The Tunisian Revolt: Where Have All the Islamists Gone?
Olivier Roy, a professor at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, is the author of Holy Ignorance and The Failure of Political Islam.
Florence, Italy—The novel characteristic of the first peaceful popular revolution to topple a dictatorship in the Arab world is that there was nothing Islamic about it.
The young Tunisian street peddler who triggered the revolt by publicly burning himself reminds us of the Vietnamese Buddhist monks in 1963 or of Jan Palach in Czechoslovakia in 1969—an act of precisely the opposite nature from the suicide bombings that are the trademark of present Islamic terrorism.
Even in this sacrificial act, there has been nothing religious: no green or black turban, no loose white gown, no Allah Akbar, no call to jihad. It was instead an individual, desperate and absolute protest, without a word on paradise and salvation.
Suicide in this case was the last act of freedom aimed at shaming the dictator and prodding the public to react. It was a call to life, not death.
In the street demonstrations that followed, there was no call for an Islamic state, no white shroud put by protesters in front of the bayonets as in Tehran in 1978. Nothing about Sharia or Islamic law. And, most striking, no “down with US imperialism.” The hated regime was perceived as an indigenous one, the result of fear and passivity, and not as the puppet of French or US neo-colonialism, despite its endorsement by the French political elite.
Instead, the protesters were calling for freedom, democracy and multiparty elections. Put more simply, they just wanted to get rid of the kleptocratic ruling family (“dégage!” as said a popular motto in French).
In this Muslim society nothing about an “Islamic exceptionalism” was manifest. And at the end, when the real “Islamist” leaders came from their exile in the West (yes, they are in the West, not in Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia), they, like Rachid Ghannoushi, spoke of elections, coalition government and stability, all the while keeping a low profile.
Have the Islamists disappeared?
No. But in North Africa, at least, most of them have become democrats. True, fringe groups have followed the path of a nomadic global jihad and are roaming the Sahel in search of hostages, but they have no real support in the population. That is why they went to the desert.
Nevertheless, these highway robbers are still branded as a strategic threat by Western governments at a loss to design a long-term policy. Other Islamists have just given up politics and closed their door, pursuing a pious, conservative, but apolitical way of life. They put a burqa on their wives as well as on their lives.
But the bulk of the former Islamists have come to the same conclusion of the generation that founded the Justice and Development (AK) party in Turkey: There is no third way between democracy and dictatorship. There is just dictatorship and democracy.
This acknowledgement of the failure of political Islam has met the mood of the new generation of protesters in Tunisia. The new Arab generation is not motivated by religion or ideology, but by the aspiration for a peaceful transition to a decent, democratic and “normal” government. They just want to be like the others.
The Tunisian revolt helps clarify a reality about Arab life: The terrorism we’ve seen over the past few years, with its utopian millenarism, doesn’t stem from the real societies of the Middle East. More Islamic radicals are to be found in the West than at home.
To be sure, the picture differs from country to country. The post-Islamist generation is more visible in North Africa than in Egypt or Yemen, not to speak of Pakistan, which is a collapsing country. But everywhere in the Arab Middle East, the generation that is leading the protest against dictatorship does not have an Islamist character.
This is not to say there are no big challenges ahead. There are indeed many: how to find political leaders who can live up to popular expectations, how to avoid the pitfalls of anarchy, how to reconstruct political and social bonds that have been deliberately destroyed by dictatorial regimes and rebuild a civil society.
But there is at least one immediate question raised by the Tunisian revolution.
Why is the West still supporting most of the Middle East dictatorships even as this democratic surge roils across the region? The answer in the past, of course, has been that the West sees authoritarian regimes as the best bulwark against Islamism.
That was the rationale behind its support for the cancellation of the elections in Algeria in 1990, for turning a blind eye on the rigging of the Egyptian elections, and for ignoring the choice of the Palestinians in Gaza.
In light of the Tunisian and Egyptian experiences, this approach must be re-evaluated. In the first place, these regimes are no longer a reliable bulwark. They could just collapse at anytime. Second, what are they a bulwark against if the new generation is post-Islamist and pro-democratic?
Just as the Arab revolt has been a turning point in the Arab world, so, too, it must be a turning point in the West’s policy toward the region. Realpolitik today means supporting the democratization of the Middle East.