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Elias D. MallonOctober 10, 2011

On Dec. 17, 2010, a Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest police harassment of his efforts to make a living on the street. His self-immolation set off a popular revolution that resulted in the overthrow of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who had been president of that North African nation for 24 years, and then swept across the Arab world. Within weeks the revolution—named the Arab Spring by the media—spread to Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Libya and Bahrain.

The term Arab Spring, which tends to evoke romantic images of gentle weather, daffodils and new life, has proved misleading. The twin revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt were led by nonviolent activists who had been planning together for two years. But the resignations of Mr. Ben Ali of Tunisia on Jan. 14 and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt on Feb. 11 were anything but romantic, and what followed once the aspirations of others had been kindled turned far more violent.

The Arab Spring turned into a sizzling summer. The spectacular “democratic” successes in Tunisia and Egypt have not been replicated elsewhere in the Arab world. Even in Egypt some are beginning to question how successful their own democratic movement has been. Libya is still in turmoil, and Syria’s government and military are brutally attacking nonviolent challenges to their authority. Neither Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi nor Syria’s Bashar al-Assad has followed the example of the Egyptian and Tunisian leaders who stepped down from office.

Three words associated with the Arab Spring are often used, but rarely analyzed: Arab, democracy and citizenship. Each is far more complex than common usage seems to recognize, and all three terms merit further consideration.

Arab or Arabs?

Arabs are those people who speak the Arabic language. Some commentators would incorrectly add that Arabs are Muslims. In fact, while Arabic is spoken from Iraq to Morocco and while modern standard Arabic is the language of the media, the average Arabic speaker uses a local dialect of Arabic. Locals who live less than an hour’s drive from one another often speak different dialects, many of which include words from older local languages, like Aramaic, Syriac and Berber. As a result, native speakers often have difficulty understanding a local dialect other than their own.

Religiously, the Arabic-speaking world is also more diverse than many outsiders realize. While Islam is the religion of the vast majority of Arabic speakers, it is not monolithic. There are four different “schools” within Sunni Islam. And up to 15 percent of the Muslim world follows Shiite Islam, a minority whose adherents often face discrimination. In addition, large, significant groups of Alawites, Christians, Druze, Jews, Mandaeans and Yazidi live in Arabic-speaking countries. From a distance one might speak of an “Arabic culture, language and religion,” but up close the reality is more complex.

The countries involved in the Arab Spring are diverse in size, population and ethnicity. The tiny Kingdom of Bahrain in the Persian Gulf is roughly four times the size of Washington, D.C. Its hereditary Sunni monarchy governs slightly more than one million subjects, 70 percent of whom are Shiite Muslims who experience disenfranchisement and discrimination. Libya, by contrast, which is roughly the size of Alaska, has a population of nearly six million people, 90 percent of whom live along its Mediterranean coast. Libya’s population consists of Arabs and indigenous North African peoples: Berbers, black Africans and Mediterranean groups. Egypt is the most populous country in the Middle East. Roughly the size of Texas and New Mexico combined, its 80 million people include Arabs, Copts (who sometimes see themselves ethnically as Egyptians, as opposed to Arabs) and Nilotic peoples. While 90 percent Muslim, Egypt has a large, indigenous Christian population that comprises almost 10 percent of the population. Under tremendous pressure and often subject to violence, Coptic Christians nevertheless form a vibrant, educated community amid Egypt’s Muslim majority.

While many countries in the Middle East have long and ancient histories, they are relative newcomers to the modern nation state. For hundreds of years many were provinces of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Few, if any, existed in their present geographic form before the 20th century. Only after World War I did the victorious French and British divide the Ottoman Middle East into “spheres of influence,” which resulted in the emergence of new countries on the Middle East map; the straight borders of many show the artificiality of what was done.

New countries with new names appeared, such as the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, while old regions with names like Syria and Lebanon were given new geographic boundaries. In Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Syria and, to a lesser extent, Saudi Arabia, the colonial powers set up kingdoms. But between the two world wars, Iraqis and Syrians (and in the 1960s Egyptians and others) overthrew their kings and set up fragile democracies. Many forces worked against these new democracies, and most became authoritarian regimes. One sees a pattern of dictatorship: Hafez al-Assad of Syria held office for 30 years (1970-2000) until his death; Hosni Mubarak was president of Egypt for 30 years (1981-2011); Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was president of Tunisia for 24 years (1987-2011); Muammar el-Qaddafi held office for 42 years (1969-2011); and Ali Abdullah Saleh has been president of Yemen for 33 years, since 1978.

It is important to note that all these regimes had very different political ideologies; that each leader held onto power for a very long time; and that neither in these countries nor in the region’s monarchies (like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the Gulf States) has there been an opportunity to develop functioning, democratic institutions. There is diversity in civic governance. In Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia the parliaments or shura have at best advisory functions. In Bahrain the Shiite majority has little or no voice in the government and faces discrimination. Recently King Abdullah of Jordan granted the National Assembly (House of Nobles appointed by the king; House of Representatives elected popularly) greater voice in the government. While an improvement, Jordan still has an authoritarian government.

Democracy or Democracies?

There is a great deal of talk about democratic movements. Democracy, however, is not a univocal term. While people who live in democracies tend to think their form of democracy is the best and only form, other forms of democracy do exist. Failure to recognize this fact could lead to considerable disappointment if democracies develop in the Middle East. The United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Turkey and Israel all have democratic systems, but they differ significantly. The United States is a pluralistic democracy with separation of church and state. The United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy with an established church. France is a secular democracy where religion is to play no role; laïcisme is the term used to describe the secular character of France’s political system. Turkey is also a secular democratic state, but it is not a pluralistic democracy. Israel is a democracy intimately linked with one religion, Judaism, and one ethnic group.

Two questions should be asked about the Arab Spring: Will democracies arise in the countries involved? And if so, what kind of democracies?

One strong bond links all the countries of the Arab Spring—Islam. A word of caution: though tiny Bahrain is mostly Shiite and the other countries are overwhelmingly Sunni, Sunni Islam is no more monolithic than Islam in general. In each of these countries Islam has distinct characteristics that have arisen from the local history and culture. This is to be expected. Roman Catholics in Ireland are different from Roman Catholics in the Philippines, though they are all Roman Catholics. The same situation exists in Islam. It is fairly safe to assume that however democracy develops as a result of the Arab Spring, Islam will play a significant role. It is unlikely that it will play the same role in each country. While extremist Muslim movements are often hostile to democracy, there is no indication that this disdain is shared by a majority of any population in the region. In fact, majorities in the countries of the Arab Spring indicate that they want some form of democracy.

Islam and Democracy

Are Islam and democracy compatible? Remembering that Islam is not monolithic, it is important to note several things. Democracy does not arise fully developed overnight. Democracy in Western Europe took several centuries to develop in each country; and there were false starts, setbacks and detours. To expect the countries of the Arab Spring to be fully developed, problem-free democracies in five years is naïve and unfair.

Democracy requires that the population understand the concept of citizenship and take part in it. Citizenship is a crucial element in civic and political development and serves as a barometer of how democracy is evolving. Equal citizenship has been part of the church’s vision for the continuing Christian presence in the Middle East since the 1995 Synod for Lebanon. Citizenship was also mentioned often in the documents of the Catholic synod of bishops’ Special Assembly for the Middle East, which took place last fall.

Citizenship as understood in modern democracies expresses a relationship of mutual rights and obligations that exist between an individual citizen and the state. That relationship is built not on religion, race, gender, wealth or education but on participation in public life. In contemporary democracies, citizenship has been separated from religious affiliation. One must not lose sight of the fact that the separation of citizenship and religious affiliation has been a long, painful process within most Western democracies.

While Islam has developed the concept of the dhimmi, the protected non-Muslim inhabitant of a state, there is no developed notion of the citizen (muwâtin) in classical Islamic political thinking. Although belonging to a “protected minority,” the dhimmi in no way enjoys the full rights and obligations of a citizen in a modern democracy. While it is extremely important that all citizens enjoy equal rights and obligations independent of race, gender or religion, it is naïve to think that this can be achieved easily or quickly in most countries of the Arab Spring. At the same time, the rights of religious, ethnic or linguistic minorities and the rights of women will be an important gauge of how democracy is evolving.

Religious Minorities, a Test Case

In recent times the situation of religious minorities, like Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians and Mandaeans, has become increasingly precarious in the Middle East. The increase in violence against Christians in Iraq and Egypt underlines an important issue. In a region where religion plays a major role in the public arena, the treatment of religious minorities provides a benchmark against which the rights of all citizens can be measured. Islam is no more or less compatible with democracy than is Christianity, Judaism or Buddhism. No major religion was founded at a time when democracies were functioning. And while religions have at times developed structures for consultation that have some democratic characteristics, these structures govern only the members of that particular religion.

Few religions ever had to deal with the religious “other” except as an object of proselytization, competition or scorn. No religious tradition on its own has ever developed a way of dealing with the other as equal. Yet that is precisely what citizenship entails: all citizens, regardless of religious affiliation, are equal before the law.

Christianity spent several centuries in conflict and reflection before it found a way of living in societies where members of other religious traditions were equal before the law. The Roman Catholic Church officially committed itself to freedom of religion in the “Declaration on Religious Freedom,” approved at the Second Vatican Council on Dec. 7, 1965. It cannot be expected that Islam will reach that position overnight, although the community of nations must keep religious equality before emerging democracies as an important and achievable goal.

Modern Muslim thinkers have been reflecting upon and writing about the relationship of Islam to the modern state since the beginning of the 20th century. In 1925 Ali Abdel Raziq (d. 1966), an Egyptian legal scholar and Shariah judge, first explored the separation of religion and state in a book whose Arabic title can be translated “Islam and the Foundations of Government.” The work was very controversial and not generally accepted, but it opened discussion of democratic government among Islamic scholars. More contemporary figures—for example, Mahmoud Muhammad Taha (executed for heresy by the Sudanese government in January 1985), his student Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, the Iranian Shiite scholar Abdolkarim Soroush and others—form part of a growing list of Muslim scholars who are dealing with the challenges contemporary Muslims face as they attempt to develop democratic institutions and governments. The work of these scholars shows clearly that Islam is not inherently incompatible with modern democracy.

The journey toward democracy will be neither easy nor short. The emerging democracies of the Arab Spring need all the help and support they can get. Those who would help, however, must realize that democracy does not mean “just like us.” Any attempt to help that lacks sensitivity to the historical, cultural and religious situation of each country is ultimately no help at all and could nip the Arab Spring in the bud.

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12 years 6 months ago
First of excuse my ignorance on the theme. This  article is what I call a master piece. It has the equivalent of a whole semester in any prestigous university. Congratulations Elias D. Mallon. Today I feel I learned at lot more of my brothers of the Near East. Thanks.

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