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1Literary Review | a p r i l 2 0 1 2 6
m i c h a e l b u r l e i g h
Going Green fter the Arab Spring: How Islamists Hijacked the Middle East Revolts
By John R Bradley (Palgrave Macmillan 247pp £10.99)
The events that optimists dubbed the Arab Spring signify the end for the secular military elites which displaced Ottoman and European colonial rule in the wake of the two World Wars. Although these revolutions have a long way to run, just as they did in France, Russia and Iran, one thing is clear: the human rights campaigners, feminists and liberals whose winning spokespersons captured the Western media’s imagination last year have already been brushed aside by highly motivated and organised political Islamists. Unlike the liberals, the Islamists had a ready-made nexus based on mosques, clinics, charitable foundations and religious schools. Despite having no cogent policies to solve such long-term regional problems as youth unemployment, over-dependence on oil, gas and tourism, and the looming water shortage, large numbers of people apparently find their petty-minded, moralising interventions in the lives of others compelling.
It is fair to say that the journalist and writer John R Bradley is not among the optimists. Bradley speaks Egyptian Arabic, knows the region well, and writes in a robust and punchy style. He palpably appreciates the tolerant, hedonistic atmosphere of Tunisia under Habib Bourguiba and his ill-fated successor, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. He is more critical of Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, though in his analysis of the country he misses the essential point that most Egyptians (including the soldiers) finally baulked at the establishment of a dynasty in the shape of the planned succession of Mubarak’s son Gamal. The motors of the revolutions in both countries were corruption, injustice and nepotism.
Bradley’s book not only covers the Arab Spring, but also takes a lengthy detour tracing radical Islam in Southeast Asia, where Indonesia, Malaysia and southern Thailand are also ‘going green’ thanks to the combination of external funding from the oil-rich Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia and the desire of local ‘straggly bearded crackpots’ to lord it over other men and women. Much of what is happening there reflects ‘Arabisation’, meaning the adoption of ancient Bedouin dress and mores, rather than ‘Islamisation’.
Bradley gets the essential narrative of political Islamism:
If things do not work out as they promise, they have a get-out clause: The people have not yet embraced Islam with the requisite fervor … The Islamists are ready to prey on society’s victims and disadvantaged by intimidation and promises of rewards in the afterlife. To be sure, burning brothels or vandalizing synagogues will not balance the budget, but it will continue to help release frustration. One of his comments about Saudi Arabia also has wider applicability: ‘Fundamentalism only ever deepens public hypocrisy, not public morality.’
Yet the revolutions are not just about public morality, but political power, and the shape of the Middle East in the future. The Islamists are very patient: in the case of Egypt, they have waited eighty years to get within sniffing distance of power, rejecting the bullet in favour of the ballot box in the process. They will not challenge the military junta that currently rules Egypt following the token sacrifice of Mubarak, because that government will accrue the blame for actually ruining the country while they stealthily progress their cultural tyranny from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. Islamist spokesmen talk admiringly of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party. The reality is otherwise. The world chuckled when Egypt’s Salafists announced they wanted to cover the pagan Pyramids; but it failed to notice that on the same day this was announced, the Muslim Brotherhood began a campaign against bikinis on beaches.
On the strategic level, Bradley notes the rival regional machinations of Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are openly backing