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Considering the Arab Uprisings

Taking queue from Wadah Khanfar’s introductory address to an audience gathered at the LSE this week for a talk on the ‘reality’ of the Middle East, there is still much to be understood in the wake of the revolutionary uprisings that spread across the Arab regions last year. Khanfar, former director general of the Al Jazeera Network during those times, opened his talk criticising the danger of superficiality inherent to the discipline of journalism – derived from its responsibility to report on the moment, on the now. Such a construction tends to forgo a deeper understanding of the longer term reality of a society, stretching back in time, that puts the present outlook into perspective. This is something perhaps only now surfacing in the developing calm after the Arab storm, which the talk by Khanfar, and one held a week earlier by history professor Roger Owen from Harvard, considered.

Relatively sudden and unpredictable, the unrest across the Arab regions was a journalistic dream. There was the reactivity of seeing the affair as, simply enough, the dawn of real democracy, the arrival of ‘modernity’ in its essence, seen and felt in the spirit of unity at Tahrir Square bringing all creeds and intellectual persuasions together against the unjust concentration of power in a single figure. It has then come as a surprise to some commentators that, appearing out of order with this radical move into an open future, the first stages of the post-storm in Egypt are marked by elections that have in fact proved the popularity amongst the people of an apparently ‘sectarian’ body: the ‘Islamist’ Freedom and Justice Party (FJP, based on the Muslim Brotherhood). The FJP now has a sizeable majority control in the elected governance, and the remarkably more ‘Islamist’ (‘Salafi’) Al-Nour is in second place. There is more to this than a rebound response by the people to establish some stability quickly (a momentary explanation, otherwise reasonable in light of the Muslim Brotherhood’s social service support during the violent uprisings). It was also only days ago that all political parties agreed to select a senior figure of the Muslim Brotherhood as the speaker for Egypt’s newly elected body, with Al-Nour presenting a strong deputy influence. 

Indeed ‘Islamism’, also called ‘political Islam’, needs to be viewed much more subtly than simply an element of ‘extremism’ incompatible with democracy. Not simply an outdated insistence on the control of religion in the social world held by a discrete minority who fear change and want to preserve their power, but, Khanfar highlighted, a narrative intrinsic to identity, spread across and organic to the very region and its society since the greater part of a century. The truly democratic spirit found promising in the revolution – indeed one by the people for the people - is then complex for being ultimately expressive of the reality of a society still in need of further developing a distinct identity of independence; something felt to have, as of yet, been expended or abused by the very fact of a sovereignty (such as Mubarak and his military) driven to self-interested corruption by the support and control of equally self-interested Western (namely US) forces.

Appropriately then, in his talk Owen recognised that Islam, representing a ‘religious interest’, must be a process in the political development in the Muslim world (indicating the reductive distortion of its ‘sectarian’ characterization). Linking the matter to the issue of identity, Owen sought to consider the recent toppling of the power in Egypt in the context of the Egyptian Revolution of the middle of the last century, which importantly ended all British occupation in Egypt and freed the people from the last grips of Western imperialism. What started as a military coup against the British also developed into a popular revolution, in which society at large was driven by the freedom to construct their own autonomously constituted social existence.

The ‘religious interest’ is therefore an undeniable if potent element underlining the superlative issue of identity that the Middle East faces in a globalised world, which must provide the space in which its democracy operates. ‘Islamism’ – the fundamental relevance of Sharia (Islamic Law and the Qu’ran) for Muslim social life – should be viewed as forming this necessary element. At some level (probably varying), the idea of an Islamically informed state is a perceived must in the wider consciousness of the people – if even just as a reference for critique and self distinction, a high value, if not need, considering the corruption of a globally interdependent world (following Western imperialism) that has so far only delivered the people’s oppression.  

As Khanfar impressed, this must is not a static threat but a very real, evolving narrative moving from inflexible orthodoxy (anti-Western and based on an absolutely indisputable Sharia) to Sharia’s adaptive engagement with external realities of ‘modern’ socially democratic statehood (the heritage of a once ruling West). This is the story of ‘political Islam’, the movement from a de-centralised phenomenon of education based around spiritual scholars – ideology defending identity - to a more broadly uniting, politicised self-awareness and existence – pragmatism engaging the times. In this transition ‘Islamism’ is slowly co-opted into the modern ideological discourse (with all its variations from right to left). This process – however irresolvable it may be - is about the confidence of the Muslim world forming its own contemporary identity. With their now new politicised advent in Egypt, Khanfar remarked that even the Salafi Islamists are now entering into the modern discourse.

This story of course is not new in the wider Muslim world – South Asia is witnessing since long this troublesome narrative of identity, exemplified in Pakistan. It remains for time to tell if post-revolution Egypt (and perhaps the rest of the Arab world) will instead be more successful in achieving resolution in the process of realising a broader self-identity that would allow democratic statehood to follow. As both talks concluded, the space cleared must follow through into an open, pluralistic discussion, to allow a consensus of overarching values of social constitution, with, finally, the potential beginnings for Middle Eastern society’s true representation. 

Varun Verma is currently an intern at the Muslim Institute with an MA in South Asian Area Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.