Prayers for 2012 and Reflections on 2011
by Stephen Schwartz
It is customary for columnists to conclude the common year with reflections on that which has just finished and predictions for that which is to come.
I make no pretensions to prophecy, aside from occasional analysis based on news reports. I am, however, a Muslim believer, and will therefore reverse the usual order of such discourses, beginning with what I and those with whom I cooperate in the Center for Islamic Pluralism (CIP) hope will come about, and dedicating the rest of this contribution to a look back at 2011.
First, let those of us who are Muslims pray and work for an end to violence, whether between Muslims, or inflicted by Muslims on non-Muslims and by non-Muslims on Muslims.
Let us pray and work for a positive victory over the dictatorship of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria.
Let us pray and work against the so-called "Boko Haram" cult that, claiming to act in the interest of Sunni Islam, has carried out brutal attacks on Christians in Nigeria.
Let us pray and work for social reform to prevail over Wahhabi reaction in Saudi Arabia.
Let us pray and work for global leaders to avoid the lure of a "new" Islamist ideology reigning over Turkey, Tunisia, Egypt, and other countries – of which, more below.
Let us pray and work for stability in Iraq, now that most U.S.-led troops have left, for Shia-Sunni conciliation and avoidance of conflict between Arabs and Kurds.
Let us pray and work for the fall of the Iranian clerical regime and conclusion to the bizarre and menacing antics of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, his clique, and his clerical rivals, who try to preserve their usurped supremacy by provocations and threats.
Let us pray and work for intelligent and fruitful dialogue between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East – although so little promise may be perceived on that horizon that prayer is practically the only means we have of seeking peace in the region.
Let us pray and act so that the military and political rulers in Pakistan will cease supporting the Taliban and other terrorist movements, and inaugurate tranquil and productive relations with their better past and future international partners: India, Afghanistan, the U.S., the former Soviet Central Asian states, and an Iran without fanatics at its head. Pakistan does not need Chinese meddling in its affairs.
Let us pray for repentance by the Pakistani jihadists for their crimes in Bangladesh 41 years ago.
Let us pray, work, and assist those fighting to defeat, rather than to appease, the Afghan Taliban, whose outrages against Islam and humanity have been many.
Let us pray fervently and work hard to prevent a new outbreak of war in the Muslim Balkans, especially on the northern Kosovar and Montenegrin borders with Serbia, as well as for the reunification of Bosnia-Hercegovina as a single state composed of three main nationalities, Muslim Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats, living harmoniously.
Let us pray and work equally for cessation of Chinese cultural degradation of the Muslim Uyghurs of East Turkestan, and termination of the global indifference to the atrocities that take place there.
Let us pray for the guidance of Almighty Allah in proving by our intentions, our teachings and our work that Islam is a religion of peace. It is not sufficient to declare it so; we must show it to be so, especially where inter-religious clashes are aggravated or endemic. Muslims should take the initiative as peacemakers, in honest and respectful dealings with adherents to other faiths.
May all believers in divine revelation find fulfillment in their personal, family, professional, and political endeavors. Let the sacred truths of Islam be interpreted according to the moderate standard of Imam At-Tahawi (9th-10th c. CE): "Certainty and despair both remove one from the religion, but the path of truth for the People of the Qibla lies between the two."
As to the year that has just ended, Muslims and partisans of democracy will have to decide, sooner rather than later, if 2011 – "the year of the Arab revolts," which began a month early, in Tunisia in December 2010 – was a year of progress or a "lost year" in the effort to reform Muslim societies. The judgment of history on the incidents of 2010-11 and, now, 2012, will depend much more on political acumen than on prayer, notwithstanding the desires for favor from Almighty Allah by the Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi and other Wahhabis, South Asian Deobandis, Iranian radicals, and similar extremists.
The rebellions that began as the "Arab Spring" overturned the dictatorships of Zine Al Abedine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and Mu'ammar Al-Qadhdhafi in Libya. Of the other lands most significantly affected, Yemen remains in torment with its autocratic president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, having announced on December 31 that he would stay in the country, in an attempt to maintain his power.
The latest attempt by the dictator to retain control does not require prophecy to suggest that it will exacerbate Yemen's crisis, which is bound to see more bloodshed and, unfortunately, expanded terrorism by Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) developed the transitional plan for Saleh's demotion. But Saudi-GCC intervention has been much less easy in Yemen than in Bahrain, which Saudi and GCC military and police forces occupied in March 2011. Yemen, like Bahrain, is divided between Sunnis and Shias – Ali Abdullah Saleh is a Zaydi Shia – yet its social composition is exceptionally complex, producing a war of "all against all" in which Shias, Sunnis, seculars, traditionalists, and radical Islamists are at odds, sometimes within their own communities.
Bahrain has a much better developed role as a mercantile (and most recently, a financial) center. Its monarchy is Sunni, while its protestors are mostly Shias – and the latter are targeted for manipulation by Iran. According to recent statistics, about 50 people have been killed during the events in Bahrain, while as many as 2,000 have died in Yemen's disorders during the past year.
Of the countries in which the "Arab Spring" has produced large-scale massacres, Syria has suffered the worst, once the demise of Al-Qadhdhafi ended fighting in Libya. The Libyan civil war and NATO air action resulted in about 30,000 dead, while the confrontation in Syria has so far taken at least 5,000 lives, since demonstrations against Al-Assad began in March 2011. "Humanitarian tourism" by monitors from the Arab League, sent to Syria, promises little relief to the slain, some of them children, at Al-Assad's hands.
In Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt, elections have been held in which more than a third of ballots were cast, in each contest, for parties affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). Morocco and Tunisia have formed governments led by MB parties, in the first instance the "Party of Justice and Development," and in the second, the "Ennahda" or "Renaissance" party. In addition, in Egypt, at least a quarter of votes were given to the so-called "Hizb Ul-Nur" or "Party of the Light," an ultra-fundamentalist organization adhering to Saudi Wahhabism, but presenting itself under the false title of "Salafism." By calling themselves "Salafis," Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, India, and everywhere else Muslims are found, try to attract ordinary believers into their fantasy of devotional purity during the first three Islamic generations of companions and successors to Muhammad, while also appropriating a title adopted by 19th century Muslim reformers.
In Libya, notwithstanding many predictions of an Islamist or even an Al-Qaida-aligned regime made by pessimists during the civil conflict and NATO intervention, a new political apparatus, with an identifiable orientation, has yet to be formed. Qatar, which encouraged and participated in military operations during the war, has been accused of interference in Libya's new political development.
And so it appears that the leap toward democracy in the Arab nations has reinforced the appeal of Islamist ideology, much as "demilitarization" of the Turkish secular government allowed command of the state by the "soft-Islamist" Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Was this phenomenon predictable? Yes. Was it inevitable? No.
Was 2011 a "lost year" for democratization of the Muslim lands? Without succumbing to the uncritical enthusiasm of Arab and Western mass media, which have idolized "the protestor" as the year's symbol, the answer may be that the current revolutions in the Arab world are necessary but limited steps toward progress.
Revolutions require more than street mobilizations and the removal of hated tyrants. Not unlike the riots in Athens in 2010-11, and in London in 2011, as well as the "Occupy" protests in major Western cities, the Arab uprisings erupted without leadership, a political perspective, or adequate civic education. Similarly, many local and foreign commentators on the Arab insurrections lacked a context in which to place them. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the vicious Syrian regime will collapse, and with the consolidation of MB and Wahhabi influence elsewhere, the Arab uprisings may be written off by the rest of the world as yet another failure of Muslims to attain social and political revival.
While it is common to believe that revolutions are driven by hopelessness, successful revolutions emerge from optimistic aspirations, rather than misery. Social change succeeds by the evolution of local business, professional, intellectual, labor, and religious groups such that they can overcome political domination by tyrants, corrupt families and coteries, military castes, and malformed bureaucracies.
It is said, and it is true, that the suicide of a desperate, overeducated but impoverished Tunisian produce-vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, in December 2010, began the "Arab Spring." But more important than Bouazizi's self-martyrdom, as emotionally affecting as it was, were the messages about his act sent around Tunisia by exponents of the country's rising middle class, employing social media. Tragically, neither the members of marginal economic groups, like Bouazizi, nor the possessors of Facebook accounts in Tunisia – who included Bouazizi himself – could improvise a political platform capable of challenging Rashid Ghannoushi and the Ennahda party effectively, with Ben Ali deposed.
In the classic social revolutions of the past, the bourgeois class and other historical actors gathered their ranks in political parties. The newspaper, the pamphlet, the handbill, the speech were means to inform and summon the people to choose among political competitors; they were not ends in themselves. In the Arab revolutions, activists send each other internet messages, appear in the street, fight, but then dissipate, leaving a void into which the rest of the populace is driven, and where it encounters the long-existing networks of the MB and, suddenly in Egypt, well-organized Wahhabis. The "Arab Spring" has provided an example of the "law of unintended consequences," rather than of radical resistance or conspiratorial collusion. Social networking has fostered a new variety of reification: the belief that messages sent on a small technical tool can replace the elaboration of a political program and organization of new, well-coordinated movements and parties. "Leaderless" revolts are an expression of collective narcissism; every political movement requires leaders, in the best case unquestionably accountable to their peers. There cannot and will not be a "revolution without politics."
The result of social networking and leaderless action as substitutes for political education is a simulacrum of revolution. Facebook politics is evanescent. In Libya, and then in Syria, the "weapons of revolutionary criticism" epitomized by social networking were quickly brushed aside by the "revolutionary criticism of weapons." Where absolutism is entrenched deeply, mass mobilization by mini-blogging will not win the day. Guns will speak, in a more decisive and fatal idiom than smartphone communications.
The year 2011 in the Muslim world will not have been lost if the primary lessons learned from it inculcate the need for a new process of apprenticeship, cultivation, preparation, and refinement in Muslim political thought. Muslims from North Africa through the Islamic lands to Indonesia, and in immigrant colonies elsewhere, need to begin at the beginning, with study of their own political history. Such a claim is made, from a retrograde position, by the MB and other Islamists – that Muslims need only study Qur'an, the politics of Medina, and the rest of the sunnah of Prophet Muhammad to find a usable political model. Much more important, however, is to begin examining and evaluating the diverse attitudes toward faith and law in the Muslim empires that emerged long after the life of Muhammad, the refounding of Medina, and the conflicts that produced the schism between Sunni and Shia Muslims.
In this regard, "Islamic pluralism" is not merely an intellectual ideal. Such an outlook must imply an assessment of how Muslim elites, following the Mongol subjugation of Baghdad in 1258, in the Ottoman realm, under the Persian Safavid monarchy, and in the Mughal dominions, governed in relation with clerics, religious judges, pious endowments, Sufi orders, and commercial and trade guilds. A program for "Islamic pluralism" may stress the role of these institutions as harbingers of civil society in the modern world, and, in some cases, as initiators and supporters of them. The Turkish AKP has partial origins in the entry of Naqshbandi Sufis – a mystical order with a tradition of political involvement – into Turkish electoral affairs in the 1960s. The other great Sufi phenomenon with an impact on Turkish politics has been the Nurcu movement, beginning during the country's early period of secularism but remarkably tenacious in its capacity for teaching its interpretation of Sufism.
Yet both the AKP and the Pakistani Barelvi sect, which is strongly bonded to the Qadiri and Naqshbandi Sufi orders, have strayed from their spiritual heritage to crude Islamist postures. If one were to limit one's purview to the role of Sufis in the Turkish AKP, or the vacillations of the Pakistani Barelvis, one might conclude that Sufis in politics can only corrupt their primordial inspiration and obstruct the path of Muslims. Maturity in governance requires state structures that protect universal rights for all citizens, including the religious liberty of believers in all faiths. One set of freedoms cannot be sacrificed in the name of the other.
Contrasting examples with the Turkish AKP and the Pakistani Barelvis are present among the Albanian Bektashi Sufis, the Alevi-Bektashi movement in Turkey, and the Indian Barelvis. As if in deliberate contrast with the AKP and the Pakistani Barelvis, the Albanian Bektashis, Turkish and Kurdish Alevi-Bektashis, and Indian Barelvis have cleaved to secular government as a barrier against the penetration of Wahhabi, Deobandi, and other fundamentalist ideologies into Muslim religious affairs. The Albanian Bektashis and Turkish-Kurdish Alevi-Bektashis advocate gender equality, excellence in public education, and unity between differing religious communities, while Indian Barelvis are, additionally, engaged currently in a consequential struggle to hinder radical infiltration of Indian Muslim communal institutions.
The first lesson of the Arab revolutions of 2010-2011 should have been derived from the popular resistance to fraud in the Iranian elections of 2009, embodied in the "Green Movement." That is, progress toward democracy in the Islamic lands requires separation of the state from religious institutions, and the creation of extensive frameworks for civil society. If that principle is widely understood in the aftermath of the "Arab Spring," 2011 will not be a "lost year," but may, like other, previous revolutionary "rehearsals," provide an experience rich in future possibilities, however the "revolution" may be perceived to have failed at present.