Youth need vision, not revolt, in the Muslim world
An Arab ruler had just passed away, and one of his close advisers had been nominated to take his place. In his inaugural address, a person in the crowd promised: "If we find you crooked, we will correct you. With our swords!" To which the new ruler replied, "Praise be to God, who created among our people someone who is able to correct the crookedness of Omar."
That was not a reference to the fallen leader of Tunisia this month, but to Omar al-Faruq ibn al-Khattab, the second caliph in the seventh century, referring to himself. Nevertheless, the yearning for a polity that would seek correction from the masses has never left the Muslim world - and indeed, it is a sentiment that has never been stronger than today. In the aftermath of the Tunisian uprising, the question arises in the region is what do you do when faced with tyranny?
In a region deeply influenced by religion, one might think that Islam delivers the answer to that question for most people in the Arab world. Traditional Islamic scholarship has two competing imperatives in this regard, which have generally balanced out in favour of the status quo. While Muslim rulers are called upon to be just and take direction from those whom they rule, as per the practice of the Prophet and his temporal successors, the masses are also reminded that while they should speak truth to oppression, according to a Prophetic narrative, a day of social upheaval (fitna) is worse than decades of oppression.
The basic formula seems to be this: do not revolt against the ruling regime unless the regime is so utterly and magnificently despotic that inaction would involve more discord than rebellion. Such a formula has been advocated by nearly all religious authorities, including within Tunisia, whose population is predominantly Sunni, and follows the Maliki rite of jurisprudence - not much different than the other Sunni schools on such issues.
But here is the reality of the situation: religion, the religious, and religious authorities have little to do with any of this. Most people within and without the Muslim world do not pay all that much attention to religious authorities any more than Catholics everywhere refer to papal authority on governmental affairs. The recent events in Tunisia were certainly not instigated by a religious fervour that swept Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from power. It was far less ideological than that. And if any ideology really was going to be at work, Islam - in whatever shape or form - was not going to be it. The kick-off point was a suicide, a serious sin according to Islamic religious authorities.
Yet Islam is a mobilising force for even non-practising Muslims in the Muslim world. It has been for a very long time something that Islamist political movements know well. Herein lies the rub: while Islam will almost definitely not prove to be the mobilising force for political change in the Muslim world any time soon, despite the fear in the West of various Islamist political parties, an appeal to religion can and does certainly grease the wheels of political change, if not revolution.
Political activists who lay claim to religion are certainly not above invoking Islam after the fact. In this case, it is not just political Islamists, but even non-Islamists who nonetheless are getting involved in political issues. Neither group would have ever called for a suicide or rioting beforehand, but some are more than content to issue morally ambiguous notes after the fact.
The more religious among Muslim populations, whether in predominantly Muslim countries or elsewhere, might believe that Islam generally forbids revolting against a state authority despite that authority being unjust. But ultimately, that's not going to practically matter unless the broader public is convinced of that. It is doubtful that religious authorities in general will focus their energies in trying to preach that kind of message, probably because they know the stark truth: that it's a tough pill to swallow.
This leaves everything in something of an awkward situation. Traditional Islamic authorities, historically and currently, have not advocated that pill as something to be put up with. Rather, they've argued that the state should not have much power (whether it is a good state or not), and that the real activity of the believer lies in continuously interacting with civil society - the real domain of change. As such, while injustice from the state might be oppressive, it could not be so omnipresent as to really cripple people day in and day out.
Things are a bit different in 2011. Civil society has not just been crippled, but in many places in the Muslim world, it has been massacred. Colonialism, post-colonialism - and we in the West, preposterously, abjure responsibility for that - has meant that civil society just has no real power. Tunisia was not an expression of civil society re-taking the public sphere, but of anarchism, at least temporarily, lashing out at the state, fuelled by anger.
These young people, whether in Tunisia or elsewhere, need a vision. A vision that is not utopian, but which charts a course that is better than where they stand right now. A vision that takes into account their frustration and their anger, two emotions that go some way towards explaining the record levels of suicide in the region.
Right now, it's not that these young people are rejecting a vision. It's worse: no one has any vision to give them.
Dr HA Hellyer is a fellow of the University of Warwick and the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding
Updated: January 24, 2011 04:00 AM