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The Islamists And Western Blinders – OpEd

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By Aijaz Zaka Syed

There has been such a deluge of coverage of Egypt upheavals over the past few days that anything more on the issue risks provoking yawns and groans from my distinguished readers. In our tedium though, it’s hard to ignore the history being made and enacted right before our eyes. We are living in interesting times, as the Chinese would put it. Which doesn’t happen every day.

The groundbreaking developments of the past week, a climax of the juggernaut of change set off in Tunisia last year, could transform the region in more ways than we can imagine. A Brotherhood presidency in Cairo — now who would have thought that possible until last year? Outlawed and demonized as the terrorists and persecuted and hunted like animals for nearly 80 years, they are chosen for leadership by the people at the first opportunity available, setting the cat among the pigeons.

Like other Middle East watchers, I’ve had my share of doubts about the generals allowing the avuncular, bespectacled Muhammad Mursi to succeed their old comrade Hosni Mubarak. There were enough signs suggesting that the junta, effortlessly taking over from Mubarak last year, had no intentions whatsoever of giving up power.

First the shock of scrapping of Parliament, elected with such fanfare only six months ago in the nation’s first ever fair election, which was incidentally dominated by the Brotherhood. This came amid reports that the unthinkable had happened — the Brotherhood had won the first round in the fight for presidency.

Then came the “constitutional order” by the generals night before the presidential run-off, granting themselves unlimited powers and total control over all arms of the state, including over the incoming president. The junta showed its hand once again when the poll results were repeatedly delayed.

So what changed overnight? Seemingly, the people power that returned to the Tahrir Square last week and refused to leave brought the generals to their senses. And methinks certain telephone calls from Washington might have also helped in persuading the junta to curb their enthusiasm for confrontation.

Why would the United States, which propped up and protected Mubarak and fellow travelers all these years, back an Islamist presidency though? After all, Washington offers $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt, which goes directly into the army account, besides $250 million in other assistance. Apparently, from Washington’s perspective a Brotherhood president with his wings clipped is better than having total chaos in the strategic country neighboring our Israeli friends.

Whatever the explanation, the US seems to have for once done the right thing, incidentally reflecting people’s aspirations. Of course, Mursi will still have his hands tied behind the back as he takes on the daunting challenges facing Egypt on all fronts.

Yet it’s impossible to water down the historic nature of change in Egypt and what it means for the larger Arab-Islamic world. While the rest of the world moved on in the last century throwing off the colonial yoke, the Middle East has remained stuck in a time warp forever being a prisoner of world powers and their divisive agendas.

No wonder the winds of change originating in a sleepy North African nation were heartily embraced by the rest of the region, shaking off the slumber of long year of tyranny, injustice and exploitation within weeks and months.

And this is why the Arabs, Muslims and most reasonable people everywhere celebrated the first democratically elected leader of the Middle East in a largely free and fair poll in a land where leaders getting themselves “elected” with 95 to 99 percent vote share has been the norm.

The only exception has been the Western response. Having pontificated to Arabs about the virtues of democracy and “human freedom” — in W’s words — all these years you would think the champions of freedom would cheer for the change in the region, condemned for far too long as the hotbed of tyranny, terror and extremism. However, save for some independent media, rights groups and a little conscientious minority, the Arab awakening has been received with great consternation and as something that chips away at “Western interests” whatever they are.

Even relatively liberal newspapers like The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and Boston Globe etc. which welcomed the transformational changes of the past year and half are getting all worked up about the “rise of the Islamists” and “consequences of Shariah rule” in a Western-allied nation.

Check out this report in Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal: “Many secular Egyptians watched uneasily, wondering what Islamist rule will mean for a country that has long been a bulwark of secular, moderate and pro-American governance,” the paper reported in a front page story on June 26.

Secular Egyptians? As a 2008 Gallup opinion poll revealed, the Egyptians — just like the Saudis, Jordanians or any other Muslim nation — are deeply religious. But does that make them any less democratic or tolerant? And what is with this perpetual paranoia about the Islamists and Shariah? Everyone who believes in Islam as a way of life is an Islamist. And what is Shariah? It’s not some obscurantist, underground cult or code of black laws. Living your life according to Islamic teachings is Shariah, which is what the majority of believers do.

Would heavens fall if a country whose 94.7 percent population happens to be Muslim chooses to live by the faith it professes? The Brotherhood has bent over backwards over the past few weeks to reassure that the new Egypt will be an inclusive, all-embracing society with equal respect and rights for all, including minorities and women. Mursi has even talked of picking up a woman and Christian as his vice presidents to address these concerns.

And why should Egypt remain a “bulwark of secular, moderate and pro-American governance”? Shouldn’t its course be dictated by the wishes of its people? Would America change according to the wishes of Arabs or Muslims? Truth be told, using these stock and slick phrases, what the West really wants is more of the same — the perpetuation of men like Mubarak who were tough on their own people as they danced to Washington’s tunes.

It’s strange that pundits in the US are yet to wake up to the fact that it’s precisely the policies of such “secular moderates” and their patronage by the West that gave birth to the tsunami of change being witnessed right now.

Clearly, Western policies and attitudes vis-a-vis the Middle East are still dictated by their fidelity to Israel. According to eminent Arab American commentator Rami Khouri, respected in the West for his balanced approach, “two main underlying problems are to blame (for this state of affairs) — the intrusion of the Arab-Israeli conflict and Washington’s deep pro-Israel bias into American-Arab relations, and the lingering consequences of encounters between the US and various Arab, Iranian or South Asian parties that defined themselves in Islamist terms (Iran, Hezbollah, Al-Qaeda and others).” If this has to change, both the West and the Islamists, gaining increasing ascendancy across the region, will have to work to bridge their communication gulf. While the Islamists have to do more to gain an apprehensive world’s confidence, including that of many in the Arab world, it’s about time the West learned to look at the Muslim world without the aid of its Israeli blinkers in its own interests.

Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Gulf-based commentator.

Arab News

Arab News

Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

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