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Rubin Reports: How to Make the `Bad Guys’ into `Good Guys’ By Pretending They’re Moderate Guys

A protest by Salafis in Cairo

A protest by Salafis in Cairo
Photo Credit: Al Arabiya News

Here’s the New York Times version:  “The Muslim Brotherhood…is proving more pragmatic than expected. Emad Gad, a lawmaker from the opposition liberal bloc, says “we can cooperate with” them. The Brotherhood is also working with the military council that has failed at running the country and is supposed to cede power to the new president in June.”

Consider these parallel statements in an Associated Press article on Tunisia:

“This emerging movement of believers known as Salafis has seemingly appeared out of thin air.”

Now that is true if one speaks of them as an organized movement. Even then, though, they didn’t appear out of thin air but didn’t exist because they were repressed by the regime, just as was true in Egypt, Libya, in a different way in Turkey, and elsewhere.

Let me create an image. If you go out to rich farmland where the seeds are planted, if you add water and perhaps some fertilizer, then the corn or wheat can also be said to have “seemingly appeared out of thin air.” That soil, of course, is the society as it existed, including the role of Islam in shaping them.

If extremism, and especially Islamist extremism just appears because some people “misunderstood” Islam or want to “hijack” it, then how are they so instantly successful? There has to be a serious consideration of what created these beliefs, movements, and popular support for them. Of course, in doing so let’s remember that many people also oppose them. So the environment is not deterministic but it does have influences in a certain direction.

Ok, so now we have a culture war between Salafists and secularist modernist liberals. But here’s how the narrative is spun for the Western observer: fortunately, there’s a third, moderate force that can be depended on to bring balance and democracy. And its…

The Muslim Brotherhood!

So here’s how the Associated Press explains it:

“Caught between the Salafis and the secularists are the moderate Islamists who won Tunisia’s first free elections and are trying to build a democratic model for countries that followed Tunisia down this still uncertain revolutionary path.”

In other words, the AP is “officially” telling us what the Brotherhood’s goal is real democracy. But is the Brotherhood “caught between” the other two groups or, rather, is it seeking the same goal as the Salafists? On the one hand, the Brotherhood is going to respond to pressure from the Salafists by going farther and faster; on the other hand, it will use the Salafists as a cover to prove their own “moderation” and present themselves as everyone’s protector from those crazy extremist types.

Here’s another point worth considering: “The Salafis…call the secularists leftover supporters of the old dictator.” This is a good tactic also for Egypt, Libya, perhaps Syria, and in a watered-down form in Turkey. In the Western interpretation, these were revolutions for democracy and modernization. But in the Islamist interpretation—Brotherhood just as much as Salafist: The old regime was a dictatorship that repressed Islam; the revolution was for Islam; the future regime will be Islamic.

Here is how Professor Hussein Solomon makes this point, in this case discussing South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) Party believing it has a monopoly on virtue and should have a monopoly on political power:

“The ANC does not see itself as a political party like other political parties representing a particular constituency, but rather as a revolutionary movement representing all South Africans….The ANC sees all those who oppose them as `counter-revolutionary.’ The ANC is the custodian of the mythical National Democratic Revolution. Those who expose the ANC’s ineptitude in governance and corruption within the `revolutionary movement’s’ ranks are all reactionaries.”

In neighboring Zimbabwe, he continues, “Despite the terror [President Robert] Mugabe and his goons have unleashed on Zimbabwe’s hapless citizens, [the people are told] that it was [his] ZANU-PF [party] which delivered them from the clutches of Ian Smith’s racist regime.” In both South Africa and Zimbabwe other groups that participated in that struggle are ignored or delegitimized while the ruling party’s dictatorship is justified because it is the sole legitimate institution representing the revolution.

The same thing is happening in the Middle East. Said Ferjani, a high-ranking member of the Brotherhood’s party, presented the situation this way, with the AP’s cooperation:

“There is a war of life styles; someone from one group wants to impose their lifestyle on the other group. They each believe in freedom of speech only for themselves.” He called the liberals, “secular fundamentalists;” the AP called them the “secular elite.”

So the Salafists and liberals each want to be dictators but the Brotherhood will defeat both “extremes” and ensure freedom for everyone?

Ferjani added that the Brotherhood didn’t want a culture war:  “We are dealing with the business of government, we have floods in the north, a sinking economy and these people are talking about the burqa and the hijab.  I don’t think they are very grown up.”

About the Author: Professor Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. See the GLORIA/MERIA site at www.gloria-center.org.


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