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Last Updated: 03/01/2012
Islam and its seeming incompatibility with the West
Atkilt Geleta

The wave of largely non-violent, popular movements that swept across large portions of the Arab world in early 2011 to demand government accountability, social responsiveness, women's rights, and other social reforms, is not necessarily incompatible with liberal democracy -- even if it is firmly based in political Islam.

'Arab terrorist,' played by Albert Moses in a Nescafe commercial.

It is ironic that a decade after 9/11, the Arab – vilified and typecast in Europe and the U.S. as the “terrorist” – has become a symbol of freedom and courage across the world. It can be argued that long prior to 9/11, the common perception of the Arab in the West was that of the Islamic fundamentalist. The Arab was seen as the politicized insurgent strapped with explosives around his waist, the extremist willing to go to any measure to sacrifice his life and that of strangers for a quasi-religious cause. So what to make of the millions who overtook Tahrir and ushered in a new epoch of non-violent resistance and political change? And of this pan-Arab citizens’ movement becoming the beacon of hope and the example of freedom in a world increasingly beset by injustice and inequality? Moreover, what to think, after decades of publicity and marketing and military industrial complex-sponsored excursions into every corner of the globe, that these masses of change agents voted – gasp – Islam as their modus operandi, and not western with-us-or-against-us democracy?

Protesters in prayer. Cairo, Egypt. Photo: Voices from Russia.

Two prominent themes emerge from the growing body of academic literature concerning Egypt’s non-violent revolution and the ensuing transition into the post-revolutionary period: first, non-violent movements are not an alien or new phenomena in Egypt, and second, the election of Islamist parties sweeping the Arab world reflects the fact that Islam and pan-Islamism have always played a central role in the politics of the region (Abdelhadi, 2012). Despite the Arab world experiencing three roughly distinct periods in the last century - Arab nationalism, Petro-Islam, and militant Islam - Islam’s role in politics in the region stretches at least as far back as the first non-violent movement of Egypt in 1805 (Kepel, 2002; Abdallah and Arafa). Egyptian governments - be it Nasser, Sadat or Mubarak - were merely disguised as nationalist, socialist or secular, but were in fact ingrained with Islamist ideals and used Islamic institutions (al-Azhar) as an anchor in their government (Abdelhadi, 2012).

Although history may not recognize or record it as such, the upheavals of 1805 and 1881 (Orabi revolution) were largely non-violent movements which saw mass protests involving women, political slogans and songs, and a coordinated effort between business and religious elites. Islam’s role in both revolutions is highlighted, as in 1805 protest organizers used “religious arguments to persuade the representatives of the Wali that, according to Islamic principles, lack of public consent made it his Islamic duty to step down” (Abdallah and Arafa, 5). Similarly, in 1881, it is noted that “Religious scholarly institutions were increasingly active and politicized, thanks to disciples of the Iranian revivalist of Islamic thought, and advocate for Muslim unity Sayyed Jamal al-Din”, which points to pan-Islamic sentiments stretching as far back as then (Abdallah and Arafa, 6). Also overlooked as a non-violent movement is the 1919 revolution, which was a more organized and effective movement in terms of strategy and planning. Similar to the 2011 movement, both revolutions emphasized the unity of all Egyptians regardless of faith, implemented and insisted on peaceful tactics, included women and children, and used creativity to communicate the goals and nature of the movement (Abdallah and Arafa; Abdallah, 2011).

What does it spell for the future of the region when the Muslim Brotherhood – famed Bin Laden cronies and the Al-Qaeda originators who assassinated Sadat – emerged from secret American prisons and airport blacklists to occupy the majority of seats in Egyptian parliament? Their counterparts in Turkey are already in office, and Morocco and Tunisia also just voted Islamists into government. Conventional Westernism is that the terrorists have taken power. Many would contend that, fundamentally, Islam and Western liberal democracy are incompatible. Yet if you rub the fog off your lenses a little bit you will see that the Islamists, at least in Egypt, endorse free market policies and engagement with the global community. In addition, even the most conservative Islamist party in Egypt profess not to establish authoritarian regimes, and with people being awakened to their rights in the country and across the region, state that that is impossible anyway. In the New York Times, the spokesperson for the Salafist Al-Nour party stated that “We don’t like the theocratic model, I can promise you that we will not be another dictatorship, and the Egyptian people will not give us a chance to be another dictatorship” (Friedman, 2012).

Thomas Friedman of the New York times argues that Islamist parties in the Arab Spring states have no choice but to embrace liberal western values since, without the currency of oil, which the Saudis and Iranians enjoy, Islamist parties cannot afford to de-value women’s contribution to the labour force and “impose strict religious mores on society, banks and schools” in light of suffering economies. Islamists promise assistance to the disenfranchised with job creation and social welfare programs which, as eccentric as it might sound to a secularist, is drawn directly from the pillars of their faith. As of press, women are organizing pro-women’s movements in Egypt, and youth (which comprise a majority) are demanding reforms to various sectors of society.

Tahrir Square, 2011 (MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty).

There is the worst case scenario, as Islamist parties fumble their first foray into traditional channels of power, and either mirror the corrupt (American approved) regimes before them, or distort their religions to exercise Taliban-esque fundamentalism and oppression over their societies. Then there is the ever elusive peace with the tiny island of Israel among a growing sea of Islamist countries, which according to most observers is a collision waiting to happen (Abdallah, 2011). Yet without having vast oil wealth to lean on, and with the masses awakened to their collective political currency and no longer tolerant of authoritarian regimes – and clearly possessing the will to challenge any authority – this is unlikely. As far as Israel, all indications are that there will be no changes to that situation in the short term, as peace remains tenuous amid a growing threat of conflict with Iran.

As the reawakening takes place across the Arab world, a newly emerging consciousness of dignified individuals has emerged and taken grip of the Middle East and the Maghreb. Perhaps, with a little more tolerance and acceptance, we are on the verge of a multi-polar world where different paradigms of governance, culture and forms of self-organization can co-exist – different yet compatible with each other on the level of diplomacy, trade, and international relations – where the West and a pan-Islamist region can coexist. This is the best case scenario.


Abdallah, Amr., Arafa, Yasmine. “Non-violent Resistance in the Rise of Egypt as a Nation and a State.” Chapter 15.

Abdalla, Amr. The Arab Revolutions of 2011 Roots and Prospects. Briefing in Africa Peace and Conflict Journal. Volume 4, N 1, Pp 89-94. Addis Ababa. June 2011 File.

Kepel, G. 2002. Jihad The Trail of Political Islam. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts. 23-88 File.

Friedman L., Thomas. “Political Islam Without Oil”. New York Times, The New York Times Company, 10 Jan 2012. Web. 30 Jan.2012.

Abdelhadi, Magdi. “Egypt: from Nasser’s ideological hotchpotch to an Islamist landslide”. The Guardian, © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited. 2 Jan 2012. Web. 30 Jan.2012.

Atkilt Geleta is a journalist and masters student in the Media, Peace and Conflict Studies program at the UN-mandated University for Peace, Costa Rica.