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The Arab Spring Revolution: Destructive Ambitions and Cruel Ironies

As the Arab Spring has shown us, and continues to show us day after day, everyday, in the never ending atrocities coming from reports out of Egypt and Syria, along with widespread protests in Pakistan; with all these uncertainties in the air, the one certain thing we can identify, is that the relationship between Islam and politics is complicated – to say the least. There is not one monolithic Muslim political landscape across Islamdom and the Arab-speaking world, rather instead the political culture is tainted rather with many multi-faceted differences, nonetheless reunited by certain commonalities. Yet, despite all of these national differences which constitute distinct singularities in regards to the Islamisation of each country’s own politics, there are nonetheless commonalities that reunite such national visions or the individual political interpretation of governmental visions, or the culture of ‘government rule’ (Ayoob 2008: 1-22). To understand this shared traditional Islamic nationalistic political worldview greatly helps in understanding the relationship which many Muslim citizens entertain with their country’s rule(r).

It is a relationship that is a mixed one, meaning there is a general attitude that tolerates governmental rule because it is necessary, but that in the case of corruption and harmful or unjust dictatorships; the latter simply often reveal themselves as sorts of necessary by-products of the political life. The Arab Spring, however, poses a direct threat to this tolerance that had in the past been endured by the people under a Muslim ruler; it threatens to tip the scale in favour of the people versus a corrupt ruler and/or system. But, as the 1979 Iranian revolution has shown, overthrowing a form of corrupt authority does not guarantee a better and more just society will take its place. As the crisis in Syria and Egypt unfold in front of our very eyes, one cannot help but think of what kind of political monster might rear its ugly head in both countries if the seats of power in these countries vacate only to find young charismatic figures – not unlike Khomeini – to take their places. Tit for tat, really.

Like I said earlier, the relationship between Islam and politics is complicated… But was it always so? 

In his work, Mohammed Ayoob explores the modernist interpretation of what is deemed to be the golden age of early Islam, thereby giving as an example the viewpoints of the 19th century theologian and jurist Muhammad Abduh of Egypt, he who advocated that the original teachings of Islam to be in total accord “with the scientific positivism and rationality that underpinned modernity” (Ayoob 2008: 7). Coming from the 19th century conservative Islamic world, this modernist interpretation of the golden age gives us the impression that – if anything – it appears that there is a form of Muslim conservatism and strain of thought that did not so much collide with modernity, but instead saw in it the return of a new golden era. Apparently, this discourse has perhaps been obscured all too often by anti-colonial strife tainted by religious zeal, and this a discourse taking the form of power hungry traditionalists pinning their fellow Muslim compatriots as enemies in relation to an Infidel West. In résumé, this is what Ayoob is saying, that anti-colonial feelings were hijacked in the course of the last century by a backlash or longing to return to a fundamentalist Islamic state of being, the spirit of the ancestors’ golden age. 

This line of reasoning, meaning the whole notion surrounding the so-called War on Terror is not a “conflict between states, but a war of ideas” (Farmer 2007: 3). Conservative American scholars even go so far as to make comparisons between Islamism and Nazism, in the sense that both ideologies reduce “all of societal problems to a battle between good, (represented by radical Islam) and evil (represented by a collaborative effort between infidels Israel and the United States against Islam) and the solution is therefore to “kill Americans everywhere” (ibid. 7). If Farmer’s treatment of the subject is somewhat lacking in tact, it is at least helpful and relevant in pointing out that such subversive ideologies, even if they are often marginal at times, are nevertheless to be taken seriously, since in a similar fashion it is this kind of subversive ideology and fringe movement which within a dozen years after seizing power in Germany would come to overrun most of continental Europe (ibid. 8).

To understand the radical ideology of global jihad is to look at the philosophical foundations that are at the root of what are termed the “lesser” and “greater” jihad movements (respectively, jihad “by the sword” and “by the spirit). This ideological notion of bringing the will of God in earthly man’s unjust affairs, in addition to the political Islamic Resurgence that came out of the Middle East in the second half of the 20th century, is at the root of the jihadists’ vilification of the Western world (as explored in Springer et al.).

The images of the smouldering Twin Towers of 9/11 certainly conveys how and why the West became interested in knowing more about the roots of jihad and the ideologues behind the movement(s). The radical philosophies made infamous by al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden have sowed seeds of mutual discontent and have reached as far as Algeria and Mali, where in these past few weeks new reports are surfacing that al-Qaeda had a hand in all that is going on in recent terrorist activities carried out in North Africa. The Intellectual fathers of the global jihad have possibly left their lasting legacy on modern jihadist movemements, such recognizable names as those of Wahhab and Mawdudi and the likes of Hassan al-Banna (Springer et al. 2009: 27). But what of those rebel fighters in Syria and Egypt? Will the Arab Spring change the face of the Muslim political landscape in Islamdom? Or will it be tit for tat? We can only pray there is not yet another young, enthusiastic, and charismatic religious figure to emerge from the midst of the chaotic rebellion. Or, then again, how can we afford not to pray for the more than estimated 60,000 dead Syrians…

Selected Bibliography

Ayoob, M. The Many Faces of Political Islam. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008.

Farmer, B. Understanding Radical Islam: Medieval Ideology in the Twenty-first Century. New York: Peter Lang, 2007.

Hirst, David. Beware of Small States: Lebanon, Battleground of the Middle East. New York: Nation Books, 2010. 

Israeli, R. Islamic Radicalism and Political Violence. Portland: Vallentine Mitchell, 2008. 

Kepel, G. Jihad : The Trail of Political Islam. Cambridge: Harvard Press, 2002. 

Kepel, G. The War for Muslim Minds. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard Press, 2004.

Kepel, G. and J.-P. Milelli. Al Qaeda in its own words. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard Press, 2008.  


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