Thursday, August 14, 2008

Nuancing through Egypt and Algeria

Is Islamism fascistic? Back in October of 2001 I read Youssef Choueiri’s Islamic Fundamentalism, 1990, in which he argues that Islamism meets the criteria of fascism. My dictionary describes “fascism” as a system of government characterized by rigid one-party dictatorship, forcible suppression of opposition, private economic enterprise under centralized governmental control, belligerent nationalism, racism, and militarism”. The only reason that Islamism doesn’t fit nicely in this definition is that the definition assumes a fascistic state and the only state that is still technically Islamist is Iran and it has softened many of its fascistic elements after the death of Khomeini in 1989. Nevertheless we know what the Islamist goal is and it strives for most of those elements. Nationalism isn’t supposed to be an element of Islamism because Qutb teaches that there is only one people, the umma, and it is not right to separate them by borders into individual nations. But it does strive for a rigid one-party dictatorship, forcible suppression of opposition and it does exhibit belligerence in support of its position as militarism. Nevertheless, it probably isn’t very helpful to try and fit Islamism into a term that was used to define Italy under Mussolini and Germany under Hitler.

I read A Portrait of Egypt, A Journey through the World of Militant Islam, by Mary Anne Weaver, 1999. In 1977 she enrolled as a graduate student at the American University of Cairo in “Arab Affairs” after her husband was appointed Middle Eastern bureau chief of Time Magazine. Evans is a very good writer and describes how she attended school with people who became interested in Islamism. One of her very good friends left to take Islamist military training in the desert. Another of her friends from University was a relative of Hosni Mubarak; so she had connections that enabled her to pursue an interest in Militant Islam.

Evans hasn’t produced a formal work of history, so I am frequently annoyed trying to figure out when a certain interview took place. For example, she interviewed the Shiek of Shobra [page 102] but all I can tell is that the interview took place sometime after 1992:

The Shiek was very critical of Sadat. He had lied to them about the economy. “Now he began to shout: ‘look at the figures! In your [1992] election campaign, Clinton kept asking, “Are things better now than when they were ten years ago?” Well, that also applies here, and things are far, far worse. And for those of us in the Islamic movement, even if the government gives us a lamb or a sheep to eat for every meal, we will never accept Mubarak until he gives us the Koran – and until he gives us power. Is it not honest, and courageous, to have a referendum on applying Sharia law? This regime would never dare to do it; they’re terrified. . . . We know that the West – especially the United States – is concentrating on hitting the Islamist movement in Egypt . . . We’re the most important country in the Middle East, and there’s a domino effect. If Egypt goes Islamic, this will have a far more profound effect on the region than Khomeini’s revolution in Iran.”

Evans then questioned him about a proposed plan for the government to take over the private mosques including the Sheik’s own mosque at Nasr al-Islam. The Sheik replied “’Yes, theoretically Nasr al-Islam could be nationalized, but the government is very hesitant to take this step, because it could prove to be quite dangerous. Closing the “popular” mosques will drive us to take a new step. We will go to the people and bring them into the streets. We will go to the syndicates, the markets, the unions. We will paralyze the country, just as they did in Iran. The result could be bloodshed, but we know we are justified from the words in the Koran.”

The Islamist goal isn’t “one party rule,” but it amounts to that. When the Islamists won a democratic election in Algeria they declared that further elections would be unnecessary because from then on Allah would be ruling Algeria. In the Algerian election of June 12, 1990 the Islamist FIS party won a clear majority of the votes. This election is remarkable because the people, it subsequently turned out, didn’t really want all that the Islamists intended, but they hated the economic situation that existed in Algeria at the time, much as the common people of Egypt hated the situation under Nassar, Sadat and Mubarak. The Socialists do have a point when they say there is an economic element in the success of Islamism, but it isn’t that the people are necessarily embracing the entire Islamist package. A vote for the Islamists is a vote against the economic situation under Mubarak. It’s the economy, stupid.

And it shouldn’t be ignored that Mubarak’s regime (and the regimes of most of the anti-Islamist nations in the Middle East) fit the definition of Fascism as well as the Islamists do. Some think that any pure democratic election in almost any Middle-Eastern nation would put the Islamists in power. That is why Gvosdev and Takeyh recommended a “Liberal Autocracy” [see] as an interim solution. The people like those in Egypt and Algeria would vote in the Islamists who promise to improve the economy. We on the outside are convinced that Islamism would not only be bad for us, it would be bad for them; so why wouldn’t it be better to lean on the Devils we know (the autocrats such as Mubarak, Musharraf, etc) and get them to liberalize their nations. Let democracy exist when they can assure themselves (and us) that democracy exists.

Lawrence Helm

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