Not many facets of political science have given its students as many headaches as definitions. Those who have used words like “terrorism” are probably aware of the rather ambiguous nature of such descriptions. The word “revolution” is another example showing somewhat similar difficulties. Nevertheless, to me a revolution is a political phenomenon that is made up of three major stages: the first is the ideological framework, which is normally provided by intellectuals; this not only analyzes the situation at hand (descriptive), but it also proposes a way out of a seemingly unwelcome status quo (prescriptive). The second stage is a popular uprising by people against their own government; this is usually instigated partially or mostly by the intellectuals. The third stage, if resistance to the current regime is successful, is the replacement of the overthrown regime by a new leadership that derives both its inspiration and its legitimacy from the ideological framework of the first stage. Historical examples include the American Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and the Iranian Revolution. The first of these examples set up a liberal democratic system, the second established a Communist system, and the third founded an Islamic system.
When looking at the Arab Spring insurrections, one notices without too much difficulty that the above-mentioned first stage is missing. The first revolt of the Arab Spring in Tunisia was sparked by an incident that opened the floodgates to a raging torrent of deeply-felt, seething resentment among many Tunisians concerning the issue of social justice. Acutely dissatisfied with their living conditions, profoundly unhappy with their leadership’s unwillingness to redress their grievances, and intensely critical of their government’s corruption and repression, the Tunisians simply exploded. They managed to overthrow what seemed like a deeply entrenched state in short order. This rebelliousness later spread like wildfire to Egypt as well as to some other Middle Eastern countries like Yemen, Libya, and Syria.
Tunisia is currently dominated by a democratically elected Islamist party. In Egypt, the Islamists have done well in elections and they now wield significant political power, which is held in check only by the military juggernaut. Although the Islamists have not won the recent elections in Libya, Libya’s post-Qaddafi politics is infused with Islamism and Libya’s civil society is drenched in religion. One is even tempted to think that the Islamists did not win the elections in Libya precisely because the identity of many Libyans is too closely bound up with Islam; to set up an Islamist party in Libya seemed to many a Libyan as the equivalent of setting up a Human Beings party. Further west, the Moroccan king sought to pre-empt an Arab Spring-like insurgency in his country by co-opting the Islamists into his government. In both Yemen and Syria, the Islamists are a force to be reckoned with. And the fact that the world has to a remarkable extent turned a blind eye to the Bahraini government’s repression of the largely Shiite insurgency as well as to Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in that country indicates grave concern among many that the overthrow of Bahrain’s Sunni government could lead to an unwelcome, pro-Iranian leadership.
The absence of the aforementioned first stage in all of those upheavals means that the third stage too is missing; there are no new leaderships acting on a fresh ideological philosophy in any of the Middle Eastern countries in question. Instead, the absence of stage one led to the absence of stage three, thereby creating a power vacuum which was filled with alacrity by figures from the anciens régimes that had just been removed and/ or by Islamists. One, therefore, cannot help but conclude from this that what we have witnessed in the Arab Spring is a series of uprisings, not of revolutions per se.
But, some might ask, what is wrong with the Islamists coming to power anyway? A number of commentators, mostly in Western countries, have in fact recently begun to binge on a feast of apologetics: They point out that Islam is part and parcel of Middle Eastern culture, that we have to respect democratic choices, that the days of dungeons and of torture chambers are over, that the Islamists will sober up once they are confronted with the realities and demands of governance, that they pose no danger to the West because democracies don’t go to war with one another, that international relations can and should accommodate the introduction of a new Islamic paradigm that takes account of the new realities in the Middle East, and that the Islamist parties now in power- or somewhere near it- in that region are by and large moderate and amenable to reason.
Although such views may be well-meaning, they do nevertheless reveal a frighteningly high level of incomprehension not only of the Middle East, Islamism, Islam, and Arabic culture, but also of politics and history in general: One can of course speak of “more extremist” or “less extremist” Islamists, but one cannot really refer to moderate Islamists and extremist Islamists; like serial killers, Islamists are by definition extremists. As a matter of fact, “moderate Islamism” is one of the best oxymorons I know; just as it is silly to speak of moderate Nazis or moderate Communists, so it is with moderate Islamists. That is because all ideologies that rest on the principle of infallibility are intrinsically intolerant: the flawlessness of Adolf Hitler and of his Führerprinzip, the inerrancy of the Politburo and of Marxism’s “scientific laws”, and the perfection of Allah and of the Quran all derive from the same principle: infallibility. Subjective beliefs are thus made to metamorphose into objective facts; anyone who shows the slightest degree of dissent must be either stubborn or crazy. His fate is either Auschwitz, the Gulag, or Hell.
Not only that, but in many a political upheaval, even when there is some room for a less intolerant position within the same ideology, the most merciless often win: Hitler surrounded himself with the more radical Nazis and kept as far away from him as possible those who were less radical; he reportedly lent his ear much more readily to fanatics such as Himmler than he did to those who were not as pitiless. In the case of the Russian Revolution of 1917, it was the unbelievably brutal Stalin who won the power struggle and finally succeeded in becoming the undisputed leader of the Soviet Union following Lenin’s death. In the early phases of the Iranian Revolution, Banisadr’s less uncompromising outlook was eventually squeezed out by those of the more intransigent Ayatollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Beheshti. The reason for all that is not too opaque: If you have a tree that has gone bad at the roots, pruning its branches will not solve the problem; you have to deal with the tree’s roots. Reform, or pruning the branches, is fruitful only when the roots are healthy. This explains why the liberal democratic system has lasted well for so long; it rests on very solid foundations that have made it possible for it to successfully adapt to change and overcome its weaknesses without too much trouble. By contrast, the roots of Nazism, Communism, and Islamism are rotten and, consequently, it is impossible to reform them; they have to be eradicated. Naturally, some people might object that Christianity and Judaism too rest on the principle of infallibility, i.e. the existence of a perfect God. That may well be the case, but the important difference here is that both of these religions, previously wild cats, have been tamed by the likes of the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, and the Enlightenment and have, therefore, become domestic cats with which one can comfortably coexist at home; just look at Western Europe, the United States, and Israel. Islam, however, is still a wild cat; it would not be wise to seek coexistence with it before it is domesticated, something that can only be achieved by the secularization, democratization, and liberalization of Islamic culture.
Apart from erroneously referring to Islamists as moderates, apologists for Islam are mistaken about Islamism in other ways: It is hasty to claim that the days of the torture chamber are over in the Middle East and that everyday governance will knock some sense into the Islamists: neither has materialized in the case of the Islamic government in Iran, nor has this happened in Afghanistan under the Taliban or in the Gaza Strip under Hamas. Furthermore, one wonders, when those apologists urge others to respect the democratic election of the Islamists, are they really not aware that it was Hitler’s popularity at the polls that convinced President Hindenburg to appoint him as chancellor of Germany? Do they not know that the European Union once imposed sanctions on Austria because of the democratic election of Haider, a Nazi sympathizer? Do they fail to understand that the most democratic country in the world, the United States, would never have allowed a Communist party to come to power in that country? And why? Because the Nazis and the Communists are anti-democratic; they use elections only to acquire power before dismantling the whole democratic system at the first opportunity. The Islamists belong to that same category comprising the deadliest enemies of freedom and democracy.
Apologists for Islam are also wrong about the reasons behind the absence of war between democratic countries: It is true that no two democratic countries in the modern era have gone to war with one another, but that is not the automatic result of their being democratic; it is the outcome of other factors instead: First, and in spite of democracy’s ancient history, its spread in the world is a very recent phenomenon, which means that we have not had a long enough period in history to prove the validity of this assertion. Second, the emergence of a bipolar world after the Second World War presented democratic countries with a common enemy and put the United States at the helm of the free world; given that context, the U.S. would never have permitted two democracies to go to war with one another. Third, if being democratic was such a watertight guarantee that countries would not fight one another, the United States and Western Europe would have encouraged West Germany to become democratic, without the need to integrate it economically into the European Economic Community, in order to ensure long-term peace between it and France. On this basis, one had better not be too complacent about the allegedly peace-loving nature of democratically elected Islamist governments.
This brings me back to an important point that relates to the three different stages making up a revolution, as mentioned in the early part of this article: The failure of the Muslim world to fully modernize and the reluctance of most Muslims to secularize, democratize, and liberalize Islam had brought about a state of intellectual vacuum which, once the old order in the Middle East was overthrown, had in turn created a power vacuum that has since worked only to the advantage of the Islamists and ex-members of the deposed regimes. There is nothing more dangerous than to hold free democratic elections and legitimize the winners in countries whose political cultures are still fundamentally totalitarian. Ask the Germans.
Husam Dughman’s family was both educated and liberal. They heroically stood up to the Qaddafi regime and endured the dire consequences. This gave him a first-hand experience of what dictatorship, bigotry, and intolerance are about, and what kind of price has to be paid in order to stand up to them. Coupled with his experience of religious intolerance, Mr. Dughman resolved to fight against zealotry, hate, and extremism, come hell or high water. Thus, the idea for Tête-à-tête with Muhammad began to germinate in his mind.
Husam Dughman was born in Libya and educated in Libya and the U.K. He earned his B.A. and M.A. in Political Science from the University of Kent at Canterbury, where he won several awards for academic excellence and graduated with a First Class with Honours. In 1993, Mr. Dughman returned to Libya and was successful in securing a position as a university professor of Political Science. Due to political reasons, he left his university position in 1997 and subsequently worked in legal translation. He immigrated to Canada in 2002, where he has been helping new immigrants with their settlement.
***Dughman is the Author of Tête-à-tête with Muhammad.