity against the country’s military rulers. But that is a reflection of their superior organizational skills and their ability to mobilize their members, and not of their political clout or their national support.
Polls show the Muslim Brotherhood doing poorly in parliamentary elections, with only 15 percent support. They are not even bothering to field a presidential candidate. There are more than 40 million voters in Egypt. Rallying tens of thousands of people to Tahrir Square is impressive, no doubt. But it is far from an indication of electoral prowess.
Yet what if this were an “Islamist rally,” as the press reported? What could be more crucial for a country trying to define its democratic future than allowing religious organizations who have spent the last 50 years huddled in mosques and hiding in back alleys to air their views to the voting public? Egypt desperately needs an open debate about the role of religion in society, the reconciliation of Islamic and democratic values. Six months ago, such talk would have landed these protesters in one of Mubarak’s sadistic prisons. Today they are part of the vibrant political debate that is taking place all over the country.
By competing openly with other political factions for votes, the Islamists are playing precisely the role one would hope for them in a free and democratic society. Because like it or not, Islam is going to be a force in post-Mubarak Egypt, where Muslims make up 96 percent of the population. Just as Christianity, the faith of some 70 percent of the U.S. population, influences American norms, values and laws (think gay marriage, abortion, etc.), so will Islam influence the norms, values and laws of Egypt. As long as the rights and freedoms of minorities are preserved and protected, and the rule of law made sacrosanct, Egypt will likely move along the same secularizing trajectory as all democratic societies, including America, that have created space for religious conservatives to compete with secular liberals in the marketplace of ideas.
Indeed, that process is already underway in Egypt. Suddenly forced to provide practical solutions to the social and economic problems facing Egyptians, the Islamist organizations have fractured. Younger, more liberal members are increasingly challenging the older and more conservative leaders. As a young member of a Salafist party put it , “We actually have more trouble connecting [with] people inside the movement than we do connecting with liberals.”
This generation of young Islamists has no interest in simply shouting, “Islam is the answer,” and then retreating back into the mosque. They know that if they are going to take part in the political process – an opportunity they have never been given – they must come up with real solutions to peoples needs. Otherwise, they’ll be tossed out of office.
That’s how democracy works. And despite its many obstacles, despite the cacophony of voices vying to decide the country’s future, and the fact that six months ago it was an oppressive dictatorship, last Friday’s rally in Tahrir Square is proof that democracy is working out just fine in Egypt.
Reza Aslan is a writer and scholar of religion. He is the author of the bestselling book, No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam.
Reza Aslan | Aug 4, 2011 11:48 AM