Religious parties also have a role to play in politics
It has been fascinating, writing from the region, to see commentators outside the Middle East so taken with Tawwakol Karman, the Yemeni journalist and activist who, along with two African women, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last week.
Karman is indeed an impressive figure, the first Arab woman to win the prize and also the joint youngest. Arabs have historically made up a disproportionate number of Nobel Peace laureates over the past 20 years, a total of three, more than any other group or nation apart from Americans.
If the person of Karman has garnered such praise, her political party is less enthusiastically welcomed outside the Arab world. Karman is part of Islah, Yemen's main opposition party, one that has an Islamist ideology.
Of all the women who have contributed to the Arab Spring, the named and the nameless, it is instructive that it was Karman who most impressed the Nobel committee. She has been leading protests against Ali Abdullah Saleh's leadership for years, while juggling her family life and her work as a journalist.
In many respects she is very much in the mould of modern female activists from the region, who resist the state under astonishingly difficult circumstances, while trying to maintain a normal life. Very few of them are professional politicians.
It is through their philosophical beliefs that they find the will and the reason to resist these regimes. At the same time, it is important to recognise that many of those who oppose the regimes initially do so for religious reasons. The opposition to so many Arab regimes has been Islamist in nature, made up primarily of individuals whose politics have been sparked and motivated by their faith.
It is that belief that has kept many of them going through long years of repression. Islamists have been imprisoned, tortured and disappeared in most countries of the Arab world. Leaders from Mubarak through Ben Ali to Qaddafi and Assad justified those measures by pointing to the dangers that Islamists posed. For too many years, the West agreed and connived with those regimes.
The Arab Spring changed all that. As The National's leader today argues, Islamists are making their presence felt in most of the republics: in Libya, in Tunisia, in Egypt and in Yemen. It is extremely likely, if and when elections are held in all these countries, that Islamists will win a sizeable share, though most likely not a majority.
If they win that mandate fairly, it will be all to the good for the Arab world. Islamism is an important political and philosophical current.
Apart from reasons of democratic legitimacy - Islamists have far too large a support base to be excluded from a representative government - this is also important because it will remove the monopoly on opposition that Islamists have enjoyed for years. By declaring "Islam is the answer", Islamists have been freed from having to articulate policies for everyday issues - roads and schools and hospitals. Islam by itself is not the answer to those questions.
How Islamists answer those questions will define the Middle East in the coming years - and define their level of support. More than anything, the crowds gathering across the Arab world are demanding change, a new way of governing. That is the most pressing demand of the Arab publics and they will look unfavourably on governments that don't deliver those changes, regardless of their claims to legitimacy.
The Islamists' answers will not be the same everywhere. Islamism - like democracy itself - comes in many shapes and forms. It is more a world view than a system of government.
What are called Islamist movements across the world all have their own specificity: Turkey's Justice and Development Party is not Lebanon's Hizbollah, Palestine's Hamas is not Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.
Yet precisely because Islamism is a world view, there are philosophical difficulties with Islamism in democracies. These difficulties are more to do with religion in ostensibly secular political systems than anything to do with Islam particularly, but it is important to remain conscious of them. Ultimately, Islamists believe in the influence of religion in public life, the influence of religion in politics, and that will make it hard for the compromise essential in politics.
And yet religious parties have often proved surprisingly amenable to compromise. The most likely outcome for Islamists who enter government is that it will force them to articulate policies and to temper the more outlandish wings of their parties. In competing political systems, seeking votes has a habit of tempering attitudes.
There are dangers, real dangers, with the changes of the Arab Spring. The revolutions are not one-off events, they are processes, not linear but evolving. The revolutions in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere could yet evolve in ways that would be detrimental to the people, and to those countries' relationships with the West.
Yet there is no alternative. The Arab Spring was a reaction against the status quo, a refutation of the idea that change had to come from the top, from outside, or never.
Change will be difficult. It will be unexpected. There will be clashes and confrontations, steps forward and back. But however it plays out, religious parties have a role.
Published: October 11, 2011 04:00 AM