DESPITE PERSISTENT SCAREMONGERING, in recent North Africa revolutions Islamist groups were notable by their relative absence. While western powers continue to worry about Islamist rule in the Middle East, Eamonn Gearon reports from Cairo on the role of Islam in recent events.
That political change would come to the Middle East should not have surprised any serious commentators. Those, notably western, 'experts' who posited that the region was somehow peculiarly suited to rule by sclerotic dictatorships should be ashamed of themselves. Their ignorance and local prejudices led to a complete misreading of the region, its people, and their desire for dignity and democratic political representation.
What was surprising is the speed with which change came about, and the fact that the leaders of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt were not Islamic political parties, but secular groups, the leaders of which were often young enough not to have voted in national elections. Certainly, none of them were old enough to have had the opportunity to vote in free elections in either country.
Now that change has come, the governments of the West must reevaluate their stance on dealing with Islamist parties. Either that, or again be seen as misreading the changing dynamics of power and politics in the Middle East.
Why should the populations of Tunisia and Egypt not vote for political parties that espouse Islamic values? Should one not deal with the Christian Democrats in Germany because they declare their faith in a political setting? What chance of election to the White House would a candidate have who said, "My religious beliefs are a personal matter, which have no part in a political campaign and I refuse to discuss them"?
On independence in 1956, Tunisia rapidly backed a visibly secularist form of government. Women were given equal rights (even before parts of Western Europe), and President Bourguiba, like Ben Ali after him, decided there was little room for Islam in the new, staunchly secular Tunisia. Fasting during Ramadan was discouraged in the interests of production in the modern industrial nation. In a deliberately offensive vein, Bourguiba repeatedly referred to the veil as an "odious rag".
Thousands of Islamic activists from across the spectrum were imprisoned or went into exile. Since the ousting of Ben Ali, many Islamist leaders and activists have come home, but the revolution's genesis was still a secular affair...