how religion is taking over the arab spring

The Arab Spring is not turning the Middle East into a hotbed of secularism. But given the history and demographics of the region, it would be strange to expect it to.

A strange thing happened on the way to democratic regime change in the Middle East, or so it seems. Rather than embrace Western democracy and become secular nations, Egypt and Tunisia have seen a serious shift to conservative Islamic parties at the polls, and Libya seems to be following suit, although the chaos after the death of Gaddafi is still settling down so the most likely trajectory of the TNC is still somewhat unclear. This of course has many a Western pundit in a tizzy. Weren’t we told that the Arab Spring was a secular phenomenon by web-savvy youth armed with Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, hungering for the end of tyranny and moving their nations onwards to modernity? If this was the case, why are the Muslim Brotherhood and Ennahda on a winning streak at the ballot boxes? Does this mean that the ominous threats from GOP candidates about the hand of al Qaeda in the revolutions are right? Actually, no, not at all. What it does mean is that our pundits had forgotten the rest of the population in the Arab Spring countries, where they live, and how they were raised.

It’s true that many Arab Spring revolutionaries were young, more secular, connected youth looking for change and tired of being bossed around and having to pay bribes to get jobs. And it’s also true that the Middle East’s youth bulge is vast, with those under 29 accounting for roughly 30% of the population. But what about the rest of the population? What did they want? How were they raised and how do you expect them to vote? Will a rural and very conservative Muslim suddenly pine for Western secular liberalism and promise to vote against most conservative parties advocating some form of religiously inspired law after the revolution? Some of the longer ruling autocrats like Gaddafi, Mubarak, and Ben Ali made some surprisingly progressive and secular reforms of which not everyone is a fan. Gaddafi’s mukhabarat put a major damper on religious expression in Libya so it’s hardly surprisingly that the religiously devout now want some form of religion in government. Why, even in the U.S., the nation which played a key role in defining the idea of secular governments has voters who insist that constitutional provisions keeping church and state separate shouldn’t, and don’t actually exist.

In fact, the very same Republican candidate who suggested that the Arab Spring was orchestrated via some nefarious al Qaeda sleeper cell, Bachmann, is a Christian fundamentalist who believes that laws should be based on theology and that the Constitution is a religious document, as do the millions who support her bids for elected office. When in the Arab world, a very similar dynamic plays out, she’s alarmed because according to her mindset, conservative Muslims are necessarily evil and want to take over the world, suddenly recalling the largely ceremonial role of the Caliphate, which largely lost its power after the sacking of Baghdad in 1258, and deciding that bringing it back would be a great idea. Likewise, many Muslims hold Christians, Cops, and Jews in their communities as spies for the Crusaders who want to hijack their elections and bring their newly liberated nations under heel. Both extreme views miss the fact that religious fundamentalism has never been a force for good and consider that whatever they do based on their religious views is inherently good while all actions by other fundamentalists are inherently evil and must be stopped by any means possible.

If more than two centuries of legal secularism in the country which defined it failed to convince a conservative region like the American Bible Belt that religious convictions should not be considered to be one of the most important criteria for a candidate, how do you expect to convince foreign conservatives? There’s going to be a coldness in international relations after the Arab Spring, but it’s not very likely to happen by the nefarious hand of one beaten-down group of terrorists. It’s going to happen thanks to fundamentalists asserting power at the polls and deciding to do something about their suspicions with their newly acquired authority. And their rise is a very tricky diplomatic impasse for the West because it was perpetuated by elections in which the citizenry of another sovereign state had its own vision for its future, a vision not necessarily aligned with modernity, and it seems quite disingenuous to support the same citizens’ revolutions and back their attempt to determine how their nations are to be ran, then drop them like hot potatoes and construct conspiracy theories rejecting what they decided when their decisions do not mesh with our interests or our culture. It’s an ethical dilemma which has no good answer, but as it turns out, this is the dilemma that Western powers now face.

# politics // arab spring / geopolitics / islam / religion

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