The awakening of Muslim North Africa

Farzana Hassan [Author, Women's rights activist]: "Much of the Arab world is in turmoil. The Shia majority in the tiny island kingdom of Bahrain has suffered years of oppression by the ruling Sunni minority and is now demanding freedom. The citizens of newly liberated Egypt and Tunisia suffered economic hardship and repression before revolting against the Mubarak and Ben Ali regimes. Protests are also taking place in Morocco, Yemen and Algeria, though they have not yet reached fever pitch.

Libya is still burning. Muammar Ghadaffi has proved to be even more fiendish than Mubarak in crushing the revolt against his forty year dictatorial rule.

The world is rightly concerned about the outcome of these widespread protests and revolutions across North Africa and the Gulf. The question is whether this Arab awakening is a struggle for democracy in the Western liberal sense, or a spread of radical Islam across the region. It is obvious that Arabs want freedom from dictators, but do they have a clear vision about the kind of society they wish to forge?

In this regard, a recent PEW survey is rather disconcerting. While young Egyptians demanded democratic reform, they also appeared to endorse Shariah regulations such as killing for apostasy and stoning for adultery. Their understanding of democracy appears to be influenced by Islam's view of participative government as expressed in the principles of Shura (Consultation) and Ijma (consensus of the community). But do these principles as embodied in nascent Islam's political system represent democracy in the true sense, especially when greatly circumscribed by aforementioned legalities such as stoning for adultery and capital punishment for apostasy?

Tunisia is still experiencing aftershocks from last month's revolution. One would hope for less Islamist influence in that country than in Egypt and Libya, but Tunisia's "moderate Islamist" party led by Rachid Ghannouchi is poised to play a key role in the shaping of a future democratic Tunisian government. Yet among the recently revolutionized countries, Tunisia perhaps has the greatest chance of reconciling Islam's "theo-democracy" with modern liberal values.

In the rest of the Arab world, the prospects of such reform are less pronounced. There's much speculation on the role of Islamists in shaping the politics of these countries. The role of Islamist parties has been exaggerated at times and downplayed at others. But what also needs to be considered in this discourse is the extent of religious fervour observed among ordinary protesters on the streets. Images of hijabi and niqabi women protesting against Mubarak's regime are all too familiar. Would these individuals and their male counterparts be less inclined to resist a bill introducing punishment for apostasy should the Muslim brotherhood decide to propose one? Would Coptic Christians have the right to seek top political office in Egypt? Will the religious fervour of the youth enable increased Islamization of laws due to their disinclination to resist it?

Islamization need not monopolize political parties or organizations. Moreover, democracy is much more than just electing governments. It also includes an acknowledgement of individual liberties, freedom of conscience and an independent judiciary. A state based on Islamic values would most likely be governed under some interpretation of Shariah law. Often, this would bar women and minorities from ever assuming leadership roles in the government. Shariah law would also not be subject to review, as it would be considered divine. Within the framework of such a system, therefore, could a minority representing a non-Shariah viewpoint ever have the opportunity to become the majority? And if not, can such a scenario be deemed democratic? Arabs must address these important questions before formulating a vision for their countries now caught in the firestorm of revolution and discontent."

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