Will the Arab Spring bring U.S.-style “culture wars” to the Middle East?

June 21, 2011

(From left: Olivier Roy, Cardinal Angelo Scola and Martino Diez of the Oasis Foundation at the conference on San Servolo island, Venice, June 20, 2011/Giorgia Dalle Ore/Oasis)

Where is the Arab Spring leading the Middle East? What will be the longer-term outcome of the popular protests that have shaken the region since the beginning of this year? Of course, it’s still too early to say with any certainty, even in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt that succeeded in toppling their authoritarian regimes. Some trends have emerged, however, and they’re on the agenda at a conference in Venice I’m attending entitled “Medio Oriente verso dove?” (Where is the Middle East heading?). The host is the Oasis Foundation, a group chaired by Cardinal Angelo Scola, the Roman Catholic patriarch of this historic city, and guests include Christian and Muslim religious leaders and academics from the Middle East and Europe.

In one of the most interesting — and hotly debated — presentations, the French Islam specialist Olivier Roy described the Arab Spring as “a break with the culture and ideologies that dominated the Arab world from the 1950s until recently.” It marks a clear change in the demographic, political and religious paradigms operating there, he said. The old dichotomy of the authoritarian regime or the Islamist state has broken down, he argued, and Islam is taking on a new role in the political process. In the end, the region — or at least the states where the Arab Spring brings real change — could see democratic politics marked not by major efforts to establish an Islamic state but by Muslim “culture war” controversies not unlike the way hot-button issues such as abortion and gay marriage emerge in U.S. political debates.

(Newly wed Egyptian anti-government protesters in Tahrir Square in Cairo February 10, 2011/Dylan Martinez)

The first trend Roy cited to back up this thesis is the sharp drop in fertility levels in the Arab world since the late 1980s and the 1990s. Several Arab countries, especially those in North Africa, now have birthrates of around two children per woman, close but still above the European average. Tunisia’s birthrate is actually lower than France’s.  “The generation that is now on the job market is the last generation of big families,” said Roy, who is now director of the Mediterranean Programme at the European University Institute in Florence. “It’s a generation that has many fewer children and marries much later.”

There is also more equality between men and women because they’ve all been educated, he said, often to a university level. Even with the high unemployment in many countries, this generation of 20- and 30-somethings has less economic pressure to care for their ageing parents (because there are still many siblings) or for their own families  (because they’re not having as many babies).

For these young Arabs, the older generation is no longer a model to follow. The system they set up has failed. So, Roy said, the younger generation “feels in a sense superior to its parents. It’s a generation that’s not fascinated by the patriarchalism that dominated political and social life until now. It doesn’t believe in charismatic personalities. We are no longer in a period of charismatic leaders like (Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah) Khomeini or (Egyptian nationalist leader Gamal) Nasser.” Added to that are factors such as the new mobility and access to information that young Arabs have, which means they are no longer subject to the information monopoly formerly enjoyed by the political and religious authorities.

“This will translate into a change in the political paradigm,” Roy said. “Today the protesters are asking for full rights as citizens, which is an individualist demand … There are no more sacred causes. Islamism was not mentioned in the protests. Pan-Arabism not mentioned. Support for the people of Palestine not mentioned. At the moment, they want liberty and democracy for themselves.” Because protesting youths want their individual rights, they’re not forming political parties. “That’s a problem because if one wants to institutionalise democracy, one needs political parties. But we see that these youths are not interested in creating a political party.”

The parties that are operating in Tunisia and Egypt are the ones that already existed, including the Islamist parties Ennahda and the Muslim Brotherhood. But they do not attract that many youths, said Roy (who foresaw this development in his 1992 book The Failure of Political Islam).  Why not? “The Islamic revolutions aren’t working. They can take power but, as we can see in Iran every day, they have not succeeded in creating social justice, happiness and prosperity.  Whatever the form of Islamic state — Islamic revolution in Iran, sharia in Pakistan, sharia in Saudi Arabia — it doesn’t work and the people know it.”

Roy said some Islamist parties — notably those in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and especially Turkey — had changed in opposition and realised they had to make electoral alliances with other groups if they wanted to win votes.  “It’s no longer enough to say the Koran is our constitution,” he said. “There is a consensus now to want a parliamentary system. So there is a new political paradigm, even if not everybody says the same thing.”

(Egyptian Muslim preacher Amr Khaled delivers a lecture in Sanaa July 1, 2007/Khaled Abdullah)

One signpost of the shift from the old collective way of approaching politics toward the new and more individualistic one is a change in slogans, Roy said. “Dignity is the new slogan,” he explained. “During the Iranian Islamic revolution, they spoke a lot about honour. Dignity is an individual question that concerns the human being as an absolute. Honour is much closer to the honour of the group. This change of terminology illustrates well the change of the vision of politics.”

As for the change in religious paradigm, the standard Western view that democratisation leads to secularisation apparently does not apply in the Arab world.  Instead, Roy said, Arab societies have seen a revival of religion in the past three decades, but religion has also become more diversified. Sufi fraternities have returned in Egypt. Some youths follow popular religious leaders such as the Egyptian “telemufti” Amr Khaled.  Conversions of Muslims to evangelical Protestantism are on the rise in Algeria. “We see a diversification of religious practices that goes with individualisation of the society. Both the Islamists and the official clergy have a hard time controlling this diversification of religious sphere.”

All these changes are bound to foster a “party of order” that emerges in these transforming societies and argues that change has been fine so far but it must not go any further, Roy said. “The army will be in this group, some Islamists such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood too, and of course business circles.” These groups have achieved their goal, which was the end of the corrupt regime of the dictators, and now want peace and quiet again. But some pressing social problems remain and the Islamists, the main organised opposition force in many countries, has nothing to offer here.

“We will see a return of the left in the Arab world, especially the trade unions. Unions will play an important role,” he said. “In the coming elections, I would expect a conservative wave. Lots of peasants will vote conservative. Those disappointed by the revolution will vote conservative. So we will see a conservative movement.”

As for Islam, Roy argued that it will become an essential issue. “The Islamist movements can’t renounce their Islamic political demands, otherwise they would not exist,” he explained. “But how can one bring Islam into the public sphere in a democratic system? We can expect them to define limits and barriers to set off what is sacred and cannot be touched, regardless of the democratic will.”  There is a consensus across the region to say that Islam is an essential part of the national identity, but there is a difference between making just a symbolic reference to Islam in the constitution and making adherence to Islamic law a political principle. “They can’t install sharia,” Roy said. “So I think the conservative Islamists and Salafis will concentrate on certain themes like blasphemy. This is political. Blasphemy indicates the limits that cannot be passed, that even parliament or elections cannot touch.”

(Will religious freedom go this far in the Arab world? A pro-gay demonstrator at Saint Peter's Square in Rome July 31, 2003. His banner reads "No God, Atheism is Freedom"/Dylan Martinez)

But the trend towards more individual rights will project the calls for political liberty into the religious sphere, making freedom of religion a human right that citizens can demand. Roy said this will not be like the old method of demanding minority rights for persecuted non-Muslim religious communities such as Christians.  Many Islamists could agree that minorities had certain rights, he said. “But when you pass from paradigm of religious group = closed community to the problem of religion and individual liberty, that changes everything. The right to conversion will become a political demand. We have to expect a huge debate about that and we shouldn’t be afraid of it.”

Here’s where Roy’s argument links into the “culture war” model in U.S. politics, which conservative Christian politicians use to mobilise voters by focusing narrowly on polarising issues such as abortion or gay marriage that highlight conflicting values. “These debates in the Middle East will not be that far away from those we know in the West,” he said. “Take the example of the evangelicals in the United States. They don’t demand a Christian society. They battle it out over very concrete questions like abortion. In the Muslim world, we’ll have a debate dominated by very concrete but very symbolic issues, including conversion and apostasy.”

The prospect is daunting, but Roy professes not to be pessimistic about it. “I think we’ll have several difficult years,” he admits. But the debate will be worth having, he said, especially because it holds the potential for transforming the Islamists as they participate in it. Christian minorities in the Middle East cannot rest assured, however, since their status as closed and (at least legally) protected religious communities will also be transformed by this new approach.

“Here we enter into a paradox,” said Roy, who first outlined and analysed this shift in his 2008 book Holy Ignorance. “We will not be able to think of religious belonging simply as identity but in terms of faith and individual choice,” he said. “It’s a new type of problem. But it’s one that goes very well with the democratisation of societies in Muslim world.”

(Venice seen from San Servolo island, site of the Oasis conference, June 20, 2011/Tom Heneghan)

Several participants from the Middle East disagreed with Roy’s analysis, calling it “too theoretical” (even “too French”!). Some said that Muslim societies would not change, others that they have been changing in recent decades, but in a more conservative direction rather than opening up to individualism the way Roy described it. One can always find specific examples where the analysis doesn’t apply, but I think that modern individualism as we see in Western countries is  a very powerful force. We see it at work in the demand for civil rights and human rights in the political and legal spheres and the demand for personal choice in many moral and bioethical questions such as abortion and end-of-life decisions. We see it addressed by the non-stop bombardment of advertising for individual consumption we get in the media. How can something that appeals so strongly to individuals and underdog interest groups and fits well into the mechanisms of consumer society not catch on in any society that reaches a certain level of economic development and political freedom?

What do you think? Let us know in the comments section below.

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