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Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Political Islam on the Wane

We all have strong memories of “bad news” from the past, and tend not to focus on good news, especially when it occurs incrementally. So it’s not surprising if the above headline surprises you. But it’s quite accurate. Here are the prime examples – and then why Islamists are in decline throughout North Africa and the Middle East.

We can commence our survey with Tunisia – the place where the 2011 Arab Spring protests started. After massive protests in 2021, the Tunisian president fired the PM and dissolved parliament that was led by the Islamist Ennahda Party that had messed up the economy and was totally incompetent in dealing with the Corona pandemic.

Our next stop: Israel has recently started negotiations with the Sudanese government regarding commencing official relations. Sudan? Isn’t that a rabid anti-Israeli country? It was. But in 2019 a popular uprising deposed Omar al-Bashir, the country’s three decade-long military dictator who had the support of the Islamist National Congress Party. Not only was the party now out of power, but the new regime banned it and liberalized former highly draconian laws regarding women’s rights, alcohol consumption etc.

We can conclude our tour of North Africa with the most shocking of all developments – and the epitome of the overall phenomenon because it involved a moderate Islamist party – that occurred this past September in Morocco: the “Justice & Development Party” lost approximately 90% (!) of its former parliamentary strength after somewhat competently dealing with the Corona pandemic (a lot better than neighboring Tunisia). In other words, we are talking about a general trend in Moslem society almost across-the-board in that part of the world (we’ll get to Egypt in short order).

In the heart of the Middle East, the situation is slightly different – and much the same. Different in that clearly most of its countries are run by religious Moslems with Islam as the core religion of society: Dubai, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the like. However, even here the trend is towards greater religious and political moderation – the Abraham Accords with Israel being just the most public example of this. Some other countries are too politically chaotic to say much about the extent of Islamist control: Iraq (three major sects), Lebanon (five different ethnicities), Syria (a civil war catastrophe).

In Israel’s immediate surroundings, the Islamist parties aren’t doing that well either. Hizbollah has its hands full trying to retain power in an economically collapsing Lebanon, especially after it became clear that it was to blame for the horrific Beirut port explosion a year ago. In the south, Gaza’s population is suffering even more than when Hamas came to power a decade and a half ago, albeit Hamas does seem to be gaining political strength in the West Bank (held back militarily by the IDF). And ISIS has been devastated in Syria by the ruthless, very secular, Assad-led Baath government aided by Russia and Turkey.

Which leaves the 800-pound gorilla: Iran. Here the cup is half full and half empty. On the one hand, the Mullahs are still in control, now exactly 43 years after their Iranian Revolution. This is a radical, religious movement (and government) that seeks to export its brand of extremism to other countries in the region. On the other hands (yes, plural): 1- it is wildly unpopular in Iran, the regime surviving several uprisings through the use of brutal force; 2- it is Shi’ite, representing only 10% of the world’s Moslems, so that its overall Islamic impact cannot be decisive – indeed, it confronts strong pushback by most of the more “moderate” Moslem regimes in the Middle East; 3- reinforcing the limitations of Iranian inroads, the country is not Arab but Persian – another important distinction for Middle Eastern peoples.

The main, overriding question in all this: Why should the more extreme Islamists be in political decline? Two related reasons. First, once in power they have mostly proved to be as incompetent in governing as the secular dictators that they replaced. Knowledge and even scholarship in theology does not necessarily a good governor make. (Indeed, the Jewish political tradition explicitly separates the executive branch e.g., king from the religious branch e.g., priesthood, Prophets.) The economic disaster now unfolding in Turkey (36% annual inflation – and rising) is a good example of this, as Erdogan tries to stick to the “no usury” principle by lowering interest rates against all accepted economic principles and policy, thereby eviscerating the economy.

Second, in many countries the support given to the Islamists was not based on religious enthusiasm but rather on the fact that the “Mosque” was the only institutional opposition remaining against the secular dictators. Once Moslem parties became the “establishment”, such protest support evaporated. (We see the same thing happening to the Catholic Church’s serious decline in European countries that previously suffered under the Soviets e.g., Poland, or under fascist dictatorships e.g., Spain.) Egypt under the Moslem Brotherhood a decade ago is a good example of this: once in power, they very quickly became as unpopular as President Mubarak was only a year or two earlier!

How does Israel fit into all this? If anything, the Israeli example is an exception to this rule that proves the rule. The Islamist party RAAM is now in the government for the first time ever precisely because it has done what many other political Islamist parties in the Middle East have not done: moderated its views. When the head of RAAM, Mansour Abbas, declared a few months ago that Israel was a Jewish State (of course, demanding full rights for all minority religions and citizens – something that Israel is close to in any case), it became quite easy for most Israelis (other than the Far Right) to accept the legitimacy of their being part of the ruling coalition. PM Bennett’s recent first-ever visit for an Israeli Prime Minister to Bahrain is another indication of how realpolitik in the Arab-Moslem world is trumping religious radicalism. None of this is to say that Islamist sentiment is going to disappear anytime soon, but it’s clear that the threat is subsiding and not increasing – no matter what each of us takes from media reports.

Indeed, we just finished celebrating Purim. It behooves us to recall that the story ends quite positively for the Jews. Close to 2,500 years later, history might be repeating itself now as well!

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book is VIRTUALITY AND HUMANITY: VIRTUAL PRACTICE AND ITS EVOLUTION FROM PRE-HISTORY TO THE 21ST CENTURY (Springer Nature, Dec. 2021): The book's description, substantive Preface and full Table of Contents can be freely accessed here: https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-981-16-6526-4#toc. For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see: www.ProfSLW.com
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