Muslim fundamentalism in North Africa, redux

At the end of last month, I warned that Muslim fundamentalists might exploit the situation in Egypt to take over there. It didn’t take long for signs to emerge that they were trying to do just that. A few days ago, I posted a warning from Stratfor that the same might occur in Libya, which might become a nexus for Islamic terrorism all over the region, if not the world.

Evidence demonstrating the efforts of Islamic fundamentalists to take advantage of the current unrest in North Africa is now overwhelming. The Daily Mail reports:

In keeping with Tunisia’s deep-rooted secularism and unprecedented championing of Muslim women’s rights … prostitutes carry cards issued by the Interior Ministry, pay taxes like everyone else and enjoy (along with their clients) the full protection of the law.

Or at least they did until last month’s Jasmine Revolution. But last week, faster than you could scream ‘Allahu Akbar’, hundreds of Islamists raided Abdallah Guech Street armed with Molotov cocktails and knives, torching the brothels, yelling insults at the prostitutes and declaring that Tunisia was now an Islamist state.

As soldiers fired into the air to disperse them, the Islamists won a promise from the interim government that the brothels would be permanently closed.

In other cities, brothels were targeted, too; and there have been demonstrations throughout the country – whose economy is heavily dependent on the vibrant tourism industry – against the sale of alcohol.

Suspected Islamists otherwise preoccupied themselves with slitting the throat of a Polish Catholic priest, which, if confirmed, would be the first such sectarian murder in modern Tunisian history. And anti-Semitic slogans could be heard outside Tunisia’s main synagogue: this in a country with no history of persecution of its Jewish minority.

When the Tunisian revolution started last month, it was hailed as a template for the rest of the Arab world. But if revolutions are judged by their outcomes rather than their intentions, then the story of post-revolution Tunisia is equally instructive.

The world’s attention has quickly moved on – to Egypt, Bahrain, Libya or the next theatre of this extraordinary, fast-moving drama.

The phrase ‘Arab Spring’ is being touted as if we were witnessing an unambiguous leap forward for ordinary Arabs: history marching towards democracy and pluralism.

No one wishes to contemplate, let alone prepare for, the alternative – that this might end in the restoration of authoritarian rule or, worse, the triumph of a radical Islam.

. . .

The Islamists have, through hate campaigns, set the social agenda in Tunisia even before elections have been proposed. Without a similarly assertive counterpart, there is every chance they will also fill the power vacuum being created from Cairo to Tripoli.

Egypt is the Arab world’s most populous nation, with a long tradition, like Tunisia, of tolerant and liberal Islam. The slogans on placards gave the West plenty of cause for hope, as did the westernised Egyptians who tweeted their commentary in English.

But placards are a poor proxy for the vox populi. In fact, the social decay during Hosni Mubarak’s three decades in power strongly increased the Islamists’ appeal – which Mubarak, in turn, exaggerated to keep Washington’s calls for reform at a whisper.

One month before Mubarak’s downfall, a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center found that a majority of Egyptians support stoning as a punishment for adultery, hand amputation for theft, and death for those who convert from Islam to another religion.

Sensing their moment may be nigh, the Muslim Brotherhood – harbouring a long-cherished goal of establishing an Islamist state in Egypt – is already increasing its sway in the post-revolutionary land of the Pharaohs.

. . .

As a hint of what might be in store for Egypt, consider the city of Alexandria.

Once it was a cosmopolitan summer resort famous for its secular, carefree atmosphere. Now it is about the least fun place to live in North Africa.

All Muslim women in the city are veiled – among the young, often for fear of otherwise being labelled a whore.

Violence between local Christians and Muslims is commonplace (23 Christians were killed by a bomb planted in a Coptic Orthodox church on New Year’s Day). Most bars have stopped serving alcohol, and the only women to be found on the beaches, even in the height of summer, are those taking care of their children – and they are invariably covered from head to toe in black.

It is a great mistake to assume democracy is an enemy of Islamism. When the gift of democracy is unwrapped in the Arab world, Islamists frequently spring out of the box.

The jihadis may be despised by most Muslims, but often in Arab countries, only about 20 to 40 per cent of the population vote. It is by no means impossible for the Islamists to secure a majority from the minority because their supporters are the most fanatical.

W hatever the theory of democratisation in the Arab world, the history is clear: where democracy, however tentatively, has already been introduced, it is the Islamists who have come to power.

Democracy came to Morocco, and now the fundamentalist Party for Justice and Development (PJD) increases its number of seats at each election: it is only a matter of time before the party forms a majority in parliament.

Democracy came to Gaza, and the Islamist group Hamas took power. In Bahrain, following democratic reforms a decade ago, there is now a fundamentalist Sunni block dominating the elected chamber – despite the fact that the country’s population is 70 per cent Shia.

Ditto Yemen. Even in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood was officially outlawed, the group won a quarter of the parliamentary seats up for grabs six years ago.

But the Islamists seldom want to take control of the government machine; they have little interest in setting tax or energy policy. The influence they seek is cultural totalitarianism.

There’s more at the link. This is an extremely important article, showing how the threat of fundamentalist Islam might transform the entire Middle East region into a tinderbox of religious intolerance and terrorist sympathies. I recommend it – and the articles I’ve linked in the previous posts I mentioned in the first paragraph – very highly.

We need to be very aware of this threat . . . lest one morning, we wake up to another 9/11, only this time much larger, with many more casualties . . . and wonder what hit us.

Peter

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