Taking a Step towards the Arab Street

By Mustafa Gurbuz

Tariq Ramadam, Islam and the Arab Awakening (Oxford University Press, 2012)

Tariq Ramadam, Islam and the Arab Awakening (Oxford University Press, 2012)

Here is a great summer book: easy read, well-engaged, and more importantly a humble work that avoids haughty attempts to “explain” the social world. “This book makes no claim to reveal secrets, to unveil what may be strategic goals, and even less to predict the future,” writes Tariq Ramadan at the very beginning of Islam and the Arab Awakening. “(T)o do so would be madness, a combination of presumption and vanity.” Did Ramadan, a leading Muslim thinker and a professor at Oxford University, read debates among the social scientists on (un)predictability of revolutions (see Kuran 1991, 1995; Kurzman 2004a, 2004b; Goodwin 2011)? Although much has been said or written to “explain” the so called “Arab Spring,” important questions about “understanding” these popular uprisings is yet to be analyzed. 

Ramadan starts with questioning the terms that are often employed in the media. Having what he calls “cautious optimism,” Ramadan prefers to call these sweeping events “uprisings” or “awakening” instead of “revolutions” or an “Arab Spring.” Making a reference to Jean-Paul Sartre, Ramadan claims that uprisings could be conceptualized between revolutions and revolts; and only when an uprising is carried to its fullest extent and “overthrows the existing system” (including its political rule and economic structure) can it rightly be called a revolution (p. 7).

Ramadan refreshes our memories in the first chapters.  The massive, well-organized, and non-violent demonstrations were truly a reflection of popular mobilization that rallied for freedom, justice, and equality. Having long suffered under the yokes of post-colonial order that brought widespread corruption and cronyism, the Arabs woke up to their moment in history. Ramadan notes something interesting at this juncture:

As quickly as the reference to Islamism vanished, so did reference to Islam, as if most of the women and men motivated by a thirst for freedom, dignity, and justice had ceased to be perceived as Muslims since their values and their hopes were so like those of the West: hence the observable discrepancy in Western and Arab television coverage of the events. (p. 15)

Since Islam is often represented by marginal Islamists instead of overwhelming majority of moderate Muslims, the Western media narratives of the Arab uprisings revive the stereotypical images of “secularists versus Islamists” and ask leading questions such as, “Would Islamists hijack the revolutions?” Thus, the role of Islam is discussed only in the context of marginal totalitarian movements, whereas sociology of Islamic cultures in these countries is habitually ignored. For instance, Asmaa Mahfouz, a young Egyptian activist, posted a Youtube video in which she called upon all Egyptians to the streets, following the suit after the Jasmine revolution in Tunisia. In her passionate speech to urge people for action, Asmaa appealed to the authority of the Quran by quoting the verse: “God does not change society’s conditions until they change that which is in themselves” (13:11). The video went viral in a few days before January 25th, the Day of Rage, and touched the people’s nerves powerfully (pp. 27-28).

In chapter 2, the author delves into major public debates and conspiracies in the Arab Street: are these events a product of Western manipulations or are they truly a result of people’s power? Ramadan takes a cautious optimist position again. He lists numerous facts that demonstrate the Western agencies’ project of re-designing MENA, the Middle East and the North Africa, in the past decade (pp. 22-31). According to the author, not only were the Western countries aware of these groups of cyber-activists (who later triggered the uprisings); they “had funded the training programs and helped develop organized networks of bloggers” in the MENA (p. 30). It is wrong to conclude, however, that the Arab Awakening is a product of Western manipulations. Instead, we need to apply “unequal treatment” to each case (p.31). Ramadan thoroughly analyzes major cases such as Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, and Syria and indicates the conflicting policies of the Western powers towards the freedom movements. He also engages in a remarkable discussion over the increasing Sunni-Shiite divide in the region.

In chapter 3, Ramadan provides the context of the secularism and Islamism debate in the Arab world. Although there is an increasing trend among Muslim thinkers to defend a “civil state” and liberal values, these scholars do not want to frame it as a “Muslim secularism” because of the pejorative legacy of the secularism in the Muslim populated countries. Unlike American experience, secularism was introduced as a nation-state ideology, a “top-down” totalitarian process in which the state elite strictly controlled the religious institutions, militantly opposed Islamic cultures, and crushed oppositions by all means. Under severe repression such as in the case of Shah’s Iran, Islamic movements took more violent forms during the 20th century. Ramadan suggests that it is time to move beyond hollow debates over secularism and binary categorizations (such as “theocracy-loving Islamists” versus “secularist Western puppets”), since these do not really reflect crucial issues and needs discussed in today’s Arab Street (pp. 79-81). According to Ramadan, we need to recognize fundamental differences among political Islamic groups or Islamic social movements before reaching hasty conclusions about the Arab Awakening. First of all, we need conceptual clarity to support a productive debate. The term “Islamists” has been so broadly used it has become a useless expression denoting a wide range of people from non-violent social movements to militant armed-groups. Ramadan articulates how extreme differences appear in approaching major issues such as democracy, interpretation of sharia, women, nation-state, violence, and so forth.

In the final chapter, readers will see Tariq Ramadan as a Muslim philosopher and a humanist intellectual. Reminiscent of his Radical Reform, Ramadan touches upon the major social issues in the aftermath of the uprisings as we increasingly witness appeals to Islam as reference. The Sharia, certainly, is the utmost topic for public consumption after the uprisings. And yet, the intellectual depth of these debates is frustrating due to their circular operation within the nation-state framework. For Ramadan, it was no accident to see mass dreams of an Islamic state under forces of colonialism in the past century. The post-revolutionary Iran, however, provided a “widespread impression that an ‘Islamic state’ would be a kind of theocracy run by a clergy-like apparatus similar to Iran’s Shiite hierarchy” (p. 104). Now, it is time to move beyond “nation-state” centric approaches, especially in the age of multinational corporations and crisis of democracy after the neoliberal order (pp. 107-109). Muslims need to find a “middle way”: “The idea of an ‘Islamic state’ in which the religious sphere would impose its authority upon that of the state, or control it, is not only dangerous; it is contrary to Islam” (pp. 110-11). Ramadan continues:

Implementation of the Sharia (i.e. the path of faithfulness to the higher goals of Islam) does not mean enforcing prohibitions and imposing a strict timeless penal code, as it is often understood by some literalist Islamists or as it is perceived in the West. No, the Sharia must be seen above all as a call for social justice, for respect of the rights of children, women, and men to education, housing, and employment, as well as personal fulfillment and well-being…The Sharia is not a rigid, sanctified legal structure. Quite the contrary: it corresponds with a spiritual, social, political, and economic dynamic that reaches toward higher goals associated with a certain idea of humankind. It requires us to envisage, produce, and implement a philosophy of social and legal action. (pp. 113-14)

Ramadan repeatedly calls Muslims to be full subjects in making their history, and particularly points out an alarming issue: the state of education in Arab and Muslim majority societies. He urges Muslims to form a global social activism around education:

A genuine, tangible process of reform, democratization, and liberation cannot take place without a broad-based social movement that mobilizes civil society as well as public and private institutions. It is precisely here that the reference to Islam assumes, in Muslim majority societies, an immediate, imperative, and constructive meaning. The first priority of any social movement must be to gain access to education for all: a short- and long-term social investment. On this question, the philosophy of Islam could not be clearer: human beings can reach their full stature only through intellectual, spiritual, social, and professional education. (p. 113)

Islam and the Arab Awakening is a valuable work. It is timely and thought-provoking not only for the scholars of social movements but also activists in the field.


Goodwin, Jeff. 2011. “Why We Were Surprised (Again) by the Arab Spring.” Swiss Political Science Review 17(4): 452-56.

Kuran, Timur. 1991. “The East European Revolution of 1989: Is It Surprising that We Were Surprised?” American Economic Review 81(2): 121-25.

__________   1995. “The Inevitability of Future Revolutionary Surprises.” American Journal of Sociology 100(6): 1528-51.

Kurzman, Charles. 2004a. The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

______________   2004b. “Can Understanding Undermine Explanation? The Confused Experience of Revolution.” Philosophy of the Social Sciences 34(3): 328-51.


Filed under Essay Dialogues, Great Books for Summer Reading 2013

2 responses to “Taking a Step towards the Arab Street

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