Dr. Mahjoob Zweiri is the Head of Humanities Department at Qatar University and is an assistant professor in Contemporary History of the Middle East.

In the ongoing debates regarding the post-revolutionary periods in the Arab world, the role that will be played by what are known as “political Islam” movements figures prominently. The focus of this debate is not limited to those countries that have witnessed revolutions and uprisings, but also includes those experiencing what might be seen as a lower degree of reform. There are various parties to this discussion, both within and beyond the region. The sides of the debate range from those who raise concerns and fears about Islamist movements to the Islamists themselves who are – naturally – party to the debate.

The arguments of the Islamists range from those that seek to reassure to those calling for further-reaching demands. At one level, the debate raises the key question that can be formulated as follows: How are movements of political Islam to deal with the political landscape of the region in the wake of the revolutions? The answer to this question is not a simple one, especially since this landscape is still in the process of formation. In this short article, we attempt to present a set of premises that must be kept in mind, and suggest some of the “signposts” that need to be taken into account in order for the Arab peoples to emerge from this revolutionary period stronger at both the societal and political level.

First, all of the political Islam movements engaged in the Arab political scene are products of processes that took place during the age of tyranny, which generated movements that were affected by the political environment and has marked the past eighty years. Policies constructed on the foundations of the logics of policing, mistrust, and exclusion of all who did not share in the vision of the political regimes are all part of the context that affected Islamists and drove them to take some kind of action, leading them to build their institutions as places of asylum for all who faced the wrath of the regimes, whether these were educational or public health institutions, or other kinds of ventures. More importantly, it was this context that led internal political discussion to take place in an atmosphere of secrecy, for fear of the external enemy (the governments and their security), an atmosphere that was neither pluralistic nor transparent. These circumstances did not allow the Islamists to assume the role of leadership within the political landscape of the Arab world, even at moments in which they won a majority of the vote in free and fair elections. Two exemplary cases are that of Algeria, where the Islamist victory elicited the opposition of the whole world, and Palestine, where the victory of the Islamist group Hamas brought about a global political and economic siege upon that movement. From the above, the impact of the environment in which the Arab revolutions erupted upon those revolutions becomes clear, in addition to the element of surprise, which has become a regular feature of these revolutions.

Additionally, arguments describing Islam as alien to the Arab political scene repeat arguments used in the early twentieth century. At that time, states emerging from under the yoke of European colonization saw religion, and Islam in particular, as a force working to pull the people backwards, delaying the march of the societies that sought to build modern states. As such, Islam in their eyes could only serve to reduce their societies’ chances of building that modern state. On this basis, it sufficed to claim Islam as “the religion of the state and a source of its legislation” as it related to personal status. However, any relation that Islam would have to the “public sphere” -and by extension, to politics – was rejected and elicited state repression. It was this kind of thinking that lay behind the repressive environment described in the first observation above. This logic of denial led to the emergence of the intellectual and religious distortions in the Arab and non-Arab environment, and led to the classifications that are still commonly used, such as “moderate Islam,” “radical Islam,” and “jihadist Islam”. In fact, all of these classifications were formulated in the context of the tyranny that could only see opposition as a manifestation of evil. This was a strategy that drove wedges into Arab societies, creating real divisions from which only the regime could emerge as the first and last victor.

The frequency and volume of fear-mongering against Islam in the political and social landscape after the revolutions is, in fact, little more than the repetition of a long-standing denial of Islam as an essential component of the politics, economics and values of Arab societies – whether their citizens are Muslim by virtue of their religion or Muslim by virtue of their culture and method of coexistence. Therefore, the continuation of this intimidation is in truth nothing but a repetition of costly mistakes for which Arab societies have continued to pay the price. Moreover, preventing Islamists from joining their societies in moving from the era of tyranny to that of freedom and openness is nothing less than the support of tyranny and its advocates who say that “Arab societies can only be managed through violence and force.”

Capitalizing on the historical moment currently experienced by Arab societies should be a goal in itself so as to remove the stain of tyranny and those who perpetuated it. This should include a change in the ways in which we see and work with others, particularly the Western other.

It is important to remember that the initiative has returned to the Arab people, initiative that has been absent for more than a century. Foreign powers and their agents have played a central role in drawing a bleak picture promoting the idea that solutions and change can only come from abroad, and that any change that does not take place in partnership with the external other – the one promoting modernization – is change that is lacking and uneven. This is accompanied by a corruption of change, and its transformation into a process that, in its ends, contradicts the aspirations of Arab societies.

This vision and its advocates today appear to be in an unenviable situation. The change that started in January 2011 represents a revolution in the nature of revolutions. The revolutionaries did not fill the streets so they could govern and occupy the place of those who fled or resigned. They came out to demand the way of life and method of government to which they aspire. The intention is not to replace one personality with another, but to end one form of governance regime and replace it with another under the original and great banner of “dignity”. This has set a precedent in modern Arab history. The traditional political parties that were living under tyranny could not bring about change even if they mobilized for it. The movements were larger than that which could be controlled and steered. Instead of the parties being in control of the events and their trajectory, the parties found themselves steered by the events, forced to work fast to review their discourses and tools to rid themselves of the vestiges of years of living under tyranny. This message must be sent clearly to the other who still considers change in this region as something that can only come about under his tutelage. He needs to know that the end result of change in this region is not something that can only serve either his interests or none at all.

Lastly, the logic of capitalizing on the current moment does not entail, necessarily, the resort to offering up words and sentences based on the promotion of ideas, or the change of discourses just to get through the current stage. In other words, Islamist talk of openness and their use of terms like “civic state” and “state of its citizens” must be accompanied by the work at the internal level that is necessary if they are to be prepared for the rapid changes taking place around them. Change that is confined to the level of public discourses and media consumption will have a negative impact if it is not accompanied by action that reflects the sincerity of the intention to implement that change. Anything else is simply the repetition of what was done in the age of the Arab coups d’état, when revolutionary leaders promised the people heaven on earth, but the people felt nothing but the endless flames of their earthly hell. At this point it has become important to focus on the degree of credibility and consistency in addressing the public. If there is an absence of internal consistency and a lack of credibility, chaos is the result that is to be expected.

Chaos reigns for a considerable period of time after periods of revolution. The length of such periods critically depends on the degree of political maturity possessed by the society and its leadership. It is necessary that Islamists, before all others, be aware that by engaging in the political process under the banner of Islam, they have a greater responsibility than others. It follows that they will be subject to greater expectations and greater accountability.

Given the above, it has become necessary to work and entrench two ideas that have long been excluded, namely: correct citizenship and the rule of law. These two foundational concepts have the cohesion and security of a – not insignificant – number of societies, helping them achieve prosperity in all fields. These two concepts may be a good foundation for a role in which Islamists – on an equal footing with others – play a role in building the post-revolutionary societies.