The Arab revolt is not an Islamist revolt

Protesters in Cairo

I guess it’s only natural for some people — those of us who can only hold one idea in our head at a time — to conflate Arabs and Islamists in the current upheaval rocking Egypt, Tunisia and throughout much of the Middle East.

Many news stories can’t help but mention Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood as poised to take over after the current regime of President Hosni Mubarak falls. The Financial Times, for example, quotes the highly qualified and objective political analyst Ayatollah Ali Khameni (Iran’s “supreme” leader … yeah, I’m being sarcastic) claiming what’s happening in Cairo represents an “Islamic movement.”

“The events have special meaning for the Iranian nation, Mr Khamenei told worshippers in Tehran’s Friday prayers. “This is what has always been said that an Islamic awakening [could]result from the victory of Iran’s great Islamic revolution.”

Interestingly, that’s the same claim made by conservative talk show hosts in the U.S. and by Mubarak as part of his effort to scare the Western powers into supporting his desperate attempt to hold on to power.

More reasonable people, those who actually know Egypt and Tunisia, say these protests are not at all inspired by radical Islamists but rather by the demands of regular people for freedom, fairness, democracy, jobs and a life free from political oppression and corruption.

Time magazine warns that Mubarak and his cohorts are pushing the Islamist threat in order to provide cover for an even more violent government response to put down the protests.

But even if these protests aren’t prompted by radical Islamists, couldn’t they take advantage of the chaos to take over as happened in Iran? NPR asks, and answers, this question in this great story by Alan Greenblatt “With Upheaval, How Large is the Opening for Islam?

Not very big, says Greenblatt:

Most academic and policy experts say an Iran-style scenario is far-fetched for Egypt and other Arab countries that are now seeing uprisings. There’s no doubt that Islamist parties will play a role in transitional governments and open elections, should they occur.

The Islamist parties, however, are not the dominant force behind protests in any country outside of Jordan. And, should they attain power in any country, their platforms are more likely to resemble that of the moderate Islamist party that rules Turkey in a secular fashion than those of the ayatollahs in Iran.

Let’s hope the American media’s natural tendency to think Arab=Islam doesn’t end up providing a despot with the excuse he needs to crush what is clearly a popular democracy movement very much in the same political and philosophical tradition that founded our nation.

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.