Does Arab socialism work?

Qantara.de - Dialogue with the Islamic World

Throughout the 20th century, the Arab world lived either in an Islamist or in a nationalist frame of reference. The question of a "third way" or a corresponding discourse with the participation of Arab intellectuals was asked, but the answer was rarely positive. In general, all Arab ideologies move within the two named poles.

Despite the political divergences and conflicts between the two concepts - sometimes bloody - the existence of one is inevitably linked to that of the other. In fact, the current predicament in the Arab world and especially in the Levant is a consequence of this dynamic. After the fall from nationalist ideology, the Arabs turned to Islamism. Even the Islamists see it that way.

But that should not be the subject of my consideration. Rather, it is the willfully false claims of the Islamists that the Arab nationalist dictatorship is a child of modernity and consequently of secularism.

The "Islamist Alternative"

The Islamists offer themselves time and again as the sole alternative to political regimes that also help spread these misleading claims. (It is not infrequently said that the Islamist ideology is a "natural alternative". Why? Because we are Arabs, it is assumed that we are instinctively Islamist!)

From an Islamist point of view, with the overthrow of the dictatorship of Tunisian President Ben Ali, the ideology of Jacobin secularism, which formed the basis of his dictatorship, failed, although it is assumed that it was based on modernity. Soon afterwards, other regimes in other Arab states overthrew, which apparently proved the correctness of this claim.

This gave credibility to the "Islamist alternative", underpinned by the rise of political Islam in Tunisia and Egypt and the growth of the Islamist movements in Syria that fought against the tyranny of the Assad regime. These developments were cited as evidence that the Arab secular ideology had failed and with it the cornerstone of dictatorships.

Both erroneous claims are based on two points of view: First a political view that equates the tyranny of the Arab political systems with Western modernity. And Secondly a religious view, according to which the tyrannical Arab political systems were atheistic and thus opposed Islam, which in turn is the natural state of the Arabs.

Both perspectives are the result of a larger fundamental cultural context. This is especially true with regard to the attempt to delegitimize secularism by discrediting its modern content and simply presenting it as "another ideology". In parallel, the return to Islamic heritage is viewed as a cultural and historical path towards present and future Arab ambitions. This legacy is invoked a thousand times over for the benefit of despots and Islamists.

The equality of secularism and the western world promotes the myth of hostility to Islam. Unfortunately, the Arab nationalist dictatorships have done nothing to expose this intellectual nonsense of the Islamists. On the contrary: they always wanted to prove that they were even more Islamist than the Islamists themselves.

Islam as a means of legitimizing rule - the example of Nasser

A good example is the former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser (as well as his "successors") with his deep nationalist roots and the caricature-like appearance of modernity and secularism.

For many, Abdel Nasser was a charismatic figure who represented a socialist ideology and turned against imperialism and Zionism. In fact, the Egyptian leader came from a religious background and was later influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood. That he adhered to the socialist ideology until his death did not detach him from the religious intellectual conceptions under which he had grown up.

The Islamic cultural paradigm of its nationalist ideology did not differ significantly from that of its Islamist opponents, such as Sayyid Qutb. His bitter action against some Islamists, flanked by his socialist ideology and religious convictions, only served to secure his rule.