The fact that virtually every regime in the Muslim world, except the Islamic state of Iran, is a dictatorship of some kind or other is widely recognized. In the last month, we have seen high-profile protests against the authoritarian rulers in Egypt and Pakistan. Similar protests, usually on a smaller scale, are commonplace in both countries and in many other Muslim countries. Other countries are even more repressive, so that even such ineffective protests are impossible. Confronting this authoritarianism is inevitably the starting point for virtually all political activism in such countries. Unfortunately, experience suggests that such activism is currently largely ineffective; Mubarak, for example, has been in power since 1981, when he succeeded Anwar Sadat after the latter’s execution, and no-one expects him to surrender power any time soon. If this activism is to be more effective, therefore, some key points need to be understood.
The first is the main reason for the prevalence of authoritarian rule in our countries. There are several explanations for this phenomenon. One, which underpins much Western discussion on the topic, is that there is something in Islamic values and political culture that makes Muslim societies more prone to authoritarianism. This, however, is no more than blaming the victims of dictatorship for their own repression, especially as Islamic movements are both the main political opposition movements in most Muslim countries, and the greatest victims of state repression. This paradox is ignored by Western intellectuals and politicians, who routinely turn the argument around to suggest that the defeat of “political Islam” is an essential prerequisite for the democratisation of Muslim countries.
This formulation takes us closer to the reality of the situation: that the prevalence and popularity of Islamic movements is the main obstacle to democratisation and the main reason for the survival of the dictators. Why? Because virtually every dictator in the Muslim world is an ally of the West, and depends on the West for survival. (This includes even Syrian ruler Bashar al-Asad, who is publicly vilified by the West for their opposition to Israel and relationship with Iran and Hizbullah; remember, for example, where the US sent Mahar Arar for torture after his arrest in New York in 2002.) The real reason for the prevalence of authoritarian rule in Muslim countries is that the West fears any real political liberalisation because it would inevitably mean the rise of Islamic movements and the establishment of governments that represent their own peoples’ values and interests rather than those of the West.
The West claims, of course, to champion democratisation and political reform in Muslim countries. But these claims need to be examined critically. Those of Western politicians like USsecretary of state Condoleezza Rice, who last month lectured Egypt on the need for political reform, can be dismissed as hypocritical, self-serving double-talk that fools no-one. Then there are the claims of many Western non-governmental institutions, which claim to be promoting civil society, political reform, human rights and democratisation, and often offer help and support to opposition movements in Muslim countries. Often they lobby for political prisoners and offer support networks for opposition groups. But this support is seldom without strings: it is offered to those who are willing to set aside any Islamic commitment and accept broadly secular, pro-Western notions of democratic government. Thus marginal figures with little popular credibility are supported and promoted, such as Saad Eddin Ibrahim in Egypt, while far more popular Islamic movements, even those that work within existing systems, such as the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen, are seen as part of the problem.
Islamic movements seeking to oppose authoritarian regimes commonly make two errors. The first is to soften or moderate their Islamic approach in order to find common ground with others who also oppose the government but are less Islamically oriented. These often include secular groups with Western connections. The second is to try to oppose the dictators from within the political systems that they establish. But these systems, even where they have apparently ‘democratic’ elements, such as parliaments and elections, are designed to secure the regime in power, and have rarely been used successfully against their creators; and never when the dictators have had outside support to crush opposition groups if and when they threaten to become too independent.
All dictators recognise that they must allow a degree of political activism and opposition to absorb popular political passions; and so they do, to the greatest extent possible before their essential interests are threatened or they fear losing control of the situation, at which stage the restrictions kick in, usually with tacit Western support in the name of maintaining stability. The opposition demonstrations and activism that we are seeing in Egypt and Pakistan must be understood in this framework. In both countries, the dictators are secure in the knowledge that their own positions are reasonably strong; and the powers behind them are secure that even if the dictators fall there is no risk of genuinely popular, Islamic and anti-Western alternatives emerging.
While Islamic movements must continue to maintain political pressure on the dictators of our countries, therefore, they must also look beyond this immediate imperative. If such opposition is to be meaningful, Islamic movements must offer strategies for the total transformation of Islamic societies, rather than working within existing systems, and build popular bases for more effective political opposition in the future. Such movements are, of course, the ones that are most heavily repressed. But nothing less will achieve the ultimate object of the liberation of our societies from both the West and the dictators.