News / Middle East

Experts Assess Future Role of Islam in Nations Torn by Uprisings

Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia's Islamist movement Ennahdha, waves upon arrival in Tunis after 22 years in exile on January 30, 2011
Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia's Islamist movement Ennahdha, waves upon arrival in Tunis after 22 years in exile on January 30, 2011
Mariama Diallo

All across North Africa and the Middle East, ordinary citizens have staged massive protests in recent weeks calling for the end to autocratic rule. They want better government, less corruption and greater economic opportunity. They come from all walks of life, including once-banned Islamic groups.

During his 23 years in power, former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali cracked down on opposition groups, including proponents of Islamic rule. But with Mr. Ben Ali now gone, Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the banned Islamist Ennahdha party, has returned to Tunisia after 22 years of exile. At the airport he greeted his supporters and brushed stereotypes aside.


"The Islamic movements run from Osama bin Laden to [Turkish Prime Minister] Recep Tayyip Erdogan, so why does the media want to make me look like a Bin Laden or [Iran's Ayatollah] Khomeini when I am more like an Erdogan?," Ghanouchi said.

Mixed Reaction in Tunisia

Public opinion in Tunisia is mixed on the issue. "Ghannouchi’s ideology is extremist and if we choose him, it will be like choosing another Ben Ali," said Adel Zouabi, a critic of Ennahdha.

"Neither Ben Ali nor Habib Bourguiba [first Tunisian president] gave the Islamists a chance. Why not give them a chance now?," said Mohamed Gharbi, a Ennahdha supporter.

Mr. Ben Ali branded Ennahdha an Islamic terrorist group, but some scholars see it as more moderate. Walid Phares at the National Defense University in Washington is the author of The Coming Revolution. He compares Ennahdha to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or the AKP (Justice and Development Party) in Turkey.

"They want to increase their participation so that they are included in any government to come. But the real challenge would be once they are inside that government, inside that society, are they going to be calling for a full Islamist, emirates state or are they going to be like the AKP was?," he said.

Volatility in Libya

Ian Lesser, an adviser on North Africa to President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, says that is why the situation in Libya is so volatile. "There are many different ways in which Islamism of different kinds could come into play in Libya from legitimate political forces on the one hand to quite violent elements interested in international terrorism on the other," Lesser said.

There are others who worry about the threat of Islamic extremism, among them many world leaders.

"We do not want it to evolve into a dangerous direction with Islamist fundamentalism prevailing in the future of these societies," said Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister.

"This would mean decades of flames and further spread of extremism," said Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt

In Egypt, massive protests ended President Hosni Mubarak's 30 year rule and his crackdown of opposition movements, including the Muslim Brotherhood. John Esposito teaches religion and international affairs at Georgetown University. "The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt for at least 40 years since the time of Sadat has operated within the system as a social and political movement, often delivering social services better than the government. It has functioned under a repressive regime," he said.

Nathan Brown at George Washington University says the Brotherhood has spawned radical movements, but he says it does not want to totally disrupt the existing society. "What they want is a gradual Islamification of the society and Islamification defined very generally. They just want people to know more about the religion," Brown said.

Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria

Like the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Algerians also took to the streets. Ali Belhadj is one of the two leaders of Algeria’s banned Islamic Salvation Front also known by its French initials F.I.S. "The people are not afraid. It is the systems that are afraid. It’s a fallacy. They say it’s the people who choose, so let the people choose," Belhadj said.

The Islamic Salvation Front advocates turning Algeria into an Islamic republic. It was poised to win legislative elections in 1990, but Algeria's military-backed government cancelled the vote, sparking a civil war that cost tens of thousands of lives.

"The F.I.S. had come to power multiple times and had been re-elected and was seen as coming to power through a democratic process not just one election but through more than one election. When you look at places like Jordan, Kuwait, Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia, you have Islamic parties or candidates who’ve served in parliament, who’ve been members of cabinets, who’ve served as deputy prime ministers and even prime minister of a country, so there is track record out there," said Esposito.

Past governments in Tunisia and Egypt raised fears of Islamic extremism to partly justify their autocratic rule. But Esposito and other experts say each country is a separate reality. They say religion can play a legitimate role in politics, as well as have a more extremist agenda.

 

Follow our Middle East reports on Twitter
and discuss them on our Facebook page.

You May Like

Video British Fighters On Frontline of ISIS Information War

It’s estimated that several hundred British citizens are fighting for Islamic State alongside other foreign jihadists More

Multimedia Hit Song Delivers Ebola Message in Liberia

'Ebola in Town' has danceable beat, while also delivering serious message about avoiding infection More

Video New Technology Gives Surgeons Unprecedented Views of Patients’ Bodies

Technology offers real-time, interactive, medical visualization and is multi-dimensional More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Native Bees May Help Save Cropsi
X
Deborah Block
August 22, 2014 12:23 AM
U.S. President Barack Obama has called for a federal strategy to promote the health of bees that have been declining. The honeybee has been waning due to parasites, disease and pesticides. Wild bees may be used to take over their role as crop pollinators. Scientists first need to learn a lot more about wild bees, says biologist Sam Droege, who is pioneering the first national inventory on native bees. VOA’s Deborah Block went to his research laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, to bring you more.
Video

Video Native Bees May Help Save Crops

U.S. President Barack Obama has called for a federal strategy to promote the health of bees that have been declining. The honeybee has been waning due to parasites, disease and pesticides. Wild bees may be used to take over their role as crop pollinators. Scientists first need to learn a lot more about wild bees, says biologist Sam Droege, who is pioneering the first national inventory on native bees. VOA’s Deborah Block went to his research laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, to bring you more.
Video

Video US Defense Officials Plan for Long-Term Strategy to Contain Islamic State

U.S. defense officials say American air strikes in Iraq have helped deter Islamic State militants for the time being, but that a broad international effort is needed to defeat the extremists permanently. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned Thursday that the group formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, is better organized, and financially and militarily stronger than any other known terrorist group. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Drug-Resistant Malaria Spreads in Southeast Asia

On Thailand’s border with Myanmar, also known as Burma, a malaria research and treatment clinic is stepping up efforts to eliminate a drug-resistant form of the parasite - before it spreads abroad. Steve Sandford reports from Mae Sot, Thailand.
Video

Video Gaza Conflict, Hamas Popularity Challenge Abbas

The Palestinian unity government of Mahmoud Abbas has failed to convince Hamas to agree to Egyptian-negotiated terms with Israel on a Gaza cease-fire. VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports on what the Gaza conflict means for President Abbas, with whom U.S. officials have worked for years on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Video

Video Nigeria's 'Nollywood' Movie Industry Rolls in High Gear

Twenty years after its birth in a video shop in Lagos, Nigeria's "Nollywood" is one of the most prolific film industries on earth. Despite low budgets and whirlwind production schedules, Nigerian films are wildly popular in Africa and industry professionals say they hope, in the future, their films will be as great in quality as they are in quantity. Heather Murdock has more for VOA from Lagos.
Video

Video UN Launches 'Biggest Aid Operation in 30 Years' in Iraq

The United Nations has launched what it describes as one of the biggest aid operations in 30 years in northern Iraq, as hundreds of thousands of refugees flee the extremist Sunni militant group calling itself the Islamic State. As Kurdish and Iraqi forces battle the Sunni insurgents, the fighting has forced more people to flee their homes. Kurdish authorities say the international community must act now to avert a humanitarian catastrophe. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Cambodian American Hip Hop Artist Sings of Personal Struggles

A growing underground movement of Cambodian American hip hop artists is rapping about the struggles of living in urban America. Most, if not all of them, are refugees or children of refugees who came to the United States from Cambodia to escape the Khmer Rouge genocide of the 1970s. Through their music, the artists hope to give voice to immigrants who have been struggling quietly for years. Elizabeth Lee reports from Long Beach, California.
Video

Video African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebola

While the Ebola epidemic continues to claim lives in West Africa, information technology specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about the disease - using social media to educate the public about the deadly virus. VOA’s George Putic has more.

AppleAndroid