Political successes and failures

In Western eyes, in the last 20 years the Islamists seem to have enjoyed a string of successes. Nineteen seventy nine saw the revolution in Iran; ten years later the National Islamic Front came to power in Sudan. In the last two years the Taleban has been gaining control of Afghanistan. In Palestine the interruption of the "peace process" is strengthening the Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas. Hamas has every reason to want to destroy the peace process because its members believe, in the classic way of revolutionaries of the 1960s and 1970s, that if they can discredit Yasser Arafat, the Chairman of the Palestine Authority, and create chaos and war, it will be they, as the most extreme party, who will benefit. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, has played into their hands by his failure to accept the Oslo peace accords, which is what the Hamas extremists must have calculated when their bombings of early 1996 destroyed the electoral chances of the then Prime Minister and Labour Party leader, Shimon Peres.

In the Middle East the Islamists’ record is seen differently. It is accepted that the Iranian revolution has been a disaster. It is seen as having impoverished and isolated its country, and as having caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of its people. The slaughter came about partly through the Ayatollah Khomeini insisting on continuing the war with Iraq in the mid-1980s, when the Iraqis had made it plain that they would accept peace almost on Iranian terms. The Iranian government continues to have links with the Hizbollah in southern Lebanon, and it may have given help in the last three years to a few people on the more violent fringes of the uprising in Bahrain. Otherwise it has minimal influence in the Arab world.

The events in Algeria since the cancelled elections of 1992 are seen as an equal disaster - and a much more topical one. The massacres there are reported in much more detail in the Arab world than they are in the West - though exactly what is happening is a mystery. The terrorists of the Groupe Islamique Armé and the Armée Islamique du Salut would seem to have no motive for cutting the throats of dozens of women and children at a time - unless, on a simple but perverted logic, they are trying to show that they are powerful, and that the government is not in control of its own country. Many Algerians believe that it is the army that is carrying out the killings, to discredit the Islamists. More plausibly it is suggested that GIA units have been infiltrated by the security forces and are periodically encouraged to make attacks on villages which the agents provocateurs persuade members have betrayed them.

There are several variations on these themes. The authorities have armed, but are failing to supervise, self defence groups in the villages, and these groups are engaged in a war with the terrorists. Both sides when they lose men let themselves believe that this must have happened because people in a neighbouring village have been working for the other side - and so they carry out revenge killings. The two forces also want to punish villages that have provided recruits for the other side, or, it is suggested, persuade villages of suspect loyalty that they are more powerful than their enemy and should therefore be the force with which the villagers co-operate. To Europeans the logic of this may seem strange, but the concept of a ruler or faction exercising power through fear is a familiar one in the Arab world.

The cycle of fear, suspicion of betrayal and killing has echoes of what happened within the ranks of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) during the war of independence of 1954-62. In the present circumstances the violence is given a twist by the fact that most of it is happening in the area south of Algiers known as the Mitidja, the country’s only truly fertile region, and it is thought that some killings are related to land disputes and old village rivalries.

In 1993 the terrorist acts of the Gamaa Islamiyya and Islamic Jihad in Egypt attracted as much publicity in the Arab world as the conflict in Algeria does now. Since then the government’s military campaign against the terrorists, conducted with considerable brutality, seems to have been effective, and bombings and killings have become quite rare.

The incompetence and cruelty of the government of Sudan attracts a low level of publicity. Since it came to control the régime, in the aftermath of the coup d’ état of 1989, the National Islamic Front, like the government in Iran, has isolated and impoverished its people, wrecked the prospects for peace in the south, provoked further rebellions and nearly caused the break up of the country.

It is difficult for a Westerner to make an accurate assessment of opinion in a part of the world where there are few free elections and no opinion polls - so one’s view of the effect of terrorism and incompetent Islamist government on attitudes has to come from chance conversations or discussions with members of the intelligentsia whose jobs involve their dealing with large numbers of "ordinary" people. These conversations generally reveal people’s disgust with Islamic revolution - except, in some cases, where Hamas is concerned.

In Jordan, which is one of the few countries which does hold free elections, popular cynicism with Islamist politicians has developed partly in response to the poor performance of some Islamist ministers when they were given a chance to exercise power after the elections of 1989. In office they were no longer able to seek refuge in vague and pious phrases, or promises to "consult", which in the usual manner of Islamist politicians they had made before the elections. They found themselves confronted with all the large and small policy issues that ministers usually have to tackle, and it became obvious that if they were not allowed to institute a complete revolution their only ideas were for trivial, cosmetic adjustments to people’s routines. The Minister of Education did away with the morning song, which had been sung in schools since 1921, and replaced it with verses from the Koran. He and others replaced their girl secretaries with what a secular member of parliament described as "dirty men with beards". They tried to encourage their staffs to put away their shoes and wear sandals.

When the Prime Minister was changed, by the King, in 1991 the five Islamist ministers lost their portfolios. In the next elections, in 1993, the Islamists’ strength in the parliament was reduced from about 35 - in the 1989 parliament there had been several members whose loyalties were uncertain - to 21 out of 80 seats. Part of this reduction was brought about by a change in the electoral rules to give people a single vote, which the government calculated (rightly) would be cast in most cases for tribal candidates. Previously electors had had as many votes as there were seats in their electoral districts, and the less sophisticated had tended to cast their first for a relation or a member of their tribe, and the remaining one or two for religious candidates whom they imagined would be "safe" and conservative, but whom they did not know personally. The consensus among Jordanians, though, was that it was as much the poor performance of the ministers, and one or two minor sex and corruption scandals, as the changes in electoral rules that lost the Islamists seats.

In Jordan and elsewhere the public’s perception of Islamist politicians has become increasingly cynical. There is no question that there are many cultured and idealistic people who have returned to Islam in their personal lives since the late 1960s, and who would like to see government conducted in a more moral fashion, mainly through it being less corrupt and more democratic. Yet many of the Islamist political leaders, particularly those just below the top of the movements, seem to be concerned simply with pursuing power, and in some cases making money for themselves. It is sometimes said in the Middle East that if Communism were the fashionable philosophy, exactly the same people would have joined the Communist Party. Many of their supporters are rather aggressive members of the unemployed - in some cases the unemployable, or ex-convicts - who have become attached to Islamist organisations because they want to assert themselves. Certainly these were the most conspicuous members of the movement in Saudi Arabia before 1994, when the government put their leaders in prison. They devoted themselves to interfering in the lives of other citizens - upbraiding men and women for being improperly dressed in public, which often meant that they felt a man’s robe was too long or that a woman should not show high heels below her shawls. They would raid shops selling CDs and cassettes if they saw girls inside tapping their heels to Western music.

It would be inaccurate, however, to suggest that Islamist politicians and political movements have been entirely discredited in the Middle East. People may not believe in Islamic revolution, but where they have lost faith in secular politicians and where individual Islamist politicians or parties have not been discredited, the Islamists still attract votes. In the early and mid-1990s the Refah Party in Turkey steadily increased its support because the urban and rural poor lost faith in the ability or will of secular politicians to help them.

On the same logic, in countries that allow elections to the governing bodies of trades unions, professional associations and students’ unions, the Islamists gain votes when it seems people are especially disenchanted with central government or when individuals running for election are particularly able or honest. In the West Bank of Palestine and the Gaza Strip, where there are many such elections, it seemed that before the Oslo peace accords the election results were determined mainly by local factors or the character of individual candidates. Since the accords of 1993 results have depended on whether the peace process has been moving forward, benefiting Arafat, or whether it has been frozen, benefiting Hamas.

At another local political level in the poor countries Islamist activists in charitable organisations are building support by running clinics, making collections to help people in need, periodically adjudicating disputes (more quickly and fairly than the secular courts would do), and providing their own disaster relief - as when earthquakes hit Tipaza in Algeria in 1989 and Cairo in 1992.

In summary, one detects political currents flowing in opposite directions. When people think of Islamist governments, revolutionary organisations and Islamist politicians en masse, they are unimpressed. Yet at a local political level, and at some of the poorest levels of society, individual honest politicians and charitable bodies, which are often very political, still command respect and increase their following.

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-library | April 1999

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