9th Sep, 2013 –
Time and again, we find Islamist movements across the Middle East hiding their real agendas in order to gain power and hold onto power.
In Tunisia and Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood’s English-speaking spokesmen always go out of their way to play down any kind of intolerant social agenda for disempowering women, marginalizing non-Muslim minorities and Islamicizing society. However, we frequently come across them saying precisely the opposite in Arabic to their grassroots supporters.
In Egypt, Muslim Brotherhood leaders have again and again stressed to the Western media the peaceful nature of their protests. For, example, senior Brotherhood leader Mohammed Al-Beltagi wrote in the Guardian newspaper: “We believe that our peacefulness is a more powerful weapon than all the killing machines employed by the army or the police”.
At the same time Al-Beltagi was urging crowds to follow the example of Algerian Islamists who “offered a million martyrs”. “You will sacrifice your soul to defend [deposed President] Mohammed Morsi’s legitimacy,” he instructed them.
A succession of speakers told Muslim Brotherhood supporters that those opposing Morsi should be “crushed” and Islamist cleric Safwat Al-Hijazi declared on Al-Arabiya TV that “I will spray blood upon those who spray water at Morsi”.
We have seen a similar trend among Islamist protesters in Bahrain, where English language spokespeople have always emphasized peaceful protest, democracy and human rights.
Meanwhile, leaders of the protest movement have stirred up their Arabic-speaking supporters by encouraging them to riot, burn tyres, block roads and attack the police. The “Declaration of an Islamic Republic of Bahrain” from February 2011 by leaders of the protest movement like Hassan Mushaima was never translated into English.
On one notorious occasion, Ayatollah Shaikh Isa Qassim urged thousands of followers to “crush” the police – a somewhat different approach to what the opposition has taken when talking to the New York Times and BBC!
The culture of martyrs has also been very much in evidence among Bahrain’s protest movement. It is shocking that even young children have been encouraged to wear clothing and headbands stating their desire to be martyrs. You may be surprised to discover that such items of clothing are only available in Arabic.
If you take time to drive around Bahrain and take note of the graffiti, you will also note that slogans in badly-spelt English call for “democrassy and “freedome for Bahraine”. Meanwhile, messages in Arabic – often on the same walls – strike a very different tone: “Death to Al Khalifah [the ruling family]”; “We sacrifice ourselves for you [Ayatollah] Isa Qassim”….
Attitudes of these Islamist movements towards the US and the West have also been interesting. On one level, these movements know they need to engage America and European nations, so they have gone out of their way to sound moderate and conciliatory. Yet at the same time these movements have a long history of opposing US policies – resulting in some very mixed messages.
When there were protests against US embassies across the region in 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Khairat Al-Shatir tweeted to the US Embassy that he was “relieved none of @USembassycairo staff was hurt”. The US Embassy responded: “Thanks. By the way, have you checked out your own Arabic feeds? I hope you know we read those too” – in reference to copious Brotherhood tweets inciting protests against the same Embassy!
Similarly in Bahrain during 2012, observers noted times when opposition protests were chanting slogans opposed to US involvement in the region on exactly the same day as opposition mouthpieces were appearing in the US media urging greater American support for the aims of the protesters.
The confusion in these Arabic and English messages comes from some basic underlying contradictions in these Islamist movements.
At root they have an agenda which is profoundly anti-democratic. Because their politics are based on religious principles, the views of people of other faiths and sects are rejected, including the views of those who believe in a separation of politics and religion.
At the same time these movements often need to use the democratic process and parliament to find their way to power; or they want to subvert democratic shortcomings to undermine existing Governments and capture power for themselves.
President Mohammed Morsi was the first democratically elected president in Egypt, but his behaviour once in power was highly undemocratic in consolidating and strengthening his own powers – a strategy which ultimately backfired on him.
Likewise, in Bahrain, the oppositions English-language propaganda never stops talking about democracy. However the clerics and Ayatollahs who lead the protest movement in no way resemble advocates of democracy, and we shouldn’t expect them to.
This all helps explain how Western nations got the events of the so-called Arab Spring so badly wrong. Not all those acting in the name of democracy wanted democracy, and the Islamist groups seeking to capitalize on these disturbances sought to gain from democratic innovations, while themselves remaining highly undemocratic.
Everybody heard what they wanted to hear – and then scratched their heads and wondered why the resulting situation on the ground seemed so puzzling.
It does not matter whether these Islamist movements are Sunni or Shia, whether they are fundamentalists in turbans, or ‘moderates’ in suits. The results can only mean one thing: The enshrinement of a particular religious vision and the marginalization of all other strands of political thought, while reshaping constitutions and institutions to make it very difficult for others to gain any political influence in the future; ultimately followed by the transformation of society along religious lines and the narrowing of artistic, cultural and intellectual domains.
There are many parts of society who will happily vote for groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, because they best seem to promote the Muslim ideals which many of us share.
This apparent popularity of the Islamists shouldn’t blind us to the fact that these Islamists will not serve our national interests – putting ideology ahead of economic development, education, diplomatic relations and social justice.
So let’s stop listening to the doublespeak of these extremists and start promoting young and progressive people who can really move our societies forward.