With the election of the Muslim’s Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi as President of Egypt, the broader meaning of the Arab Spring can now be perceived. It makes Islam a crucial player in the worldwide jockeying for power between religion, liberalism and social democracy. Consider these facts:
Tunisia, the country that launched the uprisings that are shaking the Arab world, elected a President who ran on a human rights platform, and rules under a coalition with a left-leaning Islamist party and a social democratic party;
After Muammar Ghaddafi, a maverick who evolved his own version of socialism, was ousted, a National Transition Council was supposed to lead the country to a Western type democracy. It is opposed by both youth and religious groups, the former demanding greater transparency the latter vying for a greater role for religion. The latest news is that it will institute sharia law;
In Yemen, popular pressure forced the American-backed ruler to resign after months of demonstrations, but he is succeeded by his former vice-president. Not coincidentally, the U.S. has an air base in Yemen from which it launches raids against Al-Qaeda groups operating in the region;
In Kuwait, divisions between an increasingly Islamist parliament and the Western-allied ruling family have worsened in recent years. In February’s parliamentary elections two-thirds of the seats were filled by opposition leaders vowing to expose high level corruption. After two ministers resigned in the face of scrutiny, the constitutional court dissolved parliament.
What this rundown shows is that in all the Arab countries undergoing revolutions or regime change, the public is no longer a relatively illiterate mass of religious followers. Muslim populations are increasingly educated, they watch TV and the young go on-line and use cell-phones. In the twentieth century when the United State and the Soviet Union were vying for influence, the Arab countries largely chose non-alignment, but they also had a socially oriented Arab unity movement, which faced off against fundamentalist tendencies such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
One of the reasons why the so-called war on terrorism is misleading is that all religions have their fundamentalists. In fact, fundamentalists from different religions have more in common with one another than they do with their respective mainstreams: both Christian and Muslim fundamentalists share an acceptance of violence in defense of their respective faiths, and a tendency to see women as objects under male rule. Where the two faiths differ is in their attitudes toward wealth: American fundamentalists generally espouse the pursuit of material goods, even though this is difficult to divorce from the commercialization of sex. Islamists’ greatest objection to the West is the commercialization of sex and the consumer, or me society, which is the antithesis of spirituality and in conflict with charity, one of the five pillars of Islam which must be practiced daily.
Another historical fact that gets short shrift by the media is the antagonism between the two main groups of Muslims, Sunnis and Shi’as. It is usually referred to in terms of their respective rituals, but their social distinctions are more relevant. Shi’ism emphasizes Islam’s commitment to solidarity and hence is usually found among the lower classes, whereas the Sunnis tend to belong to the exploiting class. Although there have been Sunni leaders such as Nasser, who espoused some form of socialism, the Shi’a ethos, inspired by the Prophets chosen successor, Ali, who was murdered, is epitomized by the Iranian Revolution and Ahmedinejad’s continuing support among the working class, whereas Sunni rulers tend to be allied with the United States.
In the recent Egyptian elections, the Muslim Brotherhood seemed to want to be all things to all people, promising Sharia law, bikinis, democracy and human rights. This is simply a reflection of the phenomenon I announced at the start of this article: the current jockeying between religion, socialism and liberalism and various combinations thereof.
It may not be an exaggeration to say that Islam is undergoing a crisis similar to that which began for Christianity in the sixteenth century, when Martin Luther publicly rejected Catholicism, and Protestantism was born in an effort to ‘reform’ it. The subsequent European wars of religion lasted for over a hundred years, but had few repercussions on the outside world. Today, the failure of the Western media to provide information about Islamic history results in a severely limited view of an upheaval that affects the entire globe.
Currently the Syrian crisis is in the forefront, yet the historical antagonism between a small Shi’a sect, the Alawites, and a largely Sunni population is absent from the media, as is the long history of Turkish/Syrian conflict. The Turkish coastal province of Hatay, home to members of the small Shi’a sect known as the Alawites, to which Bashar al-Assad belongs, has been claimed by both countries since 1939, and partly accounts for the seemingly contradictory positions Turkey has taken in the Syrian crisis.
Last but not least, following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Syria endured a succession of military coups which led to rise of a Muslim Socialist Party, the Ba'ath. In 1963, a group of disgruntled Alawite officers, including Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, helped the Ba'ath Party seize power. Under the Alawites, Syria has been under secular socialist rule, a fact never mentioned in the mainstream media. That is why it is supported both by Russia and Iran.
In a region that has been almost monolithically religious for fourteen hundred years, secular, socialist and liberal ideologies have paved the way for a reformation - or modernization of Islam, as emphasized in an RT interview of Tunisia’s foreign Minister on June 30 rt.com/programs/interview/tunisia-political-change-abdessalem/. The West needs to recognize this trend instead of fixating on the terrorist behaviors - comparable to the European Religious Wars - that accompany it.
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