Olivier Roy: The cold choice — jobs or jihad

Olivier Roy

“In the final analysis, the victory of the Islamists is part of the normalisation of the Arab world.”—Olivier Roy

In the most recent issue of the New Statesman , Olivier Roy, author of Holy Ignorance: When Religion and Culture Part Ways, examines the “Arab Winter” and the possible impact of Islamist victories in the Egyptian election.

Roy challenges the Western prejudice which sees Islam as incompatible with democracy and the Islamist victory as necessarily being a threat to the ideals of democracy, pluralism, and good governance that characterized the Arab Spring. Ultimately, as Roy suggests, the Islamists will have to respond to the current situation in Egypt and the fact that the Arab Spring did not have the kind of Islamic ideological component of the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Roy writes:

The Islamists are certainly neither secularists nor liberals, but they can be democrats. It is not the convictions of political actors that shape their policies but the constraints to which they are subject. The Islamists are entering an entirely new political space: this was not a revolution in which a dictatorship was replaced by a regime that resembled its predecessor. There have been elections and there will be a parliament. Political parties have been formed and, whatever the disappointments and fears of the secular left, it will be difficult simply to close down this new space, because what brought it into being in the first place – a savvy, connected young generation, a spirit of protest – is still there. Islamist movements throughout the region are constrained to operate in a democratic arena that they didn’t create and which has legitimacy in the eyes of the people.

In discussing some of the regional and geopolitical issues shaping the Arab Spring aftermath, particularly the role of Israel, Roy concludes by writing:

The Islamists don’t like Israel, and in this respect they are in step with Arab public opinion, but they are not willing to go to war…. The care that the Muslim Brotherhood has taken to open a dialogue with western diplomats is another sign that it is accepting strategic realities. There is no alternative, especially not of an opening towards Iran. The Saudis and the Qataris have played a significant offstage role here, the former in pushing the Salafists to run for election, the latter in supporting the Muslim Brotherhood wherever it stood.

The major conflict that is taking shape is not a clash between the Muslim world and the west. Rather, it is the one that pits the conservative Sunni Arab world against the “Shia crescent” around Iran, with Saudi Arabia’s “unholy alliance” with Israel in the background. The Brotherhood will struggle to carve out a distinct role for themselves in this context, and they know it. In the final analysis, the victory of the Islamists is part of the normalisation of the Arab world, as much in internal affairs as on a geostrategic level.

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