Since 1979, when the Iranian revolution succeeded in toppling the peacock throne and founding an Islamic republic, "The Islamists are coming!" has been a cry that voiced the hopes of some and the fears of others.
For Islamist groups across the Arab- Islamic map, the Iranian revolution rekindled dreams of a victory of their own, even though these groups still suffered the after effects of successive waves of assault waged against them by Arab nationalist regimes from the early 1950s to the mid- 1970s. Not only did these campaigns throw Islamist groups into organisational disarray, and most of their leaders into prison, they also succeeded in turning the majority of the Arab public against them while luring it to the Arab nationalist model which seemed poised to realise their social and national aspirations.
Nevertheless, in the aftermath of the Arab defeat in the 1967 war, the credibility of the Arab nationalist project waned and its popularity dwindled. By the time of the Iranian revolution, Islamist groups had just begun to emerge from their cocoons and present themselves as the alternative to all preceding national revival projects, as the untried path untainted by disaster and defeat.
Since then, all signs indicated that the Muslim fundamentalist movement was marching relentlessly forward. A military coup paved the way for their seizure of power in Sudan. They were steadily gaining ground in the parliaments in Kuwait, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan and Algeria and, indeed, they won sizeable majorities in legislative elections in Palestine and Turkey. Their mounting popularity across the Arab world was also reflected in their growing, if not controlling, presence in many civil society organisations, notably in the occupational syndicates.
One factor that facilitated this progress was that some governments allied themselves with moderate Islamists in the hope of obstructing the danger of radical fundamentalists that espoused the use of violence. Some political parties and movements also pursued the same tactic, if for different ends, such as to combine forces against a common external enemy (the US and Israel) or against a domestic adversary (dictatorial regimes) or merely to hitch up with the Islamist trend in order to win more votes in the polls.
The West, spearheaded by the US, was alarmed at this development, in spite of the fact that it was instrumental in fostering it. The West had worked assiduously to destroy Arab nationalist governments that were once a bulwark against the fundamentalist tide. It also enlisted Muslim fundamentalists in its fight against communism. This alliance reached its zenith in the war to liberate Afghanistan from Soviet occupation and came to a reverberating close with the events of 11 September 2001.
But is the march of Muslim fundamentalists towards power in the Arab world, whether they succeed by coup or through democratic processes, irreversible? Has the civil state ended as a phase in political evolution and must we ready ourselves for a theocratic state?
The answer to these questions is affirmative if we judge solely by the balance of power between Muslim fundamentalists and other political forces. But it quickly moves to the negative once we take a closer look at the contradictions within the greater Islamist movement itself and unearth a number of weak points that could hamper its progress and perhaps thwart its goals entirely.
The problem with the Muslim fundamentalist project is that it is founded upon the utopian dream of reviving the Islamic state as it existed in its golden era. What is conspicuously lacking in the discourse of proponents of this project is a clear conception of the material means needed to resuscitate that past so many centuries after its death and to revive all the attendant circumstances that had enabled that state to flourish.
True, the ability of abstractions to tickle the deep religious grain of the Muslim people is a major reason for the widespread popularity of the fundamentalist project. However, when forced to come down to earth and deal with the difficulties that obstruct its path, or with the brass tacks of rule as dictated by balances of power and the various demands of reality, the project runs out of steam.
The fact is that the fundamentalist project has an Achilles heel. It posits a dream of reviving the glory of the Islamic empire but ignores the fact that what enabled that empire to flourish was its openness to other cultures and civilisations. This applies to Muslim jurists and theologians, as long as the doors to dialogue and the exercise of reason in light of the changes and challenges of contemporary reality remained open, furnishing a constant source of inspiration and renovation.
Conversely, the decline of Islamic civilisation began when the door leading to the application of reason and independent thought was slammed shut. If their aim is to revive our ancient glory, proponents of the fundamentalist project should first strive to breach the gap between the 4th century in the Islamic calendar, when the door to ijtihad was closed, and the present, so as to be able to formulate a philosophy that suits the times in which we live.
But this seems unlikely. Islamist fundamentalist groups, which have concentrated virtually all their efforts on recruitment and consolidating forces, fear the open door from which the winds of independent thought might shake their unity of rank. Thus, their members have been left to create the contours of the fundamentalist dream on the basis of ancient works of jurisprudence. As a result, they have become even more rigid than their leaders and have come to form a powerful pressure group within the movement that not only hampers their leaderships' ability to proclaim fresh ideas but also restricts their leaderships' manoeuvrability, which is one of the essential prerequisites for any drive to attain a dream. What remains, then, is the vast ability to cause problems, bring down disaster on others and generally obstruct progress and development.
The danger, therefore, is not so much that "The Islamists are coming," but that they still have the power to obstruct progress towards democracy in Muslim countries.
* The writer is editor-in-chief of Al-Qahira weekly newspaper