With this issue we return to the question of the prospects for democratic forces in the Middle East, and the role of religiously based political movements there. These essays and interviews share a resolutely secularist perspective, a conviction that the construction of a just and viable social order requires a political practice that values tolerance and diversity. This perspective respects the genuine religiosity of many Middle Eastern societies, but the authors firmly critique the authoritarian component of the leading Islamist trends in Egypt, Algeria, Sudan and Palestine, and the varying degrees of complicity of the states (and Palestinian political organizations) in furthering the growth of these movements, by their combination of encouragement, neglect and repression.
An important piece of this discussion is briefly raised in our “Mediations” column: the issues of class and power embedded in the global order. A particular construction of “democracy” is now selectively deployed by the Western (actually Northern) powers as they confront “the threat from the South” and its Middle Eastern variant, “the Islamic threat.” Underlying these expressions of confrontation is the economic divide between rich and poor on a global scale and reproduced within towns, cities and nation-states. In Egypt and Algeria, the leading Islamist organizations have built their popular bases around the provision of basic services that the state and secular opposition forces have been unable to mobilize.
The Islamists offer what appears to be an attractive alternative to an intolerable socio-economic order. Stephen Hubbell in The Nation cites the succinct formulation of a Gama‘a Islamiyya leader in Asyout: “Islam does not take its orders from America the way Mubarak does.” This is a demagogic proposition at several levels — its assertion of a single Islam, its deflection of responsibility for Egypt’s plight to the foreigner. It is, at the same time, a potent reminder that the struggle we are describing in the Middle East is fundamentally one over the global as well as regional and local division of resources and material privilege.
Opposition politics in the region should not be reduced to the variety of Islamist formations there. The explicitly regressive programs and practices of many of those movements raise barriers to the “Third World” solidarities so easily extended in Cold War times. In issues to come we will be exploring more discriminate solidarities, as well as more complicated understandings of how people self-determine their social and individual identities.