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Islam and the Arab uprising

Date:07 January 2013
Author:Religion Factor
Jeffrey Haynes
Jeffrey Haynes

Guest contributor Prof Jeffrey Haynes from London Metropolitan University reflects on recent events in the Middle East and Northern Africa and their implications for how we understand the role of religion in public life.

The Arab uprising is an important development which has affected all Arab-majority countries and continues to do so as we enter 2013. It began over two years ago, in December 2010, stimulated by a specific event: the suicide of a vegetable seller in Tunisia, Muhammad Bouazizi. Yet, while the Arab uprising continues, we are not really any the wiser regarding what is the role of religion, especially Islam, in the events. Bearing in mind that Islam is the dominant religion in all Arab countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), to what extent does it encourage or discourage the overthrow of authoritarian regimes? Does it help bring about improved civil liberties and democratisation?

There are two dimensions to these questions: region-specific events and global developments. In terms of the latter, it is clear that the role of Islam in the Arab uprising fits into a wider trend: the public ‘return of religion’ to political significance or even centrality in many countries, not only those in the MENA, which fundamentally goes against earlier expectations that religion would inevitably become a private affair as a central dimension of modernisation, implying a wholesale secularisation which would, as a result, marginalise religion’s public significance. Today, however, despite earlier near-certainty as to the expected global public marginality of religion, we see empirically that in numerous countries, rich and poor, developed and underdeveloped, religion performs important social and political roles – while often becoming more controversial, especially in the context of often polarised debates about what influence religion ‘should’ have socially and politically in both modern and modernising societies.

The second dimension is the more specific one of the role of Islam in the Arab uprising. Today, while it is clear that countries throughout the MENA region are centrally affected by the political impact of Islam, there is no clear pattern. Throughout the MENA, Islam has certainly left its previously assigned place in the private sphere, to become a significant component of various inter-group political competitions and conflicts, issues which at root are about both political change and human rights. In the MENA both Islamists and secular liberals alike have to face difficult questions, without a blueprint, about how to accommodate demands of faith and at the same time accept and develop democratic pluralism. Peter Beaumont, in the British paper, The Guardian, recently noted that to date the dominant feature of the Arab uprising is the rise of a particular form of political Islam which draws on the history and experiences of the transnational Muslim Brotherhood (MB). Yet, having said that, MB characteristics differ from regional country to regional country. For example, in the Gaza Strip, Hamas, the local offshoot of the MB, is the way it is because it has been formed by its experience of armed struggle, just as in Egypt the MB – the parent organisation of the president, Mohamed Morsi – is shaped by its own history. In Egypt, as the commentator, Michael Wahid Hanna, argued in November 2012 in the US journal, Foreign Policy, the triumph of the MB has produced what Hanna calls an ‘ambush’ style of decision-making, characterised by a fundamental lack of consensus and consultation, normally the hallmarks of democracy. While ‘not anti-democratic per se,’ argues Hanna, this approach ‘depends upon a distinctive conception of winner-takes-all politics and the denigration of political opposition. Winning elections, by this perspective, entitles the victors to govern unchecked by the concerns of the losers.’ The danger is that throughout the MENA, if – or more likely, when – Islamists take power, they too will follow Morsi’s ‘no consensus, no consultation’ approach, with attendant risks for post-authoritarian democratisation.

Professor Jeffrey Haynes is Associate Dean of Faculty, Research and Postgraduate, and Director of the Centre for the Study of Religion, Conflict and Cooperation, London Metropolitan University. Tuesday 15 January, Prof Haynes will give a public seminar on the influence of faith-based organisations at the UN and the EU. For more details, see or email e.k.wilson


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