North Africa, West Asia

What was the role of religion in the Arab Spring?

The Arab Spring was caused by a multitude of factors (economic, political, social, cultural and religious), but its origins also lay in belief. Not a singular belief, but a collective, multifaceted belief that liberation is not only needed, but also possible.

Kat Eghdamian
28 July 2014

Assessing the origins and causes of the ‘Arab Spring’ is no easy task. My attempt here is to offer a brief examination of the role of religion in informing, supporting and mobilising these social movements and revolutions - a theme central to so many issues in the region, yet in discussions of the Arab Spring, one that has been sorely understated.

Recent events – particularly in the case of Syria – have increasingly drawn attention to the nuances, differences and complexities of each country’s experiences in the region. But there remain overarching themes. The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is not only a geographically convenient term but has historical, linguistic[1], religious[2], cultural and political ties in common.

While I am raising a focus on the role of religion, I do not discount the importance, impact and role of a range of other factors in explaining the creation of these events, including the role of the military, urbanisation, information technologies (particularly, Facebook and Twitter), economic injustice, and the demands for political and civil liberties. All of these themes and issues taken together provide a deeper picture of the study of the Arab Spring. The purpose of raising the issue of religion here is to highlight the importance of ideology in the study of social movements and revolutions. Throughout history, religious ideology has played a key role in shaping the collective liberation theology. The impact it continues to have on the mobilisation of social networks and resources should not be underestimated. Here, I argue that the role of Islam in the Arab Spring can be understood in two ways. First, through an analysis of the discourse and networks created by religious communities; and second, through an appreciation of the historical, social, and political influences in the region that continue to inform its religious practices.

The Arab Spring caught most of the world off guard. The historical events that began on 17 December 2011 with a young graduate student setting himself on fire in Tunisia, sparked a series of protests resulting in thousands of deaths, tens of thousands of wounded, and the overthrowing of four dictatorships that had reigned for over thirty years (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen). In an attempt to understand these surges of change and the mobilisation of opposition to existing regimes, a range of factors have been proposed, including calls for economic and social injustice and the desire for political and civil liberties. The high rates of unemployment, especially among youth, the widening gap between the rich and the poor, rising food prices, restrictions on movement, freedom of speech and association (among other civil and political liberties) created an acute level of tension in the region.  

For many, the Arab Spring was a largely secular phenomenon that sought the restoration of “classic political demands of liberty, democracy and economic justice” (Hoffman and Jamal 2013: 3). While it is not accurate to say that the Arab Spring is better conceived as an Islamic Spring (Nouihed and Warren 2012: 304), there are two, often considered secondary or ‘background factors’ (Ardiç 2012) that have received less attention in the debate: the role of the military in the political order and the impact of religion.  

For some commentators and analysts, religion played a minor role in the Arab Spring. Scholars such as al-Rasheed (2011) and Ardiç (2012) have argued that religion, rather than spurring on revolution and social movements, had the opposite effect of avoiding or preventing revolution (citing Saudi Arabia and Morocco as examples). However, some commentators have begun to focus on the influence of religious discourse on forming a collective liberation ideology and its impact on activist psychology. Drawing on sociological analyses with Weberian influences, these scholars argue that without the prominent role of Friday prayers, use of mosques, and Islamic discourses around martyrdom, there would have been no Arab Spring (see Benhabib (2011), Lynch (2012), Ardiç (2012) and Hoffman and Jamal, 2013). The argument made in this latter narrative stresses the importance of ideology in shaping behaviour and actions.

Religion mobilising protestors

Of course, a range of ideologies shaped and informed these social movements: liberal, socialist, religious and others. However, an analysis of the history and culture of the region offers a more nuanced understanding of what motivated the Arab Spring movement. If we look at the discourse of the actors and creation of social networks that came from it, together with the role of Islam historically in the region and the social and political structures that emerged as a result, it is clear that Islam in particular offered an important ideological impetus.

In order for protests to occur and be sustained, collective action requires that the number of activists increase rapidly. Such growth in participation cannot occur without a strong motivation of a critical mass to sustain their activity, regardless of the costs involved to them and their family. An examination of the discourses and language used by its actors during the Arab Spring reveals the role that Islamic discourse played in inspiring, motivating, and sustaining activists. Through reinterpretations of the Quran, Islamic leaders in mosques and Islamic organisations and charities mobilised resources and networks that combined ideological commitment with human and social capital (Hoffman and Jamal 2013). Bridging divisions of class, Islamic groups and leaders would connect professional and middle classes with lower class citizens as volunteers and activists (Ardiç 2012). Gathering people together in prayer during demonstrations, mosques were also used to spread the message of reform through sermons, ushering in new supporters and encouraging them to continue their involvement in the opposition movements, reinforcing and affirming their ideological commitment (see for example, Rock (2011) on the influence of Qaradawi, a Sunni scholar, on his return to Egypt).

The important role of individual faith and religious allegiance in determining higher levels of protest has also been evidenced and cannot be overlooked when examining collective action (Hessler 2011). In Tunisia and Egypt, protestors frequently chanted “God is Great”, referencing numerous Quranic verses and Islamic rhetoric to motivate and urge ordinary people to become ‘martyrs’. Dying for one’s faith and the accompanying rise of martyrdom became a key strategy of the movement. In Libya, for instance, inciting action by and for mujahids (those who ‘struggle’ for the cause of Islam) had a significant influence in inspiring the masses to join the movement. Collective prayers during demonstrations, particularly on Fridays, were used not only to incite and motivate new recruits (as mentioned) but also served as a method of ensuring that the faith and psychology of the activists remained strong.

Mosques not only served as sites from which protestors received their motivation, they also functioned as centres for protesters to prepare for demonstrations (Hessler 2011). Without mosques, political mobilisation during the Arab Spring would have been impossible. Beyond this ‘mosque to square’ narrative, ideological support for activists in the Arab Spring also lay in Islamic concepts and motives that had shaped the political landscape of the region for centuries. Islamic conceptual frameworks lay the ground work for groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan) in Egypt and the al-Nahda in Tunisia, both of which Islamic political groups played key roles in the protests from their beginning. This is despite the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood had been suppressed prior to the protests. Both groups took centre stage as the demonstrations grew, providing key support in terms of ideological and logistical resources (Rosefsky Wickham 2011; Hessler 2011; Abu Toameh 2011).

Further, a reading of the Quran inspired individuals to take positions on economic and social deprivation in a particular way (Hoffman and Jamal 2013). Inequities in Islamic traditions are not perceived through an individualist lens – they are always linked in relation to others. The circumstances surrounding the young Tunisian setting himself on fire was a protest against injustice of this kind. Attempting to sell produce on the street, he was approached by police offers accusing him of not having a permit and when he went to the governor’s office to file a complaint, he was ignored. In response, he set himself on fire and shouted, “How do you expect me to make a living?”. When Tunisians united in response to the event with protests, their outcry was in response to the injustices that the young man and others had faced, not only for themselves and their individual experiences. This position was informed by their understanding of their religion’s position on justice. A move towards democracy did not imply a move away from religion. The tendency to equate democratisation with secularisation, often by western observers, has all too often simplified the cause of events and is misleading. For many protestors, it was hoped that their actions would not do away with religion and religious rule but offer a move towards a coming together of Sharia law and democracy.

Sources of ideology, such as Islam, are political but not always highly politicised (as for example, Islamism). Scholars would do well to rethink classical assumptions about religion and democracy in further analyses of the Arab Spring in order to achieve a more nuanced understanding of change and human motivation.

The Arab Spring was caused by a multitude of factors (economic, political, social, cultural and religious), but its origins also lay in belief. Not a singular belief, but a collective, multifaceted belief that liberation is not only needed, but also possible. Recognising that religion played a role in the Arab Spring acknowledges that individuals are motivated to act from core beliefs of justice and equity, which in this case was largely informed by their Islamic faith, and are supported by their religious networks and political and social structures surrounding them. The young Tunisian who lit the first flame did so from such a core belief and the flames of his action continue to burn across the region.

Further reading and references:

Abu Toameh, K. (2011) “From an Arab Spring to an Islamist Winter: Demonstrators Dispatched by Mosques”.

al-Rasheed, M. (2011) “Sectarianism as Counter-Revolution: Saudi Responses to the Arab Spring”, Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism 11(3): 513-526.

Ardiç, N. (2012) “Understanding the ‘Arab Spring’: Justice, Dignity, Religion and International Politics”, Afro Eurasian Studies 1(1): 8-52.

Benhabib, S. (2011) “The Arab Spring: Religion, Revolution, and the Public Sphere”, Public Sphere Forum.

Filali-Ansary, A. (2012) “The Languages of the Arab Revolutions”, Journal of Democracy 23(2): 5-18.

Hessler, P. (2011) “The Mosque in the Square”, The New Yorker 19 December 2011.

Hoffman, M. and Jamal, A. (2013) “Religion in the Arab Spring: Between Two Competing Narrative”,

Kuran, T. (1995) Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 

Noueihed, L. and Warren, A. (2012) The Battle for the Arab Spring: Revolution, Counter-Revolution, and the Making of a New Era. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Rock, A. (2011) “Qaradawi’s Return and Islamic Leadership in Egypt”, Eurasia Review 20 March 2011.

Rosefsky, W.C. (2002) Mobilising Islam: Religion, Activism and Political Change in Egypt. New York: Colombia University Press.

[1] There are exceptions, of course, including the Islamic Republic of Iran and the presence of a number of ethnic minorities in the region, such as Kurds.

[2] Here, I refer to the majority Islamic presence in the region. This is not to dismiss religious plurality in the MENA region beyond Shiite and Sunni divides. The presence and experience of numerous religious minorities, including Jews, Baha’is and Christians, among others, offer valuable insights into the political and social structures of the region but lay beyond the scope of this piece to explore.

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