The ‘Arab Spring’ and beyond

The aborting of the 2011 revolutionary waves of protests has given the Anglo-Americans another opportunity to install Islamists in the Arab world.

October 20, 2011 10:44 am | Updated December 04, 2021 10:58 pm IST

The Arab countries seem to be heading towards a scenario of struggle between fanatics and the more moderate sections of society. Here, a demonstration at the Tahrir Square in Cairo.

The Arab countries seem to be heading towards a scenario of struggle between fanatics and the more moderate sections of society. Here, a demonstration at the Tahrir Square in Cairo.

The Arab Spring is a misnomer used by the media to describe the uprising that the self-immolation of Mohammad Bouazizi unleashed in Tunisia on December 18, 2010 in protest against police corruption and ill-treatment — a spark that ignited into wildfire and spread to Algeria, Jordan, Egypt, Yemen and to other countries. In January, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, the fountainhead of Islamic fundamentalism.

But it was in Egypt that the computer-literate working class youth and their supporters among middle-class college students, created a veritable revolution, fanned by the whirlwind of many human rights activists, labour, trade unionists, students, professors, lawyers, and especially unemployed youth. A Facebook page set up to promote the demonstrations, attracted tens of thousands of followers. The government mobilised the riot police and resorted to infiltration to break the uprising, but the demonstrations by students and labour activists continued in Tahrir Square, until President Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign on February 11, 2011, after 18 days of massive protests, ending his 30-year presidency.

The euphoria that chants such as “the people and the Army are united” that had reverberated around Egypt’s squares created, was rudely snuffed out within a week by the Egyptian military Generals, who grabbed power from President Hosni Mubarak. They did not identify themselves as partners in the revolution, but claimed to be the sole bearer of its legitimacy. The haste with which they discarded the façade of secularism that Mubarak’s authoritarian regime was using against the Muslim Brotherhood, resulted in the largest demonstration on Friday, July 29, by thousands of Islamists since the uprising, calling for the imposition of strict Shariah law. Many demonstrators carried Saudi Arabian flags and placards that said: ‘Bin Laden is in Tahrir.’ As recently as 2009, the Brotherhood had called for a ban on women or Christians serving as Egypt’s President.

Tahrir Square, once the scene of wild celebrations, turned into a battlefield as the Army moved in to disperse the activists, beating them with clubs and electric rods, and even firing live ammunition. Hundreds have since been thrown in jail and 12,000 civilians have been tried in military tribunals — a number that is far more than was treated thus during Mubarak’s 30-year dictatorship. Widespread torture by beatings, electrocution, and even sexual assault by military personnel, has been reported. The police, in connivance with the authorities, have shot and killed Coptic Christians who protested against Islamists that had set fire to their churches. The Egyptian Coptic Patriarch, Chenouda III, was awarded the 2000 UNESCO Madanjeet Singh Prize for the Promotion of Tolerance and Non-Violence for encouraging interfaith dialogue.

The Islamic retrogression is a far cry from the colourful secular flowers that had blossomed during the Arab Spring with the establishment of the Baath Party in 1946. “Baath,” which means "resurrection" or "renaissance," was a movement that was founded in Damascus by two Syrian intellectuals: Michel Aflaq, a Greek Orthodox Christian (1910-1989), and Salah al-Bitar, a Sunni Muslim (1912-1980). In the early 1930s, Alfaq and Bitar had gone to study at the Sorbonne University in Paris and worked together to formulate a doctrine that combined aspects of Arab nationalism and socialism committed to Arab unity and the freedom of the Arab world from the clutches of Western colonialism.

On their return to Syria in the early 1940s, they became school teachers, and together with a significant number of Christian Arabs as founding members, they promoted Baathist ideology within a nationalist and secular political framework that rejected the faith-based orientation. These ideas of protecting the minority status of non-Muslims, found favour with the progressive leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement such as Nasser in Egypt, Nehru in India, Tito in Yugoslavia and Sukarno in Indonesia, since the secular ideology helped them to stabilise the ethnic and communal conflicts in their newly independent countries. They also supported the Baathist concept of socialism that differed from classical Marxism.

These were among the reasons for Baathism having grown rapidly, establishing a number of branches in different Arab countries. Baathism went on to form governments in Syria and Iraq, as well as in Egypt briefly when Syria merged with Egypt in 1958, to become the United Arab Republic. There could not have been better interlocutors than Aflaq, representing the Greek civilisation, and Bitar, personifying the Phoenician culture. They conceived their respective religions as a mere appendix attached to the Greek and Phoenician classical antiquity that spread across the Mediterranean region from 1550 BC to 300 BC.

This region, known as the ‘Fertile Crescent,’ comprising ancient Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Mesopotamia, was home to the earliest urban communities in the world, spanning some 5000 years of history. It was in ancient Iraq that the first literate societies developed in the late 4th millennium BC. They developed the first cities and complex state bureaucracies, using a highly sophisticated writing system. Their scholars compiled historical, juridical, economical, mathematical, astronomical, lexical, grammatical and epistolary treatises. They invented the first two-wheeled wooden carts and built roads, earlier than 3000 BC. It was this cradle of civilisation that the illegal Anglo-American invasion destroyed. The invaders installed bin Laden’s jihadists to promote their Islamic agenda.

Taha Hussein (1889-1973) was the senior mentor of Aflaq and Bitar. He was one of the most influential 20th century Egyptian writers and intellectuals, known as the pioneer of the Arab Renaissance and the modernist movement in the Arab world. An admirer of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, he was a nationalist, and his vision of Egyptian secular culture was embedded in what he called “Pharaonism.” He believed that “Egypt could only progress without reclaiming its ancient pre-Islamic roots.” He opposed Saudi Arabia’s Stone-Age Islamic culture of the desert that was alien to the rich Arab cultures of the Fertile Crescent.

Taha Hussein was prosecuted for his views and lived in exile for several years. It was not until the 1950s that he was rehabilitated, on the eve of Egypt becoming a republic, and appointed Minister of Knowledge (now the Ministry of Education). This gave him the opportunity to initiate a number of educational reforms, such as free education for children. Like Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, the first Education Minister of independent India, Taha Hussein left no stone unturned to make education secular. He transformed many of the Koranic schools into secular primary schools and secularised not only the Al-Azhar but also a number of scientific universities that he established. He upgraded several high schools to colleges, such as the Graduate School of Medicine, Agriculture and others.

Since the United States’ alliance with bin Laden’s Mujahideen destroyed the secular Democratic Republic of Afghanistan in 1989, and dismantled the secular Baath administrations in Iraq for the benefit of al-Qaeda jihadists, the abortion of the 2011 Arab Spring has given the Anglo-Americans another wonderful opportunity to install Islamists in the Arab world. These ferocious vultures are now hovering over Syria, the last bastion of Baathism, under the pretext of democracy, to tear apart the amity between its Muslim and Christian communities. But so far they have found no ruse to directly attack Syria, as President Bashar al-Assad could not be accused of “possessing weapons of mass destruction capable of destroying Western civilisations within 45 minutes.” So the Arab Spring has become the Trojan horse to supply arms and ammunition to the dissidents and escalate the conflict into an emergency to isolate Syria by imposing United Nations sanctions.

The computer-literate students and working class youths and their supporters among the middle class who had initiated the protests, are naturally baffled, as I was when India was partitioned by the British colonialists. The impact of the divide-and-rule policy was even more devastating on the subcontinent’s Sufi Islam as Pakistan’s military dictators uprooted it to cut the Gordian knot with Mother India’s secular and pluralist culture. The political scenario in the Arab countries seems to be heading towards one similar to the struggle now being waged in Pakistan between Muslim fanatics and the more moderate sections of society,

As with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Ennahda Party of the Islamist Rachid Ghannouchi is expected to win the elections in Tunisia next month and choose an Assembly to draft a new Constitution. His biographer Azzam Tamimi wrote: “The real struggle of the future will be about who is capable of fulfilling the desires of a devout Muslim. It’s going to be about who is Islamist and who is more Islamist, rather than about the secularists and the Islamists.” During a re¬cent debate with a secular critic, Ghannouchi asked: “If the Islamic spectrum goes from bin Laden to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which of them is Islam?” And he argued: “Why are we put in the same place as a model that is far from our thought, like the Taliban or the Saudi model, while there are other successful Islamic models that are close to us, like the Turkish, the Malaysian and the Indonesian models — models that combine Islam and mo¬dernity?”

Ghannouchi seems unaware of Prime Minister Erdogan’s antecedents. As Mayor of Istanbul in 1995, he declared that “the New Year’s Day is a Christian holiday and not a legitimate cause for celebration by Muslims,” and that “shaking hands with the opposite sex is prohibited by Islam.” In 1997, he identified Turkish society as having “two fundamentally different camps — the secularists who follow Kemal Atatürk’s reforms, and the Muslims who unite Islam with Shariah laws.” The secular lullaby he is singing to put his people to sleep and join the European Union, is symbolised by the Islamic hijab with which President Gul’s wife wraps her head.

Regarding Indonesia and Malaysia, Ghannouchi would have known better had he married an Indonesian Muslim — as I did in 1963 — and witnessed how the indigenous syncretistic cultures derived from the secular Buddhism and multicultural Hinduism are being systematically destroyed by the innumerable Wahabi mosques and fundamentalist madrasas that the Saudi petrodollars have built in these countries.

The omens are ominous as thousands of Islamists in Tunis have protested against the screening of a film they condemn as “un-Islamic and blasphemous.” And in Cairo, a student attending a Salafist protest meeting asked: “If democracy means majority, then why do they want to impose on us the views of the minorities — the liber¬als and the secularists — when we Islamists are the major¬ity? Salafis are the extremists that espouse violent jihad against civilians as a legitimate expression of Islam.”

The Arab Springers seem well on their way towards subscribing to the Sunni majoritarian culture and becoming another “epicentre of terrorism” like Pakistan, where even the moderate civilians are throwing rose petals on the assassin of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, who was assassinated for defending a Christian woman condemned to die for insulting Islam. The judge of the Anti-Terrorism Court who sentenced Mumtaz Qadri to death has gone into hiding after lawyers attacked his courtroom, and a spate of protests and death threats. Banner-carrying mobs in Lahore, Rawalpindi and other cities are “saluting Qadiri’s glory,” and some fundamentalist organisations have announced huge rewards for anyone who would kill the judge.

“Pakistan once had a violent, rabidly religious lunatic fringe. This fringe has morphed into a majority. The liberals are now the fringe. We are now a nation of butchers and primitive savages. Europe’s Dark Ages have descended upon us,” said Professor Pervez Hoodbhoy, at the Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad.

( Madanjeet Singh, founder of the South Asia Foundation, is a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. This article has been adapted from a chapter in his forthcoming book, Cultures and Vultures. A shortened version was published in The Hindu on October 19, 2011)

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