The main factors behind the revolts in the Arab world in the first months of 2011 are familiar - dictatorship, oppression, nepotism, social inequality, structural poverty and demographic changes. But these sociological indicators only reveal themselves in the context of a specific ideational and political reality.
If both elements are taken into account, the core of what is happening in western Asia and north Africa can be glimpsed: a truly historical evolution that finally links Islam to universal principles of freedom, democracy and social equality.
These great events are after all taking place in Muslim-majority societies, where massive demonstrations are held after Friday prayers, prayer-rugs are laid out in front of tanks, nationalist sentiments and slogans are permeated by Islamic symbols.
But what is striking about this moment is that this entire Islamic complex is now directed towards democracy and social equality. Islam is realising its latent social and cultural force, transforming itself into a “postmodern Islam” that is a radical departure from the deterministic, totalitarian “Islamism” of previous generations.
A war of imaginaries
The difference becomes visible by comparing the political thought of the founders of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt with that of the movement’s leaders today. The first generation of the Ikhwan, which was established by Hassan al-Banna in 1928, defined Islam as an all-encompassing ideology and instrument to realise explicit political aspirations - and approach that was shared by later figures such as Sayyid Qutb and (allowing for some doctrinal differences) Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers in Iran.
Modern “Islamism” was equipped with enough political vigour, revolutionary fervour and doctrinal content to fight on two fronts. The first was to battle with the authoritarian states that emerged after the demise of the Ottoman empire following the great war, and within the context of the imperial system enforced primarily by Britain and France. In the period of intense upheaval and political uncertainty that followed, the paternalistic post-colonial state in western Asia and northern Africa (and elsewhere in the global south) was born.
In this context of insecurity, the military emerged as the primary force in the making and preservation of state power. This had nothing to do (as some western Orientalists argued) with any particular Arab or Muslim propensity for a strong state. It was rather rooted in the historical circumstances of the end of the Ottoman system, and the emergence of nation-states with weak bureaucracies and minimal institutional support.
The Islamists who contested the new settlement understood themselves to be facing an adversary with two aspects: the militarised state itself, and the neo-imperial intrusions into domestic affairs that continued even after the formal retreat of the empire. The Islamists’ credo was Islam din wa dawla (Islam is religion and state), a version of the faith that encompassed both the conception of an independent, self-sufficient state and a comprehensive religious system that could satisfy the individual’s spiritual needs.
This imagined Islam - modelled on a modern version of the salaf, the pious compatriots of the Prophet Mohammed - was pitted against an equally imagined west, reduced to a materialistic, invasive and largely evil construct. Occidentalism versus Orientalism; a homogenous alien force counterposed to an elusive, longed-for homo islamicus; a minimalistic, dense and total “Islam’” seen against a similarly distorted, monolithic “west”.
This discourse was to win in Iran in 1979, a revolutionary event that (along with the struggle against Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s) helped open the great, politicised retrieval of history that followed.
A profound shift
Today, the context in which Islams reveal themselves is radically different. In the political arenas of Egypt, Iran, Tunisia and Bahrain, they do not function as revolutionary programmes. There is no Khomeini at their head; no Islamist manifesto driving people’s actions; no headquarters topped by a green flag coordinating things. Postmodern Islam is diffuse, networked, differentiated, multi-institutional and (in the sense that it is neither paternalistic, nor primarily feminist) “transsexual”.
Postmodern Islam floats freely on the world-wide-web, and links up with the universal move towards democracy, social equality and resistance to political tyranny. It has put a new face to the book, one that is far less angry and more empathetic to the demands of society and other political actors than was “Qutbian Islam”.
Postmodern Islam can afford the luxury of being democratic because it is formed in a context that is less fluid and insecure than was that of the early 20th century when “Islamism” was born. Islamism was raw, unmitigated and apostolic in its political prescriptions; by contrast, postmodern Islam matured within the nascent and latent civil societies in western Asia and north Africa, and is filtered through a pluralistic space permeated by many institutions.
The Ikhwan itself is in no way a vanguard movement of the kind envisaged by Sayyid Qutb. It is an amalgam of charitable organisations, social endowments and political factions: a pluralistic abstraction rather than a substantive, driven, totalitarian movement. There is no Qutbian vanguard that is specific and deterministic about the contours of the “Islamic state”. Rather, there is an “Avicennian” political philosophy that is pragmatic and cautious, indeterminate in its prescriptions and post-ideological in its political syntax.
In this emerging discourse, prescriptions such as “Islam is...” and “Islam must be...” are succeeded by formulations such as “Islam may add...” and “Islam could be...”. This is a profound shift, one that is discernible in many speeches of the leaders of the Ikhwan in Egypt and the al-Nahda (Renaissance) party in Tunisia as well as by proclamations and strategic papers of some of the reformists in Iran.
A historic moment
So this is a truly historic moment, one which at least promises to sweep away the last residues of Orientalism - and, as one component, the false notion that there is an inert Arab or Muslim personality prone to authoritarianism.
Until Tunisia erupted, the dominant narrative was that Muslim societies are beset by radicalism and that al-Qaida is a viable political force. Over the past decade, the fight against “Muslim radicalism” (or what Bernard Lewis infamously called “Muslim rage”) has seen huge resources allocated to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; to the regime-change strategy in Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza; and to huge military budgets and many national-security papers.
Now, a deep transformation is exposing the failures and follies of this approach. Islam’s own transformation is a key agent of this process of renewal. For the first time since the violent rupture of colonialism, the range of discourses signifying the meaning of Islam is geared towards universal aspirations for freedom and democracy.
Islamism is slowly dying, and with it the myth that a hybrid religion can be reduced to a monolithic political ideology. This moment signals the onset of postmodernity in the Arab and Islamic worlds: a radical, refreshing and emancipatory moment in human history.
Get our weekly email