Iran Viewpoint: The Arab World And Power Challenge – OpEd


By Pir-Mohammad Mollazehi

Two different terms have been used to describe the current developments in the Arab world: Arab Spring and the Islamic Awakening. Both terms have their own political, ideological and emotional implications and more than reflecting realities of developments in the Arab world, they reflect the expectations and aspirations of those who have coined these terms. What is actually going on in the Arab world cannot be described by any of these terms. The main reasons behind political developments in Arab countries should be sought in the context of the Arab world. The Arab world, in particular and the Muslim world, in general, are faced with two important challenges:

1. How to adapt religious values and traditions to the modern world; and

2. How to complete the transition from tribal power structures to a modern structure.

In reality, Arab countries are facing problems on both fronts although slight differences can be seen in terms of indigenous and local conditions from one country to another. From a broader viewpoint, one may say that the Arab world is faced with the option of choosing between two ideological schools of thought in order to build a new power structure. One school of thought promotes liberalism and secularism as opposed to the second one which attaches the highest significance to Islam. Of course, the second alternative encompasses various interpretations of Islam ranging from al-Qaeda version of Islam to the moderate version of the Muslim Brotherhood. Secular elements are divided between leftist and nationalistic tendencies while Islamist elements rely on their popular support base to promote a version of Islam which will be able to attract all social classes and diverse viewpoints. As a result, two discrepant ideological views, that is, Islamism and secularism, are engaged in a serious challenge to gain a bigger chunk of the power pie.

The main reason for the existence of this challenge is clear. Both sides are trying to forge reconciliation between traditional and conservative Arab societies, on the one hand, and the modern world, on the other hand, in order to pave the way for further progress and development of Arab nations. However, in reality, there is no ideological balance of power between secular and traditionalist figures.

This lack of balance is not special to Arab societies, but also exists at international level. Dominant world powers do not exactly know which power structure will finally substitute the current order in the Arab world; how political developments are made possible and how the Arab world regulates its relations with global sources of power. If we base our judgment only on countries like Egypt and Tunisia, where developments have taken place with the minimal damage, then we will miss many complicated realities of the Arab world. What is going on in Syria is a more serious image of the ongoing ideological challenge between secular and Islamist elements.

Syria is important in that it is not only the scene of a challenge between secular and Islamist figures, but has also given rise to more profound groupings at regional and international levels. At a regional level, Syrian developments have fanned the flames of sectarianism in the region with Saudi Arabia and Qatar taking sides with the Islamist figures, while Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah are supporting the ruling secular elements. At international level, the situation in Syria has prompted Russia and China to support the government of the incumbent President Bashar al-Assad that is trying to maintain the existing secular situation while the United States and its European allies have taken sides with those who want to put an end to the status quo. Such deployment of political forces at international level has become so serious that it has led some experts to believe that Syria and its crisis can even lead to a new Cold War and establishment of a new world order. They maintain that the situation in Syria may even lead to rearrangement of political power poles within unipolar and multipolar frameworks. Regardless of what may happen in practice, the main development which may take place with respect to political changes in Arab world and the terms used to describe it – Arab Spring or Islamic Awakening – is that every Arab country will evolve in the light of its own conditions without much regard for either of these two terms. It is, however, conceivable that all Arab states, even the most traditional of them like Saudi Arabia and Arab states of the Persian Gulf cannot stay away from these changes, though they may experience it somehow later.

The main factor which has increased the chances of the Islamist figures against seculars for snatching power through ballot boxes is the past history of Arab societies and inefficiency of secular ideas. These ideas have already come to the fore in the Arab world in the form of leftist nationalism and semi-socialistic viewpoints during the Cold War period. Failure of such ideological approaches was first proven through military defeat of Arab countries at the hands of the Zionist regime of Israel. That failure served as a springboard to put Islamist tendencies in a superior position. This is also the main litmus test for the Islamist figures. The real challenge facing the Islamist figures in the Arab world is how they are going to deal with Israel and the issue of Palestine and how they are going to adapt traditions to modernism. If they come up with a proper answer to these problems after gaining power, it would be viewed as a successful experience and will pave the way for a new order to govern the Arab societies. Such an order will show the way to sustainable development while preserving religious and traditional values. Therefore, if they failed for any domestic or foreign reason, they will only add another failed experience to their past failures.

Therefore, the ongoing developments in the Arab world should be taken into account from two ideological standpoints: one standpoint which is a Western-minded secular view, and a second opinion which is advocated by the Muslim masses. At any rate, political systems which are born via ongoing developments and through democratic mechanism and ballot boxes are facing more difficulties than may appear on the surface. Neither seculars can establish their desired political system through the West’s support because they are a minority; nor can Islamist politicians hold the entire power levers in their hands and in exactly the same way that they aspire. The Arab world may take a middle way between the two extremes. Seculars may suffice to their less strong social base and remain content with just having a share of power while the Islamists, on the other hand, may have to get along with seculars in order to better adapt to new conditions. Since Egypt is the most important and the most influential of Arab states, it will most probably act as pioneer in adapting its political system to modern conditions. However, it should be noted that even in a modern world, a combination of ideological power and oil revenues will allow Saudi Arabia to continue playing an effective role in this regard by exporting its dollars and ideology to Arab states, at least, before it is touched by the wave of Arab Spring or the Islamic Awakening.

Pir-Mohammad Mollazehi
Expert on Pakistan and Afghanistan Issues

Iran Review

Iran Review is a Tehran-based site that is independent, non-governmental and non-partisan and representing scientific and professional approaches towards Iran’s political, economic, social, religious, and cultural affairs, its foreign policy, and regional and international issues within the framework of analysis and articles.

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