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September 17, 2014 / 22 Elul, 5774
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The Islamist Tsunami and Arab Society

Supporters of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Mursi

Supporters of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Mursi
Photo Credit: Wissam Nassar

The main difference between the constitution in Turkey and the one in Egypt is that in Turkey, the constitution was protected historically by the military which defended the secular state against Islamization – until recently it has been undermined by pseudo-judicial persecution – while the Egyptian military has no guiding political or religious principles. The Egyptian military will accept whatever deal allows them to maintain their rule. It matters little to them whether women’s faces are covered or not; whether Christians will enjoy full citizenship or not, or whether liberals are free to express themselves or not – without the restrictions that all Islamists long to impose.

Islamists’ supporters in the Arab revolution should learn from history and particularly from that of the Iranian Revolution, in which the liberals similarly formed an alliance with the Islamists, only to be slaughtered by them afterward. Once the Iranian clerics came to power; they focused on Islamizing society, not on building democracy and striving for social justice – both of which had been promised during the revolution.

Within months of the founding of the Islamic Republic, female government workers were forced to wear head coverings, women were barred from becoming judges, gender segregation laws were promulgated, and the age of marriage for girls was lowered to 13.

We would do well to recall that even though the Islamic Republic was not welcomed widely in the region because of its Shia revolutionary principles, the Iranian Revolution did have an impact on peoples’ social, as well as the political, lives. In Saudi Arabia, for example, two extremist Islamist developments – one internal and other external, both of which took place in 1979 — changed the direction of Saudi society: the attack and takeover by Juhaiman Al-Otaibi and his Islamist followers on the Al-Masjid al-Haram [Grand Mosque] in Mecca, and the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Both the Al-Otaibi assault and the Khomeini Revolution and were widely condemned in Saudi Arabia but, because both criticized and embarrassed Saudi Arabia – the country that includes the two holy mosques, in Mecca and Medina – as not representing Islam virtuously, the Islamist outlook was adopted as Saudi government policy and the foundational Wahhabism of the kingdom aggressively reinforced.

As a result, all plays, fashion shows, international events, and cinemas were banned in Saudi Arabia. The so-called Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, known as the “religious police,” or “the Commission” (hai’a in Arabic) increasingly harassed people on the street, and “control” became the watchword of the 1980s, particularly for women. Female broadcasters were prevented from reading the news; all female singers and other women vanished completely from the television screen; women without their ID cards could not walk around, even with their husbands, and sometimes even ID cards were not enough for the “religious police.”

Saudi Arabia continued this method of reinforcing Islamization, not only inside its own borders but also among most of the Sunni communities in the region — primarily to establish a balance in outward piety with its rival, the Shia Islamic Republic of Iran. Since it founding in 1979, the main mission of Iran has been to export its Islamic ideology and galvanize the Shia Muslims across the Muslim world against their own governments and against the international community.

Until the shock of September 11, 2001, when 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, the world was not even aware of the effects of this Islamization. Greater pressure was subsequently exerted on Saudi Arabia to open up its society and loosen its hard-line Wahhabi influence on society.

Although the Islamists are now in power, their biggest test is yet to come: Can they offer solutions to the people’s largely economic woes that brought them out onto the streets in the first place? And will the Islamists in the Arab world be compelled to meet their people’s needs through the workings and compromises of day-to-day government rather than the imposition of an ideology in the name of religion?

However, if you perceive that act the terrorism on 9/11 was the result of an unwelcome revolution and an unsuccessful extremist attack in Mecca, imagine what the impact of the Islamists’ successes in the Arab revolutions will be, not only on Saudi Arabia, but across the world?

About the Author: Najat AlSaied is a Saudi PhD researcher in media and development at University of Westminster in London.


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