As economic policy has shifted rightward in much of Europe over the past three decades, so has politics; with conventional racism becoming socially unacceptable, parties on the far right of the political spectrum have increasingly substituted cultural narratives for racialist ones. In particular, they have sought to put the spotlight on immigrants, with Muslim immigrants often taking centre stage in these new narratives. Much has been made of the purported antipathy towards practices such as democracy, pluralism and equality before the law that is intrinsic to Islam – and by extension, Muslims.
And these narratives have met with a certain measure of success. From the Netherlands – where Geert Wilders‘ Partij voor de Vrijheid has become an influential political force – to France, where the Front National, now under the leadership of Marine Le Pen, is polling around 15% of the vote, far right parties which perceive Muslims as the quintessential ‘other’ appear to be prospering.
However, recent developments pertaining to reform in the Middle East would appear to place a serious question mark against these constructs. Particularly instructive is the process of the revolution in Egypt, which culminated in the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak and showed the population of a large, mostly Muslim country willing to peacefully defy a brutal police state in the name of establishing a democratic, secular order. Flags illustrating the Muslim crescent and the Christian cross in an embrace were ubiquitous, with the popular refrain ‘Arise O Egypt, arise. Arise Egyptians: Muslims, Christians and Jews‘ being invoked; women and men protested side-by-side; and Mubarak’s resignation prompted celebrations of a duration and intensity to shame the Rio Carnival.
In short, it would be difficult to imagine a more comprehensive and graphic refutation of the presumptions pertaining to Muslims, Islam and democracy which permeate the culture-based narratives that are so prevalent amongst the far right in Europe; accordingly, this poses a serious ideological challenge to these movements, a challenge that will become harder if the trend towards democratization in the Middle East broadens and deepens, as seems likely. Europe’s far right parties may well be forced to reconsider what has become an all-too-central and increasingly redundant theme if they are to be viewed – even by their ‘natural’ constituency – as credible in the future.
Conclusions from the historic and still-unfolding events over the past few weeks in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries in the region are difficult to draw, but there is one that appears to be fairly uncontroversial: these developments were a surprise. Even a month ago, the notion that this part of the world could become synonymous with convulsive democratic transformation would have seemed fantastical.
However, should the watching world – and indeed, the inhabitants of the region – really be that astonished at what is happening? One recent publication – the intriguingly titled Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think – would suggest not. Co-authored by John Esposito, Professor of International Affairs and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, and the Cairo-born researcher Dalia Mogahed, it presents the results of an humongous Gallup survey which interviewed 50,000 Muslims in more than 35 countries, including Egypt and Tunisia (both of which have populations which are preponderantly at least nominally Islamic). The survey ascertained, amongst other things, that:
* Large majorities of Muslims would guarantee free speech if it were up to them to write a new constitution and they say religious leaders should have no direct role in drafting that constitution;
* When asked about their dreams for the future, Muslims say they want better jobs and security, not conflict and violence.
Given these results, it is in one sense of no real amazement that the populations of both Egypt and Tunisia, seemingly defying everything that a brutal police state can throw at them, have decided to take matters into their own hands on a grand scale: the aspirations of the general public in these countries do not correlate at all with the authoritarian political structures that ruled over them. The real shock will be if this type of technology-driven uprising does not spread to states where economic hardship and a lack of basic freedoms are prevalent – not just in the Middle East, but globally.