Religion and the Arab Spring: Between opposition, equivocation and liberation

Mohamed bouazizi, an unlicensed fruit vendor living in Sidi Bouzid, a provincial town in Tunisia, set himself ablaze Dec. 17, 2010 in protest of a local police officer’s decision to confiscate his fruit cart. What might have been relegated to a mere personal or family tragedy, however, became a catalyst that quickly led to the departure of two long-serving dictators. First, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali – the president of Tunisia who had transformed that country into a virtual police state during his almost 23 years of rule – fled after almost a month of daily demonstrations demanding his resignation. Second, in an even more astonishing (and dramatic) span of 18 tumultuous days of nonstop media coverage, Muhammad Hosni Mubarak – who became president of Egypt after the assassination of Anwar al-Sadat on Oct. 6, 1981 – was forced to resign his office Feb. 11, 2011.

Both long-serving dictators had presided over the dramatic expansion of internal security services whose sole job had been to preserve the “stability” of the state. Given the strength and pervasiveness of the respective security apparatuses, and the well-deserved reputation each had for brutality and ruthlessness, few outside observers believed that either regime faced an immediate threat to its internal stability. Certainly, no one imagined that the suicide of a young fruit vendor in a marginalized town in a marginalized part of the Arab world would be the trigger that set off these two successful popular revolutions as well as massive street demonstrations demanding political reform throughout the Arab world. While the ultimate conclusion of the events that Western commentators have dubbed the Arab Spring has yet to be written, it has already definitively changed the way in which Arabs see themselves and the way in which non-Arabs, particularly, Westerners, see Arabs.

From the onset of this revolutionary moment, and in the transitions that have followed the successful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, the question of the role of Islam in these revolutions has been among the paramount concerns of observers and participants. Western observers, predictably, have been concerned that the revolutions will be a reprise of the Iranian Revolution of 1979, in which a broad-based revolution replaced the authoritarian (but secular) shah of Iran with what eventually became a clerical dictatorship, albeit with republican trappings. Participants in the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions – while eager not to exclude Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Ennahda in Tunisia – were, however, profoundly divided on the role of Islam in the reconstituted public spheres of both nations.

While this portion of the script remains unwritten, we are in a better position to comment on the role of Islam during the revolutions, and in particular, the role of Muslim religious leaders during the events of the Arab Spring. Unsurprisingly, the religious rhetoric deployed during the first months of the Arab Spring was far from unified; in fact, it was deeply divided between those who supported the status quo, those who attempted to hedge their bets; and those who were enthusiastic supporters of the revolutions.

The first religiously significant moment came with the suicide of Bouazizi and the series of copycat immolations his death triggered in the Arab world. As a general matter, religious scholars in the Arab World refused to consider him a martyr, arguing that suicide is never a legitimate means of political protest. Al-Azhar University in Cairo, for example, after a series of self-immolations by Egyptians in protest of conditions in Egypt, issued a stern reminder that suicide is categorically prohibited in Islam, and was prepared to exonerate suicides only on the possibility that they suffered from a mental defect or the like.

The mass of Tunisians, however, viewed things differently, where Bouazizi was quickly hailed as a martyr, and shortly after Ben Ali fled the country, a massive pilgrimage was held to Sidi Bouzid, Bouazizi’s hometown, to honor the revolution’s first martyr. The most prominent scholar defending Bouazizi was Yusuf al-Qaradawi. Reflecting on Bouazizi’s death on his popular TV show, al-Shari’a wa-l-Hayat, Qaradawi affirmed that suicide was generally a major sin (kabira), but blamed the Tunisian state for Bouazizi’s sin and prayed that God would absolve him of any blame for that sin. Qaradawi’s sympathy for Bouazizi’s otherwise sinful act was a reflection of Qaradawi’s more general approach to the problem of religion and politics: that justice is a central demand of the Shari’a and that interpretations of the Shari’a that strengthen oppressors and tyrants cannot be deemed to be legitimate parts of the Shari’a.

Qaradawi’s evident sympathies for Bouazizi foreshadowed his general sympathies, if not outright patronage, of the subsequent revolutions in the Arab World. He was outspoken in his support of the Egyptian revolution and, perhaps in recognition of his unwavering support for that revolution, he was invited to give the first Friday sermon at Tahrir Square after Mubarak’s resignation. His most brazen statements, however, came early in the days of the Libyan revolution, when he openly called for Libya’s military to assassinate Col. Moammar Gadhafi on the grounds that Gadhafi was waging war on his own people. Killing him in this circumstance would be a legitimate act of self-defence. He also mocked, presciently it turns out, claims by the Syrian Baathist regime that it was immune from the revolutionary upheavals in Egypt, Libya and Yemen. Qaradawi’s reputation for moral courage in the face of Arab dictators, however, suffered a significant blow as a result of his refusal to condemn the actions of the Bahraini and Saudi governments in violently suppressing the peaceful protests in Manama’s Pearl Square. His attempts to distinguish the Bahraini protests on the ground that they were sectarian in character rather than national hardly seemed at the time plausible; in light of subsequent events, they are even less so.

In Egypt, official religious discourse largely tried to adopt a position of neutrality, treating the events as a fitna, upheaval, as evidenced by a prominent fatwa given by Shaykh ‘Ali Gomaa, the official mufti of Egypt, early on in the revolution in which he stated that it was permissible for individuals not to attend Friday prayers in the present circumstances on the grounds that to do so would entail unreasonable exposure to risk of losing life or property. Another fatwa of his asked the demonstrators to return to their homes after the first of Mubarak’s speeches in which he promised to reform the government and set it on a course toward genuine democracy. Overall, Gomaa’s fatwas were consistent with historical Sunni views that regard revolution with scepticism, if not outright terror, at the prospect of public disorder. The mufti’s stance of neutrality, meanwhile, alienated significant segments of the Egyptian population who expected him to take a much stronger stance against the unlawful conduct of the regime and its security forces. Ali Gomaa’s positions, however, were hardly the most pro-status quo opinions given during the revolutions. The chief mufti of Saudi Arabia condemned the Egyptian demonstrators with extremely harsh language, and the famous Syrian scholar, Muhammad Sa’id Ramadan al- Buti, has repeatedly condemned the Syrian demonstrators. Not all unofficial religious discourse was anti-government, however. Significant elements of Egypt’s Salafis were profoundly hostile to the Egyptian revolution, and one of their leaders even publicly called for the execution of Mohamed ElBaradei on the grounds that he was responsible for stirring up fitna against Mubarak, Egypt’s flawed, but nevertheless, legitimate, leader.

The various responses by religious leaders to the events of the Arab Spring suggest three distinct issues facing the role of religion and politics (particularly, the possibility of a more democratic politics) in the Arab World. First, the lack of institutional independence from strong regimes continues to undermine scholars’ legitimacy. It is hard to believe, for example, that Qaradawi’s stance regarding Bahrain was not influenced by the Gulf Cooperation Council’s anti-Iran policies. This failure to be consistent, meanwhile, undermines his status as a moral voice in these times of uncertainty. Second, among traditional scholars, there remains a profound failure to understand the nature of the modern state and how it differs from the personal rule that characterized pre-modern states. Third, traditionalist scholars continue to view politics as something exogenous to the religious life, as if it were something that can safely be ignored without doing any damage to one’s life as a Muslim.

I believe the Arab Spring represents a rejection of all three positions. First, a central goal of the Arab Spring is to establish effective institutional governance that guarantees the integrity of public institutions. This means, by implication, that religious establishments should no longer be dominated by the state. This aspiration, however, may be easier said than done, as conflicting parties within the Tunisian and Egyptian publics have different conceptions of what role religion should play after their revolutions, and thus far have not expressed a willingness to see genuinely independent religious institutions that could serve as sites of opposition to state policies. In other words, the desire by virtually all political parties to use the religious establishment to further their political programs contradicts the desire to have an independent religious establishment that could be faithful to its own mission. Likewise, we should not forget why states asserted control over the religious establishments in the first place: the former’s unreasonable insistence on a monopoly over lawmaking and a refusal to respect the voices of civil society in implementing policies necessary to reform society. Religious scholars, to the extent they want greater independence, will have to be willing to surrender unfounded claims of universal competence over all political and social matters.

Second, the Arab Spring, at least as manifested in Tunisia and Egypt, represents a collective rejection of the marriage between corruption and abuse of power that was enabled by regimes that systematically undermined the rule of law in both countries. To prevent this from recurring, the demands of the Arab Spring will require strong institutions as the basis for political legitimacy, not the personality of the ruler. To the extent that traditional scholars still cling to a conception of political rule that identifies legitimacy in the personal attributes of the ruler, they anachronistically promote the idea that good politics is the function of the virtuous ruler, rather than the modern notion that virtuous rule is the product of the right institutions.

Third, the Arab Spring rejected the notion that one can live a virtuous private life untouched by an unjust and corrupt political sphere. As Asmaa Mahfouz, one of the internet youth in Egypt whose activism helped spark Egypt’s revolution, noted in a widely-circulated YouTube video, Egyptians had become accustomed to thinking that if they minded their own business (literally “walk next to the wall”), they could avoid mishap. But, she warned them, unless they radically changed Egypt into a country that respected their collective and individual humanity, everyone would suffer. Too many religious scholars, as already mentioned, continue to believe that politics and spirituality are disconnected in any meaningful fashion, and accordingly, it is reasonable for private persons to pursue a life of private piety without regard for the public good. While this notion was roundly criticized by Muhammad ‘Abduh and Rashid Rida at the turn of the 20th century, it is a lesson that many scholars have yet to internalize.

The Arab Spring has returned hope to millions of Arabs who had despaired of substantial changes in their lifetimes. Seeing the millions of Egyptians from all walks of life demonstrating bravely and triumphantly against Mubarak rightly reminds us of God’s saying, “So, take wonder at the manifestations of God’s mercy, how He gives life to a land after its death; indeed, that is the one who is the reviver of the dead, and He is powerful over all things.” (al-Rūm, 30:50). Much work remains to be done before the democratic aspirations of the Arab Spring are fulfilled, but with the help of God, we remain fervently hopeful in their ultimate success. As Muslims, too, we should hope fervently for the triumph of democratic governance in the Arab World. If one accepts the proposition that the character of a regime profoundly affects everything produced within its domain, then it is no surprise that the authoritarianism of the last 50 years in the Arab World produced sterile and decadent religious as well as secular thought. A democratic Arab World, on the other hand, offers us the hope of a generation of renewed Islamic thought that is focused on the grave challenges facing humanity in the 21st century rather than the promotion of escapist visions of personal piety. That is a result everyone, Muslim and non-Muslim, should ardently hope for. §

Mohammad Fadel teaches law at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law. He specializes in Islamic legal history, Islam and liberalism, and commercial, corporate and securities law


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    Mohammad Fadel

    Mohammad Fadel is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Law at the University of Toronto and a Columnist at The Islamic Monthly

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