On Islam, anti-terrorism and fascism

One of the reasons why there is little outcry over the repression practised by secular governments in the Arab world is that there is a lack of empathy for those who are affected by it, writes Charlotte Wiedemann

By Charlotte Wiedemann

Anyone who expounds the theory that Islam has a quasi-religious genetic proximity to fascism can be sure of attracting attention, especially if the person voicing this theory comes from a Muslim background. However, as hotly as this subject is being debated in the German media at present, events such as the recent presidential election in Algeria and the upcoming presidential election in Egypt raise the very opposite question, namely when does anti-Islamism, which also goes by the name of anti-terrorism, cross the line to become fascism?

Turning the tables in this way is not a provocation for provocation's sake. What is happening in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood has been denounced as totalitarian and painted as public enemy No. 1, cries out for analysis and the use of appropriate terminology. As soon as there is any mention of religiously embellished atrocities, the words used in Germany in response to these atrocities can quickly reach fever pitch. When describing secular repression in Muslim countries, however, the words strangely pack much less punch.

So what words should be used to describe Egypt's new anti-terrorism law? It is based on a definition that is unprecedented in the scope of its reach: any kind of disruption of "public order" –even the act of defacing a memorial – can constitute a terrorist act. This is an arbitrary law for a repressive military state where 16,000 people have already been detained, where journalists are paraded in court in cages for the accused, where 500 death sentences were handed down in a two-hour show trial and where the Muslim Brotherhood has seen its passive voting rights withdrawn.

Disregarding what happened in Algeria

The generals in Egypt are disregarding all the lessons taught by the Algerian trauma, which began 22 years ago when a section of the army forced elections to be stopped to prevent an Islamist victory. Today, the ailing Bouteflika, the military's man who is playing the non-speaking part of the president, looks like a character in a prolonged tragedy. The Egyptian military is even less circumspect about the way it combines its political and economic power, controlling as it does 40 per cent of the national economy; its budget secret, unaudited and tax-free.

Abdul Fattah al-Sisi (centre, front) on 14 January 2014 after casting his vote for the new Egyptian constitution in a voting station in Cairo (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
"Trivialising the terror of secular regimes was standard practice in the West before the start of the Arab revolts. Following the overthrow of Mubarak and Ben Ali, this appeared to change, but as we can see today, that change was short-lived," writes Charlotte Wiedemann. Pictured here: Egyptian presidential candidate Abdul Fattah al-Sisi (centre, front)

The cause of Egypt's descent into military autocracy is shrouded in myths. US Middle East experts Shadi Hamdi and Meredith Wheeler recently examined Mohamed Morsi's time in office using parameters that are typically used in political science to evaluate the development of transitional societies following the toppling of autocratic regimes. They came to the conclusion that by global standards, Morsi was, despite his presumption and incompetence, actually rather average; on the scale between democracy and autocracy, Morsi's Egypt was nowhere near the bottom end. The coup, say the researchers, was legitimised "by way of a fundamental misinterpretation and distortion of what had gone before".

Trivialising the terror of secular regimes was standard practice in the West before the start of the Arab revolts. Following the overthrow of Mubarak and Ben Ali, all this appeared to change. However, as we can see today, that change was short-lived.

Assad as the lesser evil

In the case of Syria, the butcher Assad is already viewed as the lesser evil. We continue to balk at the suggestion that there might be shady tactical alliances between a secular state apparatus and religiously embellished terrorism even though the emergence of "al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb" with personnel from the Algerian secret service has already supplied an example of this.

In a recent interview with the radio broadcaster Voice of America, which cannot be accused of playing down Islamism, a Nigerian soldier told of army commanders operating on the side of the terrorist sect Boko Haram: during one military operation, he caught sight of his former military trainers among their fighters.

It should be noted that such pieces of information do not make the very real crimes committed by Boko Haram and others any less atrocious. It does, however, raise the question of the accuracy of the picture being conveyed to us. Do the missing pieces of the puzzle perhaps conceal reasons why the campaign to crush Boko Haram is so ineffective?

The economy of public outrage uses different units of measurement depending on whether a malefactor is labelled Muslim-religious or secular. When Erdogan bans Twitter, the outcry is louder than when Assad tortures children. The argument that it is because Turkey is not only closer to us but also wants to join the European Union does not provide a convincing explanation for these differing levels of uproar.

Charlotte Wiedemann  (photo: Charlotte Wiedemann)
The political journalist and writer Charlotte Wiedemann lived in Malaysia for several years and has travelled extensively in numerous Islamic countries in Asia and Africa. In her work, she has among other things, taken a closer look at recent societal upheaval in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen

In the case of Iran too, which is not as close to us, victims are always afforded higher levels of sympathy because they are the victims of an Islamic regime, even if the executed man was a drug dealer.

Lack of empathy for the Muslim Brotherhood

The lack of empathy for victims is one of the reasons why secular repression is so chronically underestimated. The words "Muslim Brotherhood" alone are enough to block empathy. Moreover, regimes like this are calculable partners of the West – just as they were before the Arab Spring. US Secretary of State Kerry has just spent a considerable amount of time in Algeria, the favoured assistant in the fight against terrorism in the region.

There is, however, one new aspect: the idea that Islamism is today's public enemy no. 1 is making inroads into both the western and the Arab left wing. It is crippling solidarity with the Syrian revolution, feeding into an incorrect reading of the events in Egypt and causing polarisation in Tunisia. Perhaps this is a kind of misguided internationalism.

But even Egypt and Tunisia – both post-revolutionary societies – are divided by more than unites them. This applies to both the level of religiousness in society and the character of the Islamist protagonists. With the disaster that befell the Muslim Brotherhood in mind, Tunisia's Ennahda relinquished power.

In Algeria, the three most important Islamist parties and members of the secular opposition boycotted the election. All over the world, from Indonesia to the Crimea, political Islam is pursuing quite different paths depending on the nation in question. This is why all the fashionable theories about its rise or fall have, at some point, shown themselves to be ill-founded.

Charlotte Wiedemann

© TAZ/Qantara.de 2014

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de