Islam in Tripoli, Islam in Tunis

From: eNews issue  |  Contributor: Scott Allswang

Islam has long pervaded the Middle East. The steady collapse of one dictatorship after another, however, has not shoved Islam into the background in many countries. On the contrary, the popular uprisings have allowed the freeing of some strict Islamists who were imprisoned and tortured for years under the tyranny of Western-backed dictators. Major hard-line Islamic parties now have the chance to vie for power in upcoming elections, and the West waits to see how the changes bode for regional stability.

In the West, there is reasonable fear that the Middle East will descend into a battleground of fundamentalist Islamic governments, all subjecting their citizens to Sharia law and fomenting aspirations of bringing the rest of the infidel world under the domination of Allah. 

Tunisia held its elections this weekend, however, and the results have provided a little bit of hope. The Ennahda "Renaissance" Islamic party claimed the victory, but while they are politically Islamic, they are fairly moderate. Had the Salafis won the election, they would have proceeded to push Tunisia back into the Islam of the Middle Ages. Ennahda still has to form a coalition government, and it is uncertain where that will lead, but the party did vow to promote social justice, economic development, and a government free of corruption. It also has said it would promote democratic and women's rights. 

Of course, Tunisia depends on tourism for income, and it doesn't work well for the country to deny tourists alcohol and belly-dancers. There are practical issues to be considered when a new leadership comes to power, however faithful to Allah. 

On the other hand, Gaddafi is barely cold, and already the Libyan interim leader, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, has declared that "any law violating the Sharia will be legally null and void." Those words have concerned many, especially women. In some examples of what changes would be made in Libya, Jalil said he would legalize polygamy (under Sharia men can take up to four wives), and he would abolish the practice of banks' charging interest (however that can work). 

While alarming to the West, strict Islamic leaders appeal to the masses in the Middle East for several reasons. They often come from the poor and downtrodden parts of the country. Islam also advocates for giving alms to the poor, and the suffering poor hope their new leaders will redress their grievances. The Islamists are also heroes right now. The Islamist leader who stormed Tripoli, Abdalhakim Belhadj, was tortured for seven years in a top security Libyan prison under Gaddafi, and now he and freed men like him hold honored positions as living martyrs. 

Egypt, like many Gulf nations, makes Sharia the main source of legislation, but does not necessarily enforce all that Sharia dictates. Like Tunisia, Egypt depends on tourism. In Saudi Arabia and Iran, public flogging is still the punishment for drinking alcohol and thieves' hands are still hacked off. Egypt has Sharia as "the source" of law, but it simply requires that no laws directly contradict Sharia, rather than requiring that Sharia be strictly implemented. 

The major concern in Egypt is the Muslim Brotherhood. It is organized and popular, and promotes a strict form of Islam. 

However, the MB recognizes the host of financial and social problems that Egypt currently faces, and it does not want to deal with the mess all on its own. The MB has announced it would not field a presidential candidate or attempt to gain a parliamentary majority, but it would have its candidates run for 50 percent of the parliamentary seats. The idea is to gain a strong voice in the parliament, taking a central role in shaping the constitution, without having to take on all the responsibility and all the blame if things go badly.

Christians In the Middle East: 
Regardless of how moderate a form of Islam a country can embrace, however, and regardless of a government's willingness to cooperate with the West, non-Islamic peoples can and do still suffer persecution under these new governments. Christians and other minority religions have faced many attacks since the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and more recently Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Egypt's Coptic Christians were tormented earlier this month in Cairo while protesting the burning of two churches. Some of those attacked were run down by Egyptian military vehicles or beaten and dragged through the streets. 

More than 800,000 Christians lived in Iraq 10 years ago, and now fewer than half of those remain, having left for more peaceful lands. Churches are being bombed and even children are attacked. A nine-year-old Iraqi boy was beaten in front of his class last year and called an "infidel" because of his Christian faith. 

The world waits to see what happens in the Middle East as the governments reform. Even if there is relative peace toward the West and promises of freedom on the outside, it is always wise to watch what happens in the streets - where the real people live.