I ended my last post like this:
“Perhaps in six months’ time non-Arab commentators will decide that the Tunisian revolution was a mere anomaly in an eternally stagnant Arab world. But they’ll be wrong. The revolution will exert a long-term pervasiveness throughout Arab culture, as the Iranian revolution did before it. It will change the air the Arabs breathe and the dreams the Arabs dream.”
Well, it seems I was wrong on the timescale. I should have said six minutes. Today several commentators are indeed arguing that the Tunisian revolution is anomalous. Robert Fisk is pessimistic, contending that the Tunisian people are no match for the combined forces of the Tunisian elite and Western imperialism. Perhaps events will prove him right. Steve Walt fears that those expecting immediate regime change from the Ocean to the Gulf will be rapidly disappointed.
His point is a good one. In the frontline states with Israel, foreign policy issues increase in importance because they have the potential to immediately translate into security issues. The Syrian regime, for instance, may be unpopular for its corruption, bureaucracy, and stifling of dissent, but its foreign policy is broadly in line with Syrian opinion – and in Syria this matters a great deal. The Western clients are more vulnerable to protest, not least because they’re more linked into the ‘globalised’ economy and are thus more vulnerable to dramatic fluctuations in the price of essential goods. Yet even in Jordan legitimate fears of an Israeli intervention (perhaps an attempt to fulfill the Jordan-is-Palestine fantasy) could damp down effervescence. The public in many countries seems too split by sect, ethnicity or tribe to coordinate unified protest. And of course the regimes will now be battening down for fear of Tunisian contagion.
Walt points out that the Iranian Revolution didn’t lead to regime change in the Arab world, and again he’s quite correct. You could even argue that regime security and propaganda responses to the Iranian Revolution helped to hold off change. But still, the 1979 revolution did have an enormous effect. It set the tone for oppositional thought and activity in the Arab world for the next 30 years. It exerted an obvious influence on Palestinian and Lebanese resistance to Zionism, and it energised Islamist politics from Morocco to Saudi Arabia and Egypt. It had an impact on Arab culture and on Arab daily life. Certainly Arab Islamism was generated by specifically Arab conditions and discourses (for instance, the ideological bankruptcy of supposedly nationalist regimes), but it was inevitably shaped and given prominence by the one regional example of successful revolution.
I would argue that Islamism actually held back revolutionary change in some places because it increased sectarianism and thus the popular fear of sectarian violence in the wake of any revolution. (The first cause of sectarian violence, however, now and throughout the last two centuries, has been foreign intervention). If you are a Christian or a Shia, or you just don’t like the idea of the state interfering in your private life, and if the most likely alternative to your regime appears to be Sunni Islamist – then why would you support the alternative? Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which would probably win a democratic election, has said that a Christian could never be president of Egypt but a Nigerian or Indonesian Muslim could. Just on the level of pragmatics, any movement in the heterogenous Arab east which can’t take the minorities along with it will be fiercely opposed by key sections of the military, sections of the business community, and by whole regions of the country in question.
Regimes such as Mubarak’s sometimes actually enjoy having angry crowds chanting Allahu Akbar in the streets. Then they can rely on more support from the West. As I write, the American administration is no doubt scrabbling to stymie the revolutionary process in Tunisia; yet had the Tunisian crowds employed Islamic slogans it’s entirely possible the revolution would not have reached this point. Rather than ignoring events, Fox News and Christian Zionists would have demanded action against the anti-Christ, and Obama would have stomached far worse repression on Ben Ali’s part. I’m not suggesting that the Arab street consult a Washington PR firm before it decides on its slogans, merely making another pragmatic observation.
Furthermore, and at the risk of irritating some allies, I would also argue that Islamist political programmes have usually been built on a myth – the idea that there is an intact Islamic model which can be dusted off and immediately implemented, or that there is a glorious past which can be straightforwardly resurrected. Because Islamic jurisprudence stagnated, because Islamic political science was largely non-existent, because of ‘colonisability’ (Malek Benabbi’s term), because of European penetration and the resultant civilisational rupture, because education since independence has followed a (poor, imitative, underfunded) western model – because of all this, so much of what many Muslims believe to be the word of God is actually the interpretations of men, standardised by the 14th century. But the Muslims are facing very 21st century problems. The notion of a pristine Islamic solution, like the version of history which ignores the failures of classical Islamic civilisation, looks like nativist romanticism, which is a form of despair.
I’m not being so simplistic as to suggest that Islamism is about to collapse, or so boneheaded as to suggest that all Islamism is the same. Nor so dogmatic as to assert that re-thought forms of Islamism will never be relevant to Arab progress. Once the Islamic discourse has developed, once the conditions are in place to allow it to develop, more may become possible.
In the meantime, the very different Tunisian model will gradually change the discourse in the Arab world. It may well cool the Islamist-sectarian mood, which is only serving to divide the oppressed, and will increase the focus on straightforward, practical demands which everybody can understand, whether they’re religiously convinced or agnostic, Christian or Muslim, Sunni or Shia. It will teach the value of broad social unity, and solidarity, and the power of the street.