and the Awakening
“I have long been struck by the
similarities between the indeterminacy of our present time and that of the
early twentieth century,” the historian Edmund Burke III wrote back in 1998.
“One place where these indeterminacies come together is the Middle East.
Unpredicted by all observers, an Islamic political revival is under way.”
Over a decade later, the Middle East remains the locus of contemporary
unpredictability. But if the past year’s Arab Awakening took everybody by
surprise and continues to baffle minds around the world, might it not be
because our way of thinking about the region is flawed?
That way includes some residue of good old Orientalism, by which one
explains current phenomena through notions derived from old and familiar
texts, rather than by taking the long and tortuous route of exploring the
real world with all its complexities and elusiveness.
In addition, many observers of the Middle East seem determined to find a
single simple idea—one that defines the region by ascribing a distinctive
character to it. This creates the impression that the region in fact has a
fixed character, and obscures what is happening on the ground.
Some of the schemes devised in this spirit are elegant, such as the
philosopher Ernest Gellner’s swinging-pendulum theory of Islam, which
proposes an alternation of moments of resignation with moments of outcry and
devastating rage. An idea of this kind led some to find the Holy Grail of
explanation in the phrase “culture of riots.”
More entrenched in some academic circles is Bernard Lewis’ and Antony
Black’s idea of a “political language of Islam” that proposes an enduring,
closed, and invariable set of concepts that fix the way the region’s
populations think and behave.
What is noteworthy is that all these schemes turn their backs, in one way or
another, on the possibility that these societies may actually be changing.
Be it the swinging pendulum or the linguistic straitjacket, we are left with
the impression that what seems to be new is only superficial, irrelevant, or
Yet the schemes are often used to make predictions, and when these are
falsified—as they regularly have been since “unpredictability” has forced
itself on observers—the reaction is not to listen carefully to what people
are saying, but rather to quickly identify some familiar notions that
confirm existing views of the region.
Yet the evidence of actual change in the Middle East is overwhelming, and
can be seen plainly in the way people talk about politics.
In his Dictionary of Political Thought, the British philosopher Roger
Scruton noted the need to update the lexicon of politics every decade or so
in English-speaking countries, in order to “extract, both from active
debate, and from the theories and intuitions which surround it, the
principal ideas through which modern political beliefs find expression.”
Where does this undertaking lead if applied to the active political
discourse of contemporary Middle-Easterners?
First, there is an abundance of slogans conveying the impression that the
only real alternative to the ills of the moment is a return to religion (or
to traditions linked to religion). The best known are “implementation of
Sharia” and “Islam as the solution.”
What is important to recognize is the extent to which such slogans have been
called into play in order to address the challenge of modern European
political concepts. As the German Islamicist Reinhard Schultze has observed,
during what is known as The Awakening (“Al-Nahda”) of the early 20th
century in the Arab world, Islamist political parties discovered ways of
expressing such concepts in a vocabulary of their own, assimilating Islamic
to European discourse in a way that had little to do with religion per se.
The seemingly irreducible opposition between Islamic and modern discourses
is, therefore, a recent construct—one that has led to the confrontation
between conservatives (sometimes termed fundamentalists) and modernists that
has been a feature of the Middle East political landscape over the last few
What the latest Arab Awakening has shown is that while this conceptual
confrontation was going on, an unsuspected wave was gathering strength in
the form of a new political language. This has involved the coinage and
dissemination of new concepts and categories that encapsulate aspirations
and hopes of a new generation in ways that are aligned with contemporary
political ideals and, at the same time, adjusted to the particular
conditions of local populations.
In some cases, there is a complete equivalence between the European and
Arabic terms. Thus, “democracy,” “human rights,” and “civil society” are now
rendered in Arabic by dimukratiya, huquq al-Insan, and
In other cases there have been “adjustments” or outright neologisms. “Rule
of law” has thus become “a state bound by law and respectful of rights” (dawlat
al-Haq wa al-Qanun) or “a state made of institutions” (dawlat al-
mu’assassat)—as opposed to a state made by and for individuals.
Here one should stress the decisive role played by the written press. As
much attention as has been focused over the past year on the role of the
Internet and social media in fostering the Awakening, it was the written
press that lay the groundwork by popularizing this language over several
On the streets of Cairo, Tunis, and Damascus as well as of Rabat and Riyadh,
there is now a new language of politics. It is not a simple translation of
ideas familiar to English speakers, but it articulates modern views of the
rights and aspirations of the populations.
The remarkable fact is that this language is used by all parties, Islamists
included. It therefore provides universal yardsticks by which all things are
measured, including concepts rooted in tradition or religion. In a way,
religious views are vindicated and justified through the medium of modern
Thus, in an interview for Time World September 4, Christophe Ayad
asked the Islamist commander of the Tripoli Military Council, Abdel Hakim
Belhadi, “Are you in favor of the establishment of an Islamic State in
Libya, or of Sharia?”
“In Libya, we have lived 42 years without a constitution, without law,
without justice,” Belhadi answered. “That’s what led to the fall of this
dictatorial regime. We want a civil state that respects the law and rights,
a state that applies justice.”
It remains true that different languages are spoken at the same time.
Concepts like sharia, jihad, ijtihad have even made their way onto European
tongues, although with distinctive connotations. Within Muslim contexts,
they do refer to tangible perspectives and are meant, in some circles, to
express concrete expectations. The alarm they cause in the minds of
Westerners may sometimes be justified, but not always for the reasons they
The attempts to revive old notions do not offer the challenge that most
people see. On one hand, they forcefully seek the moralization of public
order. In popular circles, where illiteracy still prevails, and where people
have not been exposed to modern written literature, the way to express the
need for what in the West would be described as “basic decency” (absence of
gross abuse of power, or widespread corruption, or general cynicism) seems
to be derived from traditional religious expressions.
This is what lends slogans such as “Islam is the solution” their meaning and
their strength, and what explains the success of Islamists everywhere. They
have been in the opposition for so long, repressed and rejected by the
elites, and they have found the words to articulate the disgust of the gross
misbehavior of those in power—words that resonate with popular feelings for
a return to basic rules of decency. The Islamists are now reaping the fruits
of speaking to the people in the language they understand.
However, this makes a number of misunderstandings possible and even easy.
Sharia is popular among ordinary people because it refers to the idea of a
moral order, and because it still has the prestige of a system that helped
protect communities from the extreme excesses of despots. The despot could
be restrained because it called on a divine, absolute rule of law—law given
by God, lying beyond the manipulations of men, including the richest and
Unfortunately, the Islamists are prepared to extract the contents of this
traditional legal system from their early social and historical contexts,
and incorporate them into a contemporary system of law. Although the
codification of Sharia began to take place in the 19th century, such harsh
specifics as the notorious criminal law penalties were implemented with
caution. In today’s world, that moderation may be missing.
Vested interests exist throughout the awakened Arab world. Elites that have
made substantial profits from the old regimes—the military leadership in
Egypt, Syria, and Algeria; the rentier-bourgeois in the Gulf, Morocco, and
Tunisia—will not cede power easily. They may seize the opportunity to cry
wolf again and attempt to frighten Western countries into coming to their
support against the danger of radical Islam, or may shower populations with
gifts (as was done recently in Saudi Arabia and, to a modest degree,
Morocco) in order to make them forget their aspirations for rights.
What may be more dangerous in the medium and long-term is the forceful
preservation of obsolete forms of religious scholarship, which cultivate
optical illusions about the Islamic heritage and enforce the view that the
past holds ideal alternatives to modern principles and approaches to
Which will prevail? The new currency of concepts that emerged as defining
categories for addressing aspirations—and, it is important to stress, for
valuing various political claims, including those put forward by Islamists?
Or the currency that those generally called salafists purvey as enabling a
return to traditional forms—which is used by some regimes to sow confusion
and delay democratization?
This is the struggle to watch in the coming years. But if the feelings of
the people for their authentic heritage and for the moral compass it
provides prove the strongest, it is the categories of modern democracy, of
the rule of law, which will prevail.