The Contemporary Challenges of the Muslim World: An Awakening of Islam and the Middle East

*This article was written for my Jurisprudence paper in close reference to the book by Professor Tariq Ramadan entitled The Arab Awakening: Islam and the New Middle East

We live in interesting times whereby for the longest period of times since the independence from Western colonisation, the Middle East is undergoing an irreversible democratisation process. Although often times hindered by the setbacks of the military intervention, internal political struggle and contentious political relationships with the other side of the House, it cannot be denied that the fall of the dictatorial regimes had opened the door to the liberation of the societies. This has led to the possibilities of drafting new constitutions, as well as parliamentary and presidential elections. As much as the religious connotation was absent from this ‘reform’, the role of Islamic parties were omnipresent following the demise of dictatorships, hence leading the debate on the compatibility of Islam with democratic pluralism and religious diversity.

It is well recognised that the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet are the bedrock of Islamic belief and thought. While the core of Islamic teachings are generally agreed by the scholars of law and jurisprudence, the differing interpretations in regards to the mua’malah are unavoidable considering the cultural and social contextual differences. Although the principles remain unchanged, this multiplicity of interpretations do affect the daily lives of Muslims in different parts of the world–what is termed as ‘Islamic Civilisation’ may not necessarily be the same for Muslims in United States of America to Pakistan, or Saudi Arabia, for example.

Such challenges have made it difficult to reconcile the meaning of a ‘political Islam’ in our contemporary world. The long period of colonisation had left the later Muslim generations unprepared in facing the concept of governance, political mobilisation and economic empowerment. It is only in the late nineteenth century when contemporary political Islam began to shape when Jamal ad-Din Al-Afghani and Muhammad ‘Abduh strove to conceptualise alternatives in the face of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and colonialism. The reformists proposed a solution for the return to the Qur’an with the revitalisation of open Islamic tradition of independent legal reasoning (ijitihad), and for reform to also include the people’s education of their own spiritual and intellectual references, combined with scientific knowledge and philosophy–which ideally would lead to the end of division among Muslim nations.

Adoption of Political Means to Defeat Colonialism

This progression eventually led to the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood by Hassan al-Banna, who was determined to work within the framework of law and rejection of the use of violence in the organisation’s name. Muslim Brotherhood started off with the re-Islamisation of colonial Egypt with specific objectives of the ‘return to Islam’, programmes of mass education, social and economic reform as well as Islamic legislation (against the then repressive Western imposition). The aspirations of the reform thinkers were partially-fulfilled when Muslim Brotherhood’s influence transcends national boundaries with branches in Sudan, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine.

A Political Disheavel: The Suppression of Political Islam by Dictators

However, the legalist strategy had not always worked in their favour. The Muslim Brotherhood had by then enjoyed mass base support that when Colonel Gamal Abdul Nasser successfully staged coup d’etat to ascend to power. He began consolidating his power by suppressing former allies; including Muslim Brotherhood leaders and followers. The incident had provoked thoughts among the younger Muslim Brotherhood members that eventually led to its divisive split. Gamal Abdul Nasser’s regime of torture and imprisonment made them drawn to the thoughts of Sayyid Qutb, whose positions were harsher and more radical. This was the start of the birth of the splinter groups such as al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya (‘Islamic Groups’), Tanzim at-Takfir (‘Order of Anathema’),  and Tanzim al-Jihad al-Islami–who now have different understanding and political approaches, although essentially the end goals were similar.

Alike many other political movements, the Islamic organisations had undergone changes to their political priorities, bargaining power and understanding of issues. Although most groups initially set their political tone within the national context (such as the splinter groups which began in Egypt), the changing global circumstances had led several to make a qualitative leap in their approach, which unfortunately resulted to harsher means. For example, Ayman al-Zawahiri favored a global jihad whereby the point was not to unseat despot, but to strike those who manipulated the leadership i.e United States. While Ayman-led Al-Qaeda remains politically marginal until today, it has also attracted many symphatisers who believe that violence is the key to survival and re-birth of ‘political Islam’.

The Arab Uprising: Parallel to Western Values?

Noting the progress of political Islam over the years, the Arab awakening was an indication on how far removed such movements are from the aspiration and concerns of the young people. Extremism is despised and had not offered tangible solution to the demands of the growing younger Arab population. The turn of events that happened in Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Egypt and many others had nothing to do with anti-Western stance, but for the upholding of justice and freedom from the clench of oppressive Arab dictatorships. While the Muslim Brotherhood wishes to stay true to its non-violent approach, the hierarchy couldn’t do much to resist its younger members to eventually participate the growing call for reforms. Some commentators, like Oliver Roy, even speak of ‘post-Islamist revolutions’, while others see them as a ‘third age’ of Islamism, as exemplified by the rise of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party.

Despite that, this revival has to be treated with caution as on closer analysis, the term ‘revolution’ seems unwarranted. It is too soon to expect any transformation of political order or a shift in the economic balance of power. Professor Tariq Ramadan had preferred the use of the term ‘uprising’ instead to describe the common character of the mass movements that have shaken the Arab countries. Although men and women, be young or old of all religions had mobilised a mass movement for a change, it is more apt to refer to it as an ‘uprising’ as drawn up by Jean-Paul Sartre–which is a category half-way between revolution and revolt.

It is not a strange occurrence that the Western powers were not dismissive of the mass revolt in the Middle East and North Africa. This is so as unlike the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the Islamists were not in control of the protesters and that the people’s aspirations–which are massive, non-violent, well-organised and free of anti-Western slogans–had united the voice of the people against the ruling regimes. The presence of non-religious people, the visible Coptic minorities, and secularists in Tunisia and Egypt can only lead to one conclusion that a new form of opposition had formed demanding the core values of freedom, justice and equality, and rejection of corruption and cronyism. These are values that have long shrouded the Western’s powers propagation of ‘universal values’, and the situation couldn’t be more opportune for them to rest their laurels and throw in their support instead in the name of democratic reform, albeit the fact that the same Western powers had supported dictators such as Hosni Mubarak and Ben Ali.

Kipling’s ‘East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet’ suddenly brought a realisation that perhaps the ‘Western values’ are now endeared by the Arabs in the form of freedom, justice and democracy. Suddenly, the Arabs are no more deemed as the ‘Other’ as they join the advanced, civilised detachment of the Western-led onward march of history as they had come to the conclusion that religious references had nothing to do with their actions. The uprisings were interpreted as as the victory of reconciliation from both spheres of civilisation. Such is the version that the majority of third-party onlookers may be contented to believe in, but it is dangerously simplistic as it is an imperialist version, if not a castrating one. The by-standers often overlooked the bigger picture that as the world’s economic markets are needed to be more open to modern technology, global culture and contemporary consumerism, the Arab countries are expected to evolve and integrate into the Western’s approach of ‘liberal economic order’. Although essentially reforms are incumbent for liberation of the Arabs, the backdrop of the ‘uprising’ details a pre-planned, strategic social media approach and efficient mobilisation of non-violent movements.

The Western powers learned an invaluable lesson of the new driving force behind mass movement through the experience of a group called Otpor (‘Resistance’) which was created and led by Srdja Popovic, a young man who used text messaging, the internet and social networks to galvanise the population against Slobodan Milosevic. The success had led to the set up of an organisation called CANVAS, a training centre specialising in non-violent action and strategy–and among the many who received training was Mohammed Adel, one of the founders of Egypt’s April 6th movement. In the advent of young Arab’s active use of social media and online platforms, the United States, Europe and major American corporations like Google, Facebook and Yahoo were directly involved in the training of cyber-dissident, activists and bloggers from Middle East and North Africa from as early as 2003.

Non-Violent Approach and Success of Communication

By the year of 2007, the training sessions and networks became more widespread and organised aimed at young people in countries whose governments, despite being autocratic, were allies of the Western powers. For the reasons mentioned above, it was timely for these despotic leaders to be removed–this time through the psychological impact of the extraordinary work done by the bloggers in spreading the message of non-violent resistance and opposition to dictatorships. The spark flared when Mohamed Bouazizi committed suicide by setting himself ablazed, and this incident was relatable to the majority of the young Arabs who were largely unemployed, economically handicapped, and bullied by the authorities and the corrupted. While the street-protests were full-fledged in Tunisia, young activists in Egypt had begun arousing hopes of freedom from the similar endemic to the Egyptian people–aimed directly at the regime and never at the West or its collateral forces–with rallies starting at Tahrir Square. It was later then revealed that al-Jazeera journalists were provided with a detailed explanation of their strategy, its implementation and the training given to the country’s youthful cyber-activists for periods of one to five years.

Admittedly, the use of Internet had facilitated the mass mobilisation in the region for the call of reforms, however the Arab population would not have reacted in such a way if not for the more pro-active role of the traditional media. The data has it that only 4 percent Libyans, 36 per cent Tunisians and 30 per cent Egyptians enjoy internet access. Meanwhile, Al-Jazeera’s bilingual channels–which are faster and better organised than CNN and BBC–covered events that explicitly supported the anti-dictatorial movement, and its influence is significant as the content of local media broadcasts are controlled by the respective governments. However, it is important to note that  Al-Jazeera’s partiality is linked to the Qatari government’s foreign policy interest, and as Alain Gresh, deputy director of Le Monde Diplomatique pointed out, Al-Jazeera’s contrasting treatment of mass demonstration in Egypt and Tunisia were starkingly different from the situations in Syria and Bahrain, or to the budding protest movement in Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Saddeningly, be the traditional or digital media, both platforms are financed and/or controlled either by governments, private companies, multinational corporations or influential national operators, hence it rings a bell that the Arab uprising bears hidden interests that can easily manipulate the people’s sentiments and hopes in this world where information is gold.

Case Studies of the Domino Effect: Iran, Libya, Syria and the Petro-Monarchs

Contrary to popular belief, the first mass demonstration did not start in Tunisia nor Egypt, but in Iran after the presidential elections in June 2009. The ‘Green Revolution’, which aims to address the institutional transparency, and conservative religious hierarchy was met by a brutal crackdown upon the Opposition by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Although superficially the revolution had similarities to the ones in North Africa–such as the use of online platform to rally the people, it was only limited to the urban areas. More importantly, Ahmadinejad’s political opponents still fell within the Iranian idealogical and political system, and not for the dismantling of the Islamic Republic. Not surprisingly, the Western media and powers threw their unconditional support behind the protesters in the name of democratic values, although in the same time supporting the Mubarak and Ben Ali’s regime (before later retracting their support in favor of the protesters).

This contradiction of the Western powers’ attitude became more apparent as tensions broke out in Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya. Although Gaddafi’s government had resorted to violence to quash the protesters; which left four dead and dozens wounded, the Western media was quick to capitalise on the situation in painting a dire situation for a third-party help, namely the NATO. Unlike protests in Egypt and Tunisia, the Libyans didn’t adopt a non-violent approach in their dissatisfaction towards Gaddafi, but rather they were armed with weapons such as in Benghazi. However, Amnesty International pointed out in a detailed report: ‘Western media coverage from the outset presented a very one-sided view of events, portraying the protest movement as entirely peaceful and repeatedly suggesting that the regime’s security forces were unaccountably massacring unarmed demonstrators who presented no security challenge’–while the truth was the National Transitionary Council was set up with the assistance of France and NATO to help bring down Gaddafi’s regime militarily.

The ensuing airborne attacks by NATO summed up the Western powers’ hypocrisy in managing the Middle East and North Africa crisis. Libya’s wealth and strategic position couldn’t be left volatile, thus it became imperative to maintain some degree of control over the successor regime due to its substantial oil trade with European nations, such as its 25 per cent oil export to Italy and 10 per cent to France. This was done in the disguise of political democratisation at the expense of its economic and geo-strategic importance. However, as much as the Western powers thought that the ‘uprising’ had completed its domino effect, it has unexpectedly simmered to Syria and the petro-monarch states such as Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia. Despite the dozens of reported deaths and allegations of chemical weapon use, it was important to keep Bashar Al-Assad in power as a strategic ‘regional enemy’ which poses no serious threat to Israel, in addition to its lack of oil and gas wealth. Meanwhile, tensions in the petro-monarch were swept under the rug, although the petro-monarch are themselves not democratic and living up to ‘universal values’ as fought for by the Western powers in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

Charting the Future of Middle East and Political Islam

Months had gone by since the success of the ‘uprising’, but what is next for the political survival of the winners of circumstances? The weight of decades-long dictatorship in Egypt and Tunisia had left a weakened civil society to fill the leadership vacuum from the oust of the dictators. There’s a fine line between having a clear idea on what the people no longer wanted, and expressing their social and political aspirations beyond the slogans that called for an end to corruption and cronyism, and the establishment of the rule of law and democracy. It was for this weakness that the victors of the uprising fell back into the dichotomy of idealogical clash between secularists and Islamists, which makes it impossible for the either to indulge in in-depth reflection about the crisis that afflicts them both. The squabble between the two spectrum of political ideals without taking the path of reconciliation had hindered the emergence of an alternative, one that is envisioned by the people in their liberation from the decades-old dictatorship (although as of recent date, the Tunisian democratisation is under its way of following the path of moderation).

Professor Tariq Ramadan stressed upon greater social equality and economic justice for a true democratisation to take place. He had proposed for the Arabs to reconcile the political differences with the economic, thus leading to a more comprehensive approach for the betterment of the people.  Secondly, it is important to embrace the diversity and plurality of the society’s identity without being strictly nationalistic, as such thinking will help to formulate broader social, political and economic perspectives. Thirdly, the Muslim-majority societies must also deal with the Sunni-Shiite conflict more delicately, as the sharply polarized positions would indirectly contribute to uncompromising attitude, especially between Western-friendly Sunni nations and Shiite-dominant Iran. Although the Shiites consist only of 10 to 15 percent of the population in the Middle East, the growing influence of Shiism is bound to have political consequences to the ‘uprising’, notably when the Shiites are getting more prominent in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Bahrain.

Moving Away from the Idealogical Clash to Focus on Political and Capacity-Building

In fulfilling the aspiration of a ‘political Islam’, the Muslim-majority societies must move beyond giving ‘Islamic’ legitimacy to their rhetoric rather than with providing concrete answers to contemporary challenges. Muslims must confront the advent of new ideas and solve conflicts between clashing advocates of Islamic tradition and secularists by moving beyond symbolical credibility. What’s needed is for them to have a better control of need management–there needs to be a prioritisation of interests in their approach to solve economic, educational and infrastructure rather than just focusing on social work (as is currently practiced by the Muslim Brotherhood).

As much as the Islamists of the day want to vouch for an ‘Islamic state’, the concept arose only as an idealogical response to counter the Western imperialism and assault of colonialism. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 had provided an experience to learn from as a failure in fulfilling the idealistic aspirations of many Islamists, which was a revolutionary expression of political Islam within the strict framework of the nation-state in opposing to a pro-Western dictatorial regime. However, the situation must be re-assessed in the light of the circumstances of today. The idea of a democratic state for example, has been noted by Yusuf al-Qaradawi as being consistent with Islam as a political project. The term ‘Islamic state’ has long blinded the Islamists with paradoxical arguments, hence it is timely to replace the term with a ‘civil state’; one that must administer majority preferences through the categories of right or wrong, in full recognition of the plurality of religions and political ideas.

Civil State

Rached Ghannouchi of Tunisia is one example who had appealed for full acceptance of democratisation, which has been echoed by the Moroccan movement al-Adl Wal-Ihsan whose priority is to found a democratic republic. The Iranian experience had created a political baggage that an ‘Islamic state’ would be theocratic. While steering clear of the notion of ‘Islamic state’, Professor Tariq Ramadan also notes that the Muslim leaders are also distancing themselves from the term ‘secularism’, which is often made parallel to the dictatorship rule of Arab despots. Essentially, it has to be understood that the idea of a ‘civil state’ recognises the existence of two distinct authorities: one political, the other religious. The distinction is important as it defines relations with the democratic process. While the reference to the Shari’a remains, there needs to be a coherent embodiment of a viable model for Muslim-majority societies. What’s more important is for there to be an articulation of ethics inspired by religion, collective intelligence and culture in the administration of the state affairs–hence the strengthening of the civil society which is an essence of good governance in the exercise of power; free from corruption, cronyism and pressure of financial and economic interest groups.


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