Monday, 05 August 2013 | Balbir Punj | in Edit

Across the world from Turkey to Egypt to Pakistan, Islamists are on the rise. But as the Arab Spring at its peak proved, they can be pushed back if liberals and civil society leaders stand up to them A world troubled by extremist Islam is watching Egypt’s streets and squares with bated breath. If the Army-backed liberals in that country win the confrontation with the Islamists, there may be a reversal in the steady march of fundamentalists in the region stretching from Tunisia in the west to Pakistan in the east. Across the Mediterranean, Turkey too had caught the wind and it is the popular opposition to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist policies that somewhat broke the country’s slide into religious fundamentalism. Turkey is still under the shadow of that conflict — liberals backed by the Army are demanding a return to the 1920s era when Turkey was established as a Western-style modern state with a secular Constitution. But recently the liberal traditions of Turkey have suffered a setback. For instance, on July 5, local Muslim fundamentalists in Trabzon offered their Ramzan prayers at an ancient Byzantine church in the north-eastern coastal city. This 13th century church was converted into a mosque around the 16th century and eventually became a museum in 1964. However, through a court verdict, the Islamists have reclaimed the building and converted it into a functioning mosque. This incident only underlines the hard reality that extremist Islam does not tolerate either other faiths or even a small departure from the orthodox interpretation that it prescribes for the faithful. The Taliban- type zealots will not let girls study or work, they will not allow elections or representative forms of Government to function. They only wish to implement what they say are divine laws. And so it comes as no surprise that both in Iran and Saudi Arabia — rival nations that represent Islam’s two main warring sects, the Shias and the Sunnis respectively — brutal medieval practices such as stoning criminals to death is legal and public participation statutorily defined, including the size of stones to be used. There are, of course, moderate Islamic countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and Morocco, where some secular laws prevail, democratic norms and elected leaders are accepted, and extremists put down through a carrot-and-stick approach. But the Islamist threat looms large over these countries too, and there are no guarantees on when the situation will take a turn for the worse. For instance, in Sunni-majority Iraq where a Shia Government has now come to power, the two sects are at each other’s throats. Similarly, in the 70s, when Islamists overthrew the secular Shah of Iran, they imposed a strict religious code. Since then, a council of clerics has governed Iran, handpicking, as was seen recently, even presidential candidates. Take Bangladesh as another example. While Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League Government rescued the country from religious extremism, religious parties are waiting to tie up with the main Opposition party in that country to dethrone the secular ruling party and bring back the country’s Islamist Constitution. The problems of religious fundamentalism today are best demonstrated in Pakistan. This is the month of Ramzan — a time of penance, piety and rededication to the divine path. Yet, in several places in Pakistan (a country that was carved out of united India to supposedly allow Muslims a safe haven), Muslim blood lies splattered on the lawns of mosques because different Islamic sects cannot agree on who is the true believer, and thus, they seek to force a decision by competitive bloodletting. A few months back there was apprehension worldwide that Islamic extremism would swallow Pakistan as the Taliban and other Muslim clerics joined the call to boycott the general election. The civil society that liberated the nation from military dictatorship finally prevailed and a Government with an effective majority in the National Assembly was installed in office. However, the current level of bloodletting displays how the forces of fundamentalism can make the functioning of even moderate Islamism tenuous. In Bangladesh too, civil society has rallied in favour of a secular Constitution and has demanded harsh punishment for fundamentalist leaders who had sided with the Pakistani Army in 1971 and massacred millions of Bengalis. Against this backdrop, what is happening in Egypt is reflective of things to come. Egyptian civil society had risen in revolt against the dictatorship of former President Hosni Mubarak and had succeeded in ousting him from power. In this, it was also joined by the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood that was long suppressed by the autocratic leader. However, once successful, civil society and its liberal leaders let down their guard. The Brotherhood, on the other hand, seized power thanks to its well-knit socio-political organisation, and even got an illiberal Constitution approved through a widely-criticised referendum. Continuing economic distress and the increasing clout of Islamists, however, has now provoked the liberals to pour back into the streets and challenge the fundamentalists. The Army’s intervention in favour of the liberals has sealed the fate of the Islamists within the power corridors ,but the Brothers are now challenging the liberals on the streets. At this stage, there is no telling how the confrontation will end. In December 2011, when the Tunisian people took to the streets to oust a three-decades-old autocracy, there was hope that there would be a new awakening in North Africa in favour of democracy and liberal values. That hope gained ground as the spirit of revolution spread from Tunisia to Libya and Egypt and Yemen and Bahrain. And even though the Arab Spring has since threatened to turn into an Islamist winter, there is still a possibility that, in the Islamic crescent stretching from North Africa to Pakistan, there will be a determined confrontation between the forces of liberalism or moderate Islam and extremist Islam. Events in Egypt will indicate which way the wind will blow. The next few months will reveal if civil society leaders in the region have the power to contain jihadi terror, and promote the rule of law based on modern principles of jurisprudence, economic growth and gender equality. The year 2014 will also be crucial as US troops withdraw from Afghanistan and expose the moderate but fragile Government of Hamid Karzai to the powerful Taliban’s attacks. If the Taliban returns to Kabul in any form, with the Pakistani establishment still holding on to the ‘defence in depth’ strategy against India, and if the confrontation in Egypt brings the ousted Islamist President Mohamed Morsi back to power, the world would have moved backwards and jihadi terror will be the gainer. (The accompanying visual is of supporters of Egypt’s ousted President Mohamed Morsi chanting slogans against Egyptian Defence Minister General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, in Cairo. AP photo by Hassan Ammar)





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