Egypt, Turkey, and Tunisia Are All Slowly Islamizing

In Tunisia, the effort to Islamize political institutions has confronted a significant backlash. Proposals to enshrine in the country's new constitution criminalization of blasphemy and subtle changes that would have reduced the equal status of women were beaten back after ferocious protest. Yet even in Tunisia, where the state brutally suppressed Islamism and an aggressive secularism was a hallmark of the political system, the Islamist Ennahda was elected. Even if the party is a closer approximation to Turkey's Justice and Development Party than Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, as the Ennahda leadership claims, the incorporation of Islamic codes and norms in Tunisia's political institutions are not far behind, despite early setbacks. Tunisia, often described as "the most secular" of Arab states, is experiencing an Islamist renaissance with new expressions of piety ranging from the sudden emergence of the niqab, Salafis, and demonstrations over the availability of liquor.

It is hard at this point to imagine anything other than a future in which religion plays a broad and decisive role in Egyptian, Turkish, and Tunisian societies. Yet this does not necessarily mean that the spread of theocracies is in the offing. Theocracy suggests a totalitarian-like Taliban rule or an Islamic Republic of Iran style of politics whereas certainly in Turkey and perhaps in Egypt and Tunisia, there is likely to be room for secularists to contest politics and the nature of the political order. Still, with the slow Islamization of political institutions, maintaining familiar lifestyles and even livelihoods of non-Muslim and/or non-pious citizens will become more difficult. Egypt's Coptic community is not imagining the pressure they feel even as President Morsi reassures incredulous Christians that they are an integral party of society.

Only in the context of the Arab uprisings, with its inspiring and emotional stories, can the Islamization of political institutions be a surprise. Various Islamist movements have been open about their goals for some time. In addition, it has always been a misnomer to refer to "secular republics" in the Arab world. In Hosni Mubarak's three decade-long political struggle with the Muslim Brotherhood, he, his party, and the propaganda machines of the state borrowed Islamist symbols and language. What, after all, is secular about a country that at one end of the scale identifies an official religion and at the other pipes the call to prayer into the subway system? Even Turkey is not secular, which implies freedom of religion. Rather, central to the republican system that Ataturk founded was laicisme, meaning the control of religion. More germane is the fact that secular elites in Turkey used religion when doing so served their interests. Thus, the oft-referred to "staunchly secular" Turkish military went on a mosque building binge in the 1980s, flaunted the fact that the chief-of-staff could recite the Qur'an from memory, and encouraged the growth of piety in the belief that religion would depoliticize society. All of this set the stage for the Islamization of political institutions once religious politicians came to power. The inevitable result is going to be a region in which particular interpretations of shari'a will play a direct role in shaping people's lives in unprecedented ways.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Steven A. Cook is Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square. He blogs at From the Potomac to the Euphrates.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

A Technicolor Time-Lapse of Alaska's Northern Lights

The beauty of aurora borealis, as seen from America's last frontier

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


A Time-Lapse of Alaska's Northern Lights

The beauty of aurora borealis, as seen from America's last frontier


What Do You Wish You Learned in College?

Ivy League academics reveal their undergrad regrets


Famous Movies, Reimagined

From Apocalypse Now to The Lord of the Rings, this clever video puts a new spin on Hollywood's greatest hits.


What Is a City?

Cities are like nothing else on Earth.


CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.



More in Global

Just In