Over the last few weeks the new Libyan leader, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, chairman of the National Transitional Council (NTC), has been repeating, "Sharia will be the main reference and will be implemented in Libya." Several of his references to Islamic legislation came in the presence of western politicians and intellectuals like the pro-Israel French self-styled philosopher Bernard Henri Levy, who, surprisingly, did not react with any shock whatsoever. Surprising indeed! It was as if Abdul Jalil was determined to show that the ‘Libyan revolutionaries' were truly independent and not supported or protected by France, the US, or the West. The West kept silent, though some media have asked pointed questions about whom the French, the Americans and the British were supporting.
Given Libya's extremely complex political situation, Abdul Jalil's statement was timely and very smart. He referred intentionally to concepts seen as very controversial in the West to make it clear to the Libyan people he was not a western puppet. In a way that seemed weird to a western ear, he spoke of Sharia and polygamy, knowing that for the emotionally wrought Libyan Muslims he was offering proof of his complete independence (such references are of course demonised in the West). For France, Britain and the US it was a way to show the world that Libya was now "on its own;" time for Nato to allow the new Libya to build its future by relying on its own traditions. The religious and political reference to Islam thus serves to appease the Muslims and lend traditional and religious legitimacy to the NTC while concealing the West's tri-dimensional — military, geopolitical and economic — penetration of Libya.
The Arab uprisings are showing that the peoples of the region are drawn to freedom, dignity and justice but are not prepared to betray their traditions and religious beliefs. The recent victory of Tunisia's Islamist party, Al Nahda, in that country's constituent elections, underlines a historical reality: Islam remains an unavoidable reference for the Arabs and as such will be critical in building the future, especially through the democratic process by which peoples are now able to express their political demands, their concerns about identity and their economic hopes. The conservative parties that invoke Islam in one way or another (hence the Islamists as well) are gaining ground and achieving greater political legitimacy. They are operating on three distinct levels: acceptance of democratic rules, preservation of the nation's Islamic identity and readiness to open their markets to the dominant economic powers and the multinational corporations.
The Turkish example has set a precedent: no one can deny that the AKP — coming from an Islamist background — is proving its leadership's success in these very three fields: they are religiously conservative, geopolitically prepared to deal with all the western powers (including, until recently, Israel), and economically integrated into the dominant capitalist system. They have shown great openness (with the EU) and demonstrated considerable flexibility. The West can indeed do business with any Islamist party that evidences a similar willingness to adapt and to collaborate, from Al Nahda to the Muslim Brotherhood. Things are moving fast in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena); the new political strategies are based on new economic and geopolitical concerns, driven by the active presence of new state actors in the region: Brazil, Russia, India and China (Bric). The West has no time to waste in the race to win Arab minds, hearts and money.
In these highly complex political and economic games, one issue stands out as crucial. The western countries have shown in the past that they have no major problem in dealing with political Islam to protect their interests. Given the presence of the Bric's countries, they have no choice as the latter are ready to establish strong political and economic ties whatever the situation in the respective Arab countries.
Stance against Israel
The key factor will be Israel. All the Islamist parties have taken strong position against the Zionist state (even Turkey recently), which is the reason for their broad popular support (including the current Iranian regime). The Islamists may well be ready to promote the democratic process and to participate fully in the dominant economic system (the great majority of the Islamist parties accept it today) but they remain quite explicit in their stance against Israel. Here lies the core of the acute tensions and contradictions in the US and the European countries: they need to be involved in Mena but they cannot distance themselves from Israel. Meanwhile, the Bric countries do not have the same historical alliance with Israel and they seem ready to challenge the western bias towards the Middle East conflict.
The Islamic reference is at the heart of the debate in the Arab world. Political Islam is at the crossroads: it faces numerous challenges and must deal with conflicting interests. Only a comprehensive approach can give us a sense of what is at stake. Many trends — even some Islamist parties — are playing with Islam in an attempt to gain legitimacy. There can be no doubt that politics corrupts. Who, in the Arab countries, will be able to hold power while respecting the Islamic imperatives of dignity, justice and transparency — let alone truly supporting the just cause of Palestine?
Tariq Ramadan is Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University and a visiting Professor at the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Qatar. His new book Islam and the Arab Awakening will be out this month.