La Trobe lecturer’s worrying idea of “modern values”

La Trobe lecturer's worrying idea of

La Trobe University lecturer Luca Anceschi had a rather nonsensical piece today on academic opinion website The Conversation, concerning the Islamist parties in the Arab world. From the very beginning, Anceschi makes some basic factual errors:

Whatever the outcome of the Egyptian presidential runoff scheduled for 16-17 June, Middle Eastern electoral politics are now conforming to a remarkable rule. When elections are held in a free and fair environment, moderate Islam is not only a force to be reckoned with but, usually, reports resounding victories.

Following the Arab Spring, the rise of moderate Islam has redesigned the political landscape of North Africa. Moderate Islamist parties have obtained parliamentary majorities in the elections held in post-revolutionary Tunisia and Egypt and – outside of the framework of the Arab spring – semi-authoritarian Morocco.

Of course, if Egyptian presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq defeats Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Moursi, it will demonstrate that Egyptians actually prefer the old dictatorship to Islamist rule (Shafiq was Mubarak’s Prime Minister). Hence, the statement that “moderate Islam” will be vindicated “whatever the outcome” is completely false — in one of two possible outcomes, the Muslim Brotherhood would be humiliated.

Also, the Islamist Ennahda party did not win a parliamentary majority in their elections — they are currently ruling in a minority government and their rule is entirely dependant on secular groups. Again, this is a basic factual error.

Yet Anceschi’s lack of knowledge on the situation extends deeper. This is revealed once he names the forces of “moderate Islam” about which he was writing:

From 2002 onwards, the advancement of democracy in the Middle East (with the notable exception of post-Baathist Iraq) has invariably required the involvement of moderately religious political actors.

These politicians successfully met the expectations of the different populations. Some demonstrated a superior organisational capability (Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt), others a closer proximity to the business interests of a growing bourgeoisie ([Turkish] AKP). More simply, some had an immaculate record vis-à-vis corrupted regimes (Ennahda, [Morrocan] PJD) or declining political opponents (Hamas).

Putting to one side the groups in Morocco (which has no  real power), Turkey (which requires an extensive discussion) and Tunisia (which did not win the election outright) leaves two groups: The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in Gaza (which itself is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood).

It stretches the imagination to describe either of these groups as “moderates”. 

Furthermore, did not come to power democratically. They did win a majority of seats in the 2006 elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council, however these were not presidential elections and they did not win control of the executive.

This also did not lead to their power in Gaza. Rather, they wrested control of Gaza from their Fatah rivals in a brutal civil war that cost hundreds of lives. Furthermore, they have yet to hold any elections to test whether their government is truly accepted by the people, despite making periodic announcements that elections are inevitable. Finally, it is very clear that Hamas rules Gaza via repression, with nothing even resembling free expression or human rights (see reports herehere, here and here).

By most peoples’ standards, coming power by military force and refusing to hold elections afterwards is not exactly a “democratic process”.

Anceschi, apparently, believes otherwise:

It is time international public opinion recognised these parties for what they ultimately are: Muslim Democrats – a label reminiscent of the Christian Democratic political tradition that prospered in Western Europe throughout the Cold War.

How many Christian Democrat parties came to power through bloody coups and then held onto power through violence and intimidation? Not many.

The “icing on the cake”, or so to speak, comes from this statement that Anceschi makes (emphasis added):

These organisations have already demonstrated they have the support of their respective populations, have publicly outlined agendas that do not systematically subjugate modern values and, most importantly, have repeatedly declared their opposition to the more conservative interpretations of the Islamic belief system.

The points in bold bear repeating. Anceschi says that Hamas and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood “do not systematically subjugate modern values” and have “declared their opposition to” conservative Islam.

I am curious about which “Hamas” and “Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood” he is referring to, because the statements from the ones that I read about seem to indicate exactly the opposite.

Take, for instance, these quotes from the Egyptian Presidential candidate whose potential victory Anceschi is heralding as a “resounding victory” for “moderate Islam”:

“My party believes that a woman should not assume the post of president, but I do not mind appointing a woman as my vice-president… A woman can become prime minister.” (CBC TV, 10 May 2012)

“Muslims have the right to change their faith in a discreet way. But if a Muslim announces his conversion publicly, a practice which harms society, the Riddah penalty [execution for apostasy] should be applied against him.” (Al-Nahar TV, 18 May 2012)

We can also take this little portion of his campaign launch, transcribed by MEMRI (via Michael Rubin):

[Brotherhood cleric] Safwat Higazi: Our capital shall not be Cairo, Mecca, or Medina. It shall be Jerusalem, Allah willing. Our cry shall be: “Millions of martyrs march toward Jerusalem.” Millions of martyrs march toward Jerusalem. …
Ceremony leader: Banish the sleep from the eyes of all Jews.
Come on, you lovers of martyrdom, you are all Hamas. …
Brandish your weapons… Say your prayers…
Brandish your weapons… Say your prayers…
And pray to the Lord.
From the eyes of all Jews…
Come on, you lovers of martyrdom, you are all Hamas.

The list goes on. The Brotherhood recently initiated a mobile female genital mutilation service in one province of Egypt. They have a clear and well-documented record of Holocaust denial, antisemitism and support for terrorism — most of this terrorism itself conducted by Hamas.

So according to Anceschi, it does not constitute subjugation of modern values for a group to ban women from high-level public office, put apostates to death or call for war against the Jews. One wonders what “modern world” Anceschi lives in.

Unless, of course, he simply has not conducted substantive research on the groups about which he is writing. Given that he has been awarded funding to research the role of Islam in the relations between Iran, Saudi Arabia and post-Soviet Central Asia, neither option seems particularly reassuring.

Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz