Good sense of the Arabs

by Ling Xing-Guang and Gwynne Dyer

LONDON — They wouldn’t do it for al-Qaida, but they finally did it for themselves.

The young Egyptian protesters who overthrew the Mubarak regime on Friday have accomplished what two generations of violent Islamist revolutionaries could not. And they did not just do it nonviolently; they succeeded because they were nonviolent.

They also succeeded because they had reasonable goals that could attract mass support: democracy, economic growth, social justice. This was in marked contrast to the goals of the Islamist radicals, which were so unrealistic that they never managed to get the support of the Arab masses.

Even to talk about “the masses” sounds anachronistic these days, but when we are talking about revolution it is still a relevant category. Revolutions, whether Islamist or democratic, win if they can gain mass support, and fail if they cannot. The Islamists have got a great deal of attention in the past two decades, and especially since 9/11, but as revolutionaries they are spectacular failures.

The problem was their analysis of what was wrong in the Arab world. Like most extremist versions of religion, Islamism is a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Its diagnosis essentially says that the poverty, oppression and humiliation that Arabs experience are due to the fact that they are not obeying God’s rules, especially about dress and behavior, and so God has turned His face from them.

The cure for all these ills, therefore, is precise and universal observance of all God’s rules and injunctions, as interpreted in their peculiarly narrow and intolerant version of Islam. Men must grow their beards, for example, but they must not trim them. If only they get these and a thousand other details right, the Arabs will be rich, respected and victorious, for then God will be willing to help them.

The Islamists never talked about the Arabs, of course. They spoke only of “the Muslims,” for their ideology rejected all distinctions of history, language and nationality: the ultimate objective was a unified “Caliphate” that erased all borders between Muslim countries. In practice, however, most of them were Arabs, although Arabs are only a quarter of the world’s Muslims.

Osama bin Laden is a Saudi Arabian. His deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is an Egyptian. The great majority of the founders of al-Qaida were Arabs. That makes sense, for it is the Arab world that has seen the greatest fall from former prosperity, lives under the worst dictatorships, and has suffered the greatest humiliations at the hands of the West and Israel.

From Turkey to Indonesia, most non-Arab Muslim countries enjoy reasonable economic growth, and some are full-blooded democracies. Their governments work on behalf of their own countries, not for Western interests, and they do not have to contend with an Israeli problem. If there was ever going to be mass support for the Islamist revolution, it was going to be in the Arab world.

Revolutionary movements often resort to terrorism: it’s a cheap way of drawing attention to your ideas, and it may even lead to an uprising if the target regime responds by becoming even more oppressive. The first generation of Islamists thought they would trigger an uprising in Saudi Arabia when they seized control of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979, and in Egypt when fundamentalist army officers assassinated President Anwar Sadat on Oct. 6, 1981.

There were no mass uprisings in support of the Islamists either then or later, however, and the reason is that Arabs aren’t fools. Many of them intensely disliked the regimes they lived under, but it took only one look at the Islamist fanatics, with their straggly beards and counter-rotating eyeballs, to know that they would not be an improvement.

A second generation of Islamists, spearheaded by al-Qaida, pushed the strategy of making things worse to its logical conclusion. If driving Arab regimes into greater repression could not trigger pro-Islamist revolutions, maybe the masses could be radicalized by tricking the Americans into invading Muslim countries. That was the strategy behind the 9/11 attacks — but still the masses would not come out in the streets.

When they finally did come out in the past couple of months, first in Tunisia, then in Egypt, and already in other Arab countries as well, it was not in support of the Islamist project at all. What the protesters were demanding was democracy and an end to corruption. Some of them may want a bigger presence for Islam in public life, and others may not, but very few of them want revolutionary Islamism.

It is a testimony to the good sense of the Arabs, and a rebuke to the ignorant rabble of Western pundits and “analysts” who insisted that Arabs could not do democracy at all, or could only be given it at the point of Western guns.

It is equally a rebuke to bin Laden and his Islamist companions, hidden in their various caves. They were never going to sweep to power across the Arab world, let alone the broader Muslim world, and only the most impressionable and excitable observers ever thought they would.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist and historian whose columns appear in 45 countries.