The Islamist-secular battle is under way

By Rami G. Khouri
The Daily Star, Lebanon

Three great battles over political power have been unleashed across the Arab world and will persist for many years, until a new political order stabilizes in every country. One in particular is now reaching an important point that will reveal much about the current political character of Arab societies. The three battles are those between military and civilian authorities (democracy vs. autocracy), between Islamists and secularists (the authority of God vs. the citizenry), and between narrow ethnic/tribal/sectarian identity and a more inclusive national identity (tribe vs. state).

These contests will take years to play themselves out, because they comprise such complex factors as identity, allegiance, collective solidarity, access to state power and resources, and self-preservation. Some of them will endure for decades or more, as we have witnessed in the lively American context between fundamentalist Christians and more secular politicians vying for presidential power, over two centuries after the American independence years first defined religion-state ties.

In the Arab context, we are at an important station in the long road to the new, more participatory, democratic and accountable, national political governance systems. The issue at hand on this stop is about the balance between Islamists and secularists.

This is not a turning point, but simply a stop along the long road, a point at which some decisions will be made by society as a whole, and the march forward will continue, with other decisions to be made at other stops. Many in the region and abroad often jump to hasty conclusions that the various Arab revolutions and uprisings have been reversed and nullified because the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists have now taken over political systems in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, and are in the process of dominating the opposition movements in Syria. This is a premature rush to judgment.

I suspect it is more accurate to see the current political tug-of-war between Islamists and secularists as phase 3 of the ongoing transition whose first two phases were the overthrow of previous regimes and the establishment of transition-to-democracy mechanisms (transitional governments, parliamentary elections, referendums, constitutional commissions, presidential elections). These transitions will continue for some years before they stabilize into new systems that citizens accept as legitimate. They will pass through several phases of vitality and stagnation, consensus and contestation, peaceful and violent protest, and other dichotomies that define political life in any country in the world.

The historic thing about the Arab states experiencing these transitions is not that Islamists are dominating. Rather, it’s that politics are happening – that different ideological viewpoints are competing peacefully and publically to shape a new political order.

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(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News ::

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