Opinion: The Arab Spring – a liberal paradox?

What should a liberal make of the Arab Spring as it becomes a bloody winter? The recent wave of violent protest at a mindlessly Islamophobic YouTube video is not an isolated incident. In Tunisia in June, hardline Salafists attacked an art gallery and a trade union office. Since Egypt’s revolution there have been regular attacks on Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority. An Islamist-dominated panel reviewing Egypt’s constitution is likely to water down women’s rights, making child marriage easier and withdrawing from international conventions protecting women and children(£). Husni Mubarak, Egypt’s former President, must be wailing “I told you so” from his prison cell. The new Arab world gives us is a classic liberal dilemma: the population has more liberty, including the liberty to limit freedom of expression and the rights of minorities. But the alternative appears to be the Syrian government’s widespread massacres of civilians.

At the heart of this paradox is Egypt’s new Islamist President, Mohammed Mursi, the first democratically elected ruler of the Arab world’s most populous nation. At a summit in Tehran in August he said it was an “ethical duty” to support the Syrian people against the “oppressive regime” in Damascus. But, during the crisis over the anti-Islam film, Mursi appeared to encourage the protests and demanded that the US prosecute the film-makers. At his speech to the UN, Mursi, with other Muslim leaders, argued that freedom of expression was being used as an excuse for Islamophobia.

So, is the Arab Spring ultimately a step backwards for liberalism? As ever, it’s not that simple. We should not forget that freedom of expression has always been a scarce commodity in the Arab world and any perceived attack on Islam has generated enormous unrest. In 2006 after a Danish newspaper printed cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Syria were burned by an angry mob. Western governments accused the (secular, autocratic) Assad regime of failing to protect these diplomatic premises, just as they have with Egypt’s (Islamist, democratic) government in recent weeks. The Arab spring reminds us that more democracy is not a straight line to a society that looks more like our own. Thanks to Saudi petrodollars, Salafists are the fastest growing group in the Muslim world, growing their forces in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Syria. With its puritanical focus on one interpretation of Islam and hostility to other faiths and lifestyles, the rise of Salafism is bad news for liberals everywhere. But the rise of democracy must still be cause for celebration.

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20 Comments

  • >What should a liberal make of the Arab Spring as it becomes a bloody winter?

    That it was all entirely predictable.

    That the idea that a revolution is sure to be followed by a nice,’just add water instant’ everyone happy, UK-style democracy with fair play for everyone flies in the face of global history over many centuries.

    That democracy and equal rights etc only work by universal, or near universal consent. And if there is no corruption. And if the police are independent and enforcing the law, not enforcing politics. And if the elected government is running the country, rather than mobs and militias.

    And that dishing out ballot papers may look like democracy, but is often just a fig leaf for corrupt politicians to claim legitimacy.

    And that if you give people the vote, you can’t complain if they don’t elect the leaders you wanted them to choose.

    And that quite frankly, there is not a lot we can do about it. And beyond peacekeeping if possible – stopping two sides slaughtering each other – it’s not really our business to tell other countries how to run their affairs.

    Because it they tried to force us to change our culture etc to theirs, we wouldn’t like it.

  • Richard Dean 4th Oct '12 - 2:14am

    Is there evidence that ” freedom of expression has always been a scarce commodity in the Arab world “? That world has been much affected over the last hundred years by Western needs for oil and gas, and so for governments with characteristics of stability rather than freedom. Arab history before that contains many interesting things that we don’t hear about much (http://www.amazon.com/dp/0679640401/?tag=libdemvoice-21).

    My impression is that Islam failed to educate more than a tiny fraction of the population, who become or serve the despotic rulers, and give rise to the relatively rich Liberals that the western press interview. Some of those might not be so liberal without their wealth.

    Our best strategy could be to support moderate Islam in its attempt to modernize and educate all of the populations. The internet may help a lot. Of course things will be tough, but nothing will be achieved by imposition – Arab peoples need to make their own choices, and develop their own collections and types of institution. They won’t necessarily be copies of Western ones.

  • Charles Beaumont 4th Oct '12 - 4:24am

    @Richard – you’re right that “nothing will be achieved by imposition”. But there is masses of evidence that freedom of expression hasn’t been widespread in the Arab world – whether it’s in recent years (look at things like Freedom House) or, if you want to go back in time, look at the “mihna” – the original inquisition, long before the Spanish one, which existed to stamp on politically awkward interpretations of Islam. The so-called flowering of Arab culture in Abbasid Baghdad was still a centrally-controlled phenomenon. Obviously, that dates from a time when freedom of expression didn’t exist anywhere, when a medieval ruler could execute you for saying the wrong thing. But today, people are still being executed for “sorcery” in Saudi Arabia….

  • I’m always surprised LibDems haven’t been louder in hailing our pro-European stance as the basis for regional integration in other parts of the world, such as the eastern Mediterranean area.

    Europe has brought down the physical and mental barriers which existed for centuries between long-standing enemies, advancing peace and prosperity to the benefit of hundreds of millions of people aross the continent – since this is something we believe in then we should be explaining how the same liberal principles can work successfully to foster respect and understanding anywhere in the world.

    Clegg’s announcement this week that Turkey ought to join the EU provides a perfect opportunity to underscore the case for greater regional responsibility.

  • Richard Church 4th Oct '12 - 9:15am

    ” it’s not really our business to tell other countries how to run their affairs.”
    Yes it is, We have a Liberal duty to resist oppression and protect human rights everywhere. We told Libya, Serbia and Iraq how to run their affairs, in the former two with the sanction of the UN and the latter without it. Getting involved in countries with a degree of democracy is clearly more problematic, but there are many means of getting involved other thasn by force. sanctions, boycotts, diplomatic pressure are all about seeking to influence the way a country conducts its internal affairs and all are perfectly justified under the right circumstances.

  • Richard Church 4th Oct '12 - 9:24am

    As an addendum to the above, and for clarification, our invasion of Iraq was not justified, not simply because it was illegal under international law, but it’s objectives were never to defend human rights of Iraqi people. It was about mythical weapons of mass destruction.

  • Mark Smulian 4th Oct '12 - 12:59pm

    It is not helpful to regard ‘the Arab world’ as a monolith.
    I attended two Liberal International congresses in Arab countries, both held before the Arab spring. That might sound odd, but in Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt there were authorised liberal opposition parties even then.
    There were clearly prescribed limits to their freedom of action, never mind ability to win any election, but their existence (and that of other permitted opposition parties of various kinds) at least meant there was some sort of pluralist political culture already present in those countries.
    Morocco has perhaps advanced furthest and representatives of its liberal parties who were present in Brighton said they expected to soon enter government.
    This makes these countries quite different from, say, Libya and Syria, where there was no permitted opposition space at all.
    It’s also noteworthy that LI has been active in the Middle East, for example by supporting the successors to the ‘old’ opposition parties, and through the publication in 2009 of notable liberal texts in an Arabic translation.

  • Charles Beaumont 4th Oct '12 - 1:32pm

    @Mark: completely agree that Arab world is very complex and varied but a 400-word blog post doesn’t give you much space to get into details. But I think in general the kinds of parties that have been part of LI have taken a knock since the Arab Spring as Islamists and Salafists have come to the fore. In Egypt the long-established liberal activist Ayman Nour withdrew his party from the Islamist-dominated ruling coalition in protest at the illiberal approach being taken on the constitution. Morocco and Tunisia are probably the countries with the strongest middle class, likely to embrace more liberal politics. But the rise of Salafism is right across the Arab world, even in secular-minded Tunisia; that is worrying for any liberal.

  • What a “liberal” should do is first of all admire the democracy at work.Tyrants can’t control the people any longer a lesson Western tyrants learned some time ago (switching to public relations instead of bashing in ppls skulls) and that revolutions are always bloody and messy but this is to be preferred over authoritarian dictatorships.Think of how long it took the USA to reach the level of civil liberties it enjoys today? When the American revolutionaries established the USA half the population was excluded and bound in serfdom (woman) it took until the 1960’s for them to achieve a measure of equality.Same with minorities and people of color.It is so to say a work in progress.Even today many progressive goals remain to be achieved.One of which is to strenghten democracy in the USA and break the concentration of power of private capital and corporations and make them serve the public interest.We must respect the power of the Arab people to make their own popular choices and if so make mistakes and learn from them.Support for basic democratic institutions should be given if requested.Ending arm supplies to the military is also important until such a time as it is under civilian control.

  • Richard Church:
    You are correct “It [Iraq], was about mythical weapons of mass destruction.”
    And it would be fair to say that we continue with our mythical ‘threat creations’ to this very day to justify first strike violence.
    As an extra sub text, have you noticed that the middle east countries that in recent years, the west, turned into a pile of smouldering ashes, were the same ones whose once ‘accepted’ dictators, had the sheer audacity to attempt to sell their oil in something other than US dollars?
    Paradox? Coincidence? You decide.

  • Matthew Huntbach 4th Oct '12 - 3:21pm

    Richard Dean

    Our best strategy could be to support moderate Islam in its attempt to modernize and educate all of the populations.

    The problem here is that “moderate Islam” sounds (to Muslims) like “Islam you don’t take very seriously”. So what you are saying sounds to those you are aiming it at as “Water down your religion, until it becomes a once-a-week practice for retired people who have nothing better to do”. Maybe you would like it to go that way, as Christianity has gone in western Europe, however, trying to push it that way is probably going to wind up the person who thinks he or she is a good devout Muslim into the opposite.

    If you wish to change someone’s mind, you have to start form where they are. So what is actually needed is to point out how the version of Islam pushed by the Salafists isn’t particularly true to the Quran or to the way Mohammed lived. Mohamed as presented in the Quran and the traditions is an interesting figure, starting off as a gofer for an older businesswoman whom he marries – so straightaway you can see, not in accord with the “women should stay secluded in their home” image put across by those who claim to be the most serious Muslims now. Unlike Jesus as presented in the Gospels, Mohamed is very human – he even has a sex life. Funnily enough, all those revelations about having more than one wife and women being submissive came to him only after Mrs Boss died … The Quran is not presented in time order, so it hides the fact that liberal stuff came when he was younger, and the illiberal stuff came when he was older. OK, now this sort of analysis won’t work for those who insist the Quran is one undifferentiated lump dictated word for word for the whole of humanity, but there’s enough to pick and choose, for example one can quite clearly show Mohamed did not take the attitude that anyone who insulted him should be killed, those suggesting this now are simply not acting as their Prophet did.

    Those of us who are not Muslims can’t push this, but it requires a bit more guts from those who are to challenge the Salafists. What Islam needs now is its Francis de Sales (counter reformation figure who pushed back Calvinism with the bright idea that being nice to people might be a better way of converting them than burning them at the stake).

  • Richard Dean 4th Oct '12 - 3:41pm

    No, Matthew, I am not saying “Islam you don’t take very seriously” , and moderate Islam doesn’t sound anything like that. It is you who are saying these things, not me.

  • Charles Beaumont 4th Oct '12 - 4:45pm

    Matthew, your Quranic exegesis would be rejected by almost every practising Muslim in the world. It’s not that I think you’re wrong (and I’m not a Muslim so what I think doesn’t matter) but the idea of questioning the Quran in the way that many Christians choose to question the Bible would be very controversial among all but a tiny minority of Muslims.

  • Matthew Huntbach 4th Oct '12 - 11:50pm

    Charles Beaumont – you’ve missed my point. Yes, I’m not a Muslim, so I don’t hold to the Muslim account of the origin of the Quran, so I do see it as consciously manufactured by Mohamed – parts of it very obviously so. However, I appreciate that one would be on a losing path trying to suggest to any practising Muslim that they should see it that way.

    My point, however, is that one can take the orthodox “this is the word of God” approach to the Quran, and an orthodox use of the Hadith, and come up with something very different from the Salafists. Even amongst the Salafists, there are plenty of scholars who reject the sort of violence that has now become associated with Islam.

    So, what I was saying was that by using the phrase “moderate Muslim” for any Muslim who is not a violent Salafist we are in fact doing the violent Salafists a great favour, because we are using words which can be interpreted as agreeing with them that they are the Muslims most devoted to their religion.

  • Matthew Huntbach 4th Oct '12 - 11:57pm

    Richard Dean – you’ve missed my point. I’m not saying you meant it that way, my point is that we may not realise how a well-meant call for “moderation” in Islam can get interpreted in this way, and in fact it seems to me that this is what is happening in the Muslim world. It has got stuck in a rut where a small group has managed to exert a domination by outrageous acts, and then playing up to the idea that calls for “moderation” mean they are the best Muslims because they refuse to be “moderate”.

  • Yellow Bill 5th Oct '12 - 12:03am

    The actions of extremists have no more base in the Arab Spring than Mountbattons death was to be found in the reaction of the Irish Civil Rights marches.

    Extremism – and especially violent extremism – will exploit any unrest to their own ends. I do wish politicians and press could understand this, and if they do then express the fact more often.

  • re: Roland 4th Oct ’12 – 1:39pm

    And there was I thinking I was the only ‘Roland’ posting here!

  • As Charles rightly points out:
    “But the rise of democracy must still be cause for celebration.”
    Indeed it is. Most voters in the UK did not want the war in Iraq, but it happened. Most voters did not want the Libyan conflict, but it went ahead. Most voters do not want the blitzkrieg that will happen shortly after the November 6th presidential elections, but it will occur.
    We rightly, welcome the embryonic democracy in the middle east, but as you can see, western democracy does not always speak to the people. But of course the Arab world is still new to this democracy thing. Ours is much more sophisticated. It is a truism is it not, that both the USA and the UK have the best democracy money can buy?

  • Charles Beaumont 5th Oct '12 - 4:10pm

    Matthew – you make an important point about language. I do not use the term “moderate Muslim” as it is unhelpful. I think “mainstream” is better – most Muslims are not Salafists. But you also wrote “there are plenty of scholars who reject the sort of violence that has now become associated with Islam”. That is quite right – and I would not associate violence with Islam in a simple relationship. However, an important point to note is that peaceful Salafists have very little ideological difference to the violent militants. They believe the same thing but choose to practice it differently.

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