PDF The West and Islam: The Ongoing Arab Spring

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No serious commentator would dare suggest that any of the Christian or Jewish political parties could possibly embody the nuanced and multi-layered socio-historical experiences of Judaism or Jewishness, and Christianity or Christianness.

With the multiplicity of conflicting and contradictory native voices speaking for the authentic and true Islam, many in the West have fallen into the habit of not taking any native voices at their word, and of constructing their own sense of self-hood in opposition to the other. Meaning, they construct their own sense of what Islam is as simply what they are not and do not wish to be.

This is precisely how expressions like "political Islam" come to be. Like pornography and terrorism, perhaps we cannot define political Islam, but we know it when we see it. This is also precisely why so many pundits were able to observe the atrocities of ISIS and declare with a veiled sense of relief: Ah!

Therein is the true face of political Islam! Nonetheless, this might explain how Western anxieties become the platform for the birth of expressions such as political Islam, militant Islam, radical Islam, Jihadi-Islam, and all other forms of hyphenated Islam. This is also why we choose to hyphenate Islam and not Muslims - the difference, for instance, is between saying militant Islam or militant Muslims.

With the multiplicity of conflicting and contradictory native voices speaking for the authentic and true Islam, many in the West have fallen into the habit of not taking any native voices at their word, and of constructing their own sense of what Islam is as simply what they are not and do not wish to be. All of our academic terminology evidences a persistent prejudicial anxiety and fear of what Islam as such is about to do to and with us. This does not, however, explain why the governments of the region adopted the same anxiety-ridden terminology to the phenomenon of what they describe as political Islam, as if they too belong to one civilization at odds with the civilization of the other.

As a starting point, we should recognize that it is not unusual for the elites of postcolonial societies to internalize and respond to the constructed civilizational conflicts not of their own cultures, but of their Western guardians and protectors. This is especially the case with the Gulf countries of the Middle East. Both in their formative years as newly founded states, and again, in the past two decades, the Gulf States have come to represent extreme cases of neo-colonial states. Per international law they are sovereign nations, but the margin of autonomous political agency in their understanding of and responses to the world order is very narrow.

Their elites cannot conceive of a world where their former colonizers, and the West in general, is not the Mecca and central force of finance, banking, technology, arms, consumer products, city-planning, higher education, entertainment, leisure and practically everything else. Indeed, the Gulf countries are keenly aware of the West's anxieties about the phenomenon invented and developed in the West known as "political Islam. Despite its internal incoherence, the expression was widely used by the GCC and Egypt in quashing the Arab revolutionary fervour.

Does this mean that in acting to pre-empt the threat of political Islam, Egypt and the Gulf countries acted upon a sense of false consciousness instilled in them by their Western colonial masters? In my view, since the fall of the Soviet bloc, this is one of the few occasions in which Egypt and the Gulf countries led the West, instead of the other way around, and did so to the detriment of the West and the rest of the world.

Put bluntly, "scary Islam" plays a very useful functional role for the proto-Western elites of the Arab world. The narrative adopted by the Egyptian military and the sheikhdoms, especially in dealing with the United States and Britain, has persistently played on the age-old political realism of the lesser of two evils. Essentially, this narrative says: Yes, we might be bad, but the alternative is much worse.

But for this stark functionalism to work and to overcome the West's sense of goodness about being the ideological bearers of humanitarian and civilizational values, the alternative has to play on all the Western historical prejudices, fears, and anxieties about the barbarians at the gates. But most of all, the alternative has to reinforce the position of unabashed despots - such as Sisi and the Saudi government - as essential strategic allies in the region as opposed to, at best, the unknown. More concretely, there is an ever-growing body of evidence that ISIS was a monster unleashed upon the world by Saudi intelligence and its allies, with Prince Sultan bin Bandar playing the key role.

In , the Saudis were confronted by a worrisome situation. Their despotic friends in Tunisia and Egypt were overthrown, and their arch-nemesis in Libya, Muammar Qadhafi, was killed. The regimes in Yemen, Bahrain and Syria were under siege, and there was wide speculation about which authoritarian regime would be next. After its military intervention in Bahrain violently quashed the popular uprising, Saudi Arabia and its allies needed to convince the White House of the need for a coup to restore the old regime in Egypt.

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Reportedly, it was Prince Bandar who took charge of creating a significant enough threat in the Middle East to convince a recalcitrant American administration of two things: first, the threat of popularist Islamic challenges to established regimes in the Arab world; and second, if need be, the necessity for American military interventions to overturn the revolutionary fervour that was overtaking the region at the time, and to protect the Saudi regime if it came under threat.

Saudi Arabia and its allies understood very well that there are strong political and social reservations in the United States about committing troops on the ground. Such reservations could be overcome only if the frightening spectre of political Islam was elevated to such heights that the white Judeo-Christian civilization would be willing to sacrifice its proverbial sons to exorcise the region of its demons.

Scary Islam plays a very useful functional role for the proto-Western elites of the Arab world. The narrative adopted by the Egyptian military and the sheikhdoms has persistently played on the age-old political realism of the lesser of two evils.


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Nothing plays on the vulnerabilities of the Western imagination like the phantom of the return of the Muslim hordes united behind their Caliph to lay siege at the gates of Vienna once again. But as with the Wahhabi Ikhwan movement in the s, which had to be slaughtered by the British air force with the full support of Ibn Saud r.

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For all practical effects, the White House's hands were forced, but to the dismay of the Saudis and their allies, the White House still insisted on not re-sending troops into Iraq, and reportedly, the removal and exile of Bandar was made a condition for the commencement of the air campaign and the escalation of covert operations against ISIS. So much has been made of ISIS's purported Islamicity that I think it is worthwhile briefly to comment on its ideological and intellectual lineage.

It is already well known that ISIS emerged as a break-off from Al-Qaeda in Iraq and that many of its officers are former members of the Iraqi army dissolved by American forces in May It initially emerged in response to the perceived take-over of Iraq by Shi'is in the south and Kurds in the north of Iraq. Intellectually, other than the typical Wahhabi works on theology and law, two treatises have proven most influential upon militant Muslim groups in the Arab world, including Al-Qaeda and ISIS. The first book reads more like a manual by the Red Brigades than any recognizable form of Islamic literature.

The author is clearly well acquainted with Western writers as evidenced by his references to Paul Kennedy and others. Reflecting the intellectual influence of scholars such as Arnold Toynbee and Samuel Huntington, the author provides a narrative of history in which civilizations are constantly competing, clashing, rising and falling.

According to the author, when civilizations rise to the peak of their power and achieve complete hegemony over the world, they enter into a period of unmitigated and wilful savagery. They are able to inflict harm upon whomever, whenever they wish, and can annihilate any group that defies their hegemonic influence. Being very sparse on theological content, the book reads like an anarchic manual de guerre by outlining a detailed strategy for Muslim resistance groups to engage the hegemonic civilization of our times - namely, the West - in a protracted war of attrition.

The purpose of this war of attrition is to force Western civilization to reveal its true prejudiced and barbaric face, and to hasten the crumbling of this civilization by forcing it to rely on militarization and brute force instead of the pretence of civil ideals. Theologically and jurisprudentially, the second book by Abu Mus'ab al-Suri is more important and dense.

In This Review

The book is a tome of 1, pages that claims to document an unrelenting history of crusading and aggression by the West and others against Muslims and the Islamic message. Its understanding of history is unequivocally dogmatic with Muslims invariably being the victims of countless atrocities, and the West as the arrogant perpetrator of endless savageries. Abu Mus'ab al-Suri reserves his harshest criticism for Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood, who believed that they could work within the political process and accept the ideals of democracy and the people's sovereignty.

The author writes extensively about current Muslim subservience and defeatism, and sees Muslim leaders as peons serving the interests of their Western masters. Moreover, the author argues that all Muslim reformers such as Muhammad Abduh d. Therefore, it was not a question of whether but when the collective disaffection would finally boil over. Nevertheless, not a single one of these deficits has yet been redressed. In fact, many of the problems have even intensified and come to a head since the initial drop in the crude oil price in The political elites still see no need to introduce reforms and are instead once again focusing on stabilising their political power.

Area experts, however, were more cautious in their judgments; though, even some of them considered the establishment of democratic conditions to be the main objective of the developments in the region Gerges It quickly became clear that these descriptions were too optimistic; at best, they were premature. Even in Tunisia, the model country of the Arab Spring, the democratisation following a Western example that many had hoped for remains a deficient and crisis-prone process. In Egypt, the prospects for democracy were crushed by an army coup in ; democracy hardly had a chance in any of the other countries.

As a result, one could speak of a total failure of democracy in the Arab world. This does not mean, however, that the people of the region were not interested in democracy or that Muslims are inherently incapable of living under a democratic system. The reasons that the introduction of liberal democracy was not at the core of the Arab Spring are multifaceted and can be explained within a historical context.

Protestors came from nearly every single stratum of society. They publicly deplored a reality that no longer corresponded in any way to the visions and promises that the leaders of the republican regimes themselves had championed since independence Schumann Nevertheless, in the course of , secularists, Islamists, and the diverse, fragmented former opposition forces in each of those camps were unable to formulate a shared alternative vision of political order.

The most significant actors from among the opposition groups viewed the future division of state power as, first and foremost, a zero-sum game. Except in the case of Tunisia, opposition forces were not capable of creating a new form of political power balancing that could have set in motion a process of democratisation. This failure of new and old political elites to find a political compromise can be explained essentially by three factors:. First, over the past several decades, the authoritarian regimes have suppressed the secular opposition and parts of the Islamic opposition, relying on the argument that divergent political thought would threaten national unity and security.

As a consequence of this, a culture of critical political debate could not be established. The United States used the idea of the introduction of democracy to legitimise its invasion of Iraq in , flouting international law. A third misconception is that the Arab Spring was a cohesive protest movement across the entire region. There were large areas of overlap in the causes of the discontentment, the forms of mobilisation, and the overarching demands for justice adala , freedom hurriya , dignity karama , and respect ihtiram. Those similarities notwithstanding, there were big differences from country to country that prevent us speaking of a homogeneous movement.

The end of the Arab Spring, the rise of ISIS and the future of political Islam

The composition of the protest movements, the initiation and eventual direction of the demonstrations, the concrete demands of the opposition, and the reactions to those demands on the part of the authoritarian regimes — a mixture of repression and modest accommodation — were sometimes strikingly divergent. These differences correlate to wealth gaps across the region and within individual states: a particularly drastic contrast is represented by the Gulf monarchies on one side and Yemen, Egypt, and Syria on the other.

In addition, social stratification, education levels, and the degree of industrialisation and urbanisation in each country shaped the make-up of the protestors and their concrete demands in addition to the resources available to both the opposition and the authoritarian regimes. We can describe three basic constellations, which went on to develop in country-specific ways:.

In some countries, including Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, and Oman, youth from among the educated middle classes of the urban centres called for protest via their social networks. Modern media allowed many more people to be reached and drove the transnationalisation of the protests, which is why the number of demonstrators was unexpectedly high when viewed against earlier, similar events.

Furthermore, the youth in some countries succeeded in politically activating segments of the lower and middle classes. State repression did not end the protests; rather, it led to their further mobilisation and expansion. In Tunisia, Jordan, Bahrain, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, the protests started out on the periphery and were carried by groups that were discriminated against throughout the region or along socio-economic, sectarian, or ethnic lines. In some countries — for example, Saudi Arabia — the protests were completely limited to a few groups and a few areas outside of the capital.

Protests raged on and intensified only in places where the urban and peripheral orientations could be united to form a wide national movement; this was the case in Tunisia, Morocco, Syria, Libya, and Egypt. The countries also differ in their experiences with past protests and uprisings, which served to shape the character of the exchanges between the regime and the opposition during and after the Arab Spring in ways that were specific to each country. In states with histories of civil war, such as Lebanon, Sudan, and Algeria, as well as in Palestine and Iraq, protests either did not take place at all or were relatively moderate.

It was not an infrequent worry that further sociopolitical polarisation could lead to renewed violence. In addition, the ways that militaries and security forces in each country reacted to the protests differed. Tunisian forces refused to follow orders to shoot at demonstrators, while in Egypt the police initially carried out such an order. Later, Egyptian military leaders arranged for the immobilisation of the police and the resignation of President Mubarak, not least in order to secure their own positions of power in the state and in society in general.

The Egyptian army is in possession of major commercial enterprises, so its leadership has a direct interest in hindering attempts at drastic economic reforms and certainly in preventing a radical shift in the balance of power. The Tunisian army, by contrast, aligned itself with the demonstrators against the regime.

The Syrian army experienced several desertions but no split, and the segment of the security apparatus that is loyal to Assad is still fighting the uprising with exceptional brutality. When the Muslim Brotherhood won majorities in the first free parliamentary elections in Egypt and Tunisia, respectively in and , many Western observers were not just surprised but also disappointed that liberal forces in the opposition had received such little support from their own people.

In addition, Islamist actors were committed socially and economically on the local level in that they provided welfare services, schools, and educational opportunities and ran their own commercial enterprises, creating thousands of jobs. As a result of that, fundamentalist Salafists in those two countries demanded an intensification of religious principles, but did not offer any real solutions to basic social and economic problems.

Moreover, the civil wars that had flared up in Syria, Libya, and Yemen created arenas of violence that facilitated the spread of jihadists prepared to use violence. Revolutions have become widespread and their impact has been domestic, regional and global. Zine Al-Abideen Bin Ali of Tunisia, who brutally suppressed Tunisian opposition and forced many people in exile, had no choice but to flee the country under the cover of darkness to Saudi Arabia.

Mubarak, the last Pharaoh of Egypt as many Egyptians sarcastically called him, now resides behind bars. Qaddafi of Libya, once the absolute despot over his people, was killed in a humiliating manner. Abdullah Ali Saleh of Yemen found himself unable to sustain his power in the face of persistent widespread protests, in spite of his reliance on brutal arbitrary oppression of his people. Of course, it is in Syria today where there is most anticipation as to how the revolution will unfold: the Assad regime has been deeply entrenched for many years.

Now, due to its unrestrained vicious killing, it is doubtful that its fate could turn out more successfully than some of the other deposed Arab tyrants. Although each Arab society has its internal and external political and economic particularities, commonalities during the Arab Spring are quite striking.

For one thing, no longer is the scary ghost of the tyrant unchallengeable. For another, the people of one Arab country have served as a role-model for another, as was certainly the case of Tunisia and Egypt. Internationally, the image of submissive and disorganized Arabs was replaced with revolutionary and highly disciplined citizens: certainly the revolution in Egypt was a clear testimony to the ability of massive crowds to act as one body, despite rampant poverty and high unemployment.

One of the key unanswered questions is how the new order will be configured; what forces will have the upper hand in the Arab street? Will the Islamists dominate, as elections in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco indicate? How will the West deal with the rise of political Islam? The Arab people have made abundantly clear that they are hungry for real change: Egypt is a clear case in point. People were not content with the removal of Mubarak as the head of the system; rather, they have been determined to do away with the old system in its entirety.

This is why Egyptians took to the streets and gathered again in Tahrir Square months after the ouster of the dictator. They have been adamantly opposed to the Military Council renewed hold on power. Against the backdrop of widespread instability and uncertainty, Egyptians conducted the first of three rounds of elections very impressively and their voter turnout was exceptionally high, especially given the high degree of volatility in the country.


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Even more impressive is that people put their differences aside while the voting was taking place, knowing that just days before, there were some heated differences over supporting or opposing the Military Council. Still, whether in Egypt or any other Arab country, no one would expect to see absolute order and tranquility overnight.

Is the Arab world better off, five years after the Arab Spring?

Certainly, Egypt is no exception, especially after many years of devastating tyrannical rule. While no answer can be given with utmost certainty and no generalization is advisable, it can nonetheless be said that the crux of the process of massive transformation in the Arab world today has been democratic in nature, despite the fact that the outcome of elections in some Arab countries shows that there is a sizable presence of some political Islamic groups and parties. The use of the social network websites such as Facebook and Twitter reveal that most activists, who are young, have opened up to the rest of the world, their ideological affiliation notwithstanding.

As a matter of fact, the Muslim Brothers had entered into conciliatory arrangements with the dictatorial Mubarak regime while the revolution was at its height. Even during the week preceding the first round of elections in late November , the Muslim Brothers decided to refrain from joining many revolutionary groups that returned to Tahrir Square, determined to rescue the revolution from the control of the Military Council. In fact, the Muslim Brothers seem to have established an unholy alliance with the very Military Council people were protesting against.

Were it not for a lot of skepticism about the exact position of the Brotherhood in the revolution, they could have achieved even more sweeping results. Over the years, they have been able to capitalize on growing conservatism in rural areas, especially due to the disturbing growth in rates of poverty and unemployment. While the political map of the future of Egypt and the rest of the Arab world is yet to be drawn, the process of Arab awakening is irreversible: the taste of change, even with pain and anguish, is not likely to be compromised.

Such Western policies can strongly affect which forces might acquire further support in the new Arab order. It is not an exaggerated contention that Western policies over the past century have greatly contributed to the state of affairs in the Arab region today. As Arab and pan-Arab nationalists have not been able to rid Arab societies of the Western-supported dictators, it became only natural for many in the Arab and Muslim world to turn to political Islamic movements and parties for salvation.