On democratic movements in the Islamic world.
At first glance, events that began in Tunisia have seemed to gather pace with an irrational intensity. The self-immolation suicide of a 26-year old street vendor after a final humiliation at the hands of corrupt police forces has brought governments across the Islamic world to their knees.
Only time will tell if the name Mohamed Bouazizi will be remembered in the West, but he is quickly becoming a figure of significance on par with George Washington, Maximilien Robespierre, Vladimir Lenin, Rosa Parks, Lech Walesa and Vaclev Havel for a civilization mired in colonisation, autocracy, extremism and poverty. For the first time in living memory a revolution in one Muslim country appears to have won enough hope and legitimacy to offer a genuine chance of a Reformation in the whole Muslim world.
The best guide to the goings-on in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Algeria, Iran and the rest is Sam Huntington’s post-Cold War book The Clash of Civilizations. He argues that the rubric for the world order is based not on nations but civilizations, which group nations of similar cultures, religions and societies.
He posits 8, including the West (Western Europe, North America, Australasia), Sinic (China, the Koreas, Vietnam), Orthodox (Russian, many ex-Eastern Bloc, the Balkans), and Islamic (the Middle East, North Africa). It was first written to explain the historical circles of conflict but is now being used to offer the clearest insight into the great Reformations of the past and, most recently, why Islamic civilization is finally headed for its own.
The difference between just a revolution and a Reformation is the scale. Revolutions happen to countries, Reformations happen to civilizations. The modern world has seen only a few great Reformations where wholesale political change has spread across groups of nations with convergent cultures.
The first was the Western world’s shift from monarchy to liberal democracy, triggered first in France and rapidly spreading across Europe and North America. The second was Orthodox and Sinic when communism swept away capitalist monarchies and democracies. The third was again Orthodox, when communism collapsed in a shuddering heap around the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Fourth will be Islamic, as evidenced by the common and deep roots it shares with the other three.
It is to state the obvious that in the Western, Orthodox, and Sinic Reformations the uprisings were for much the same reasons. Those in the 18th and 19th century West could no longer bear to see their people ruled by a family, especially when their answer to bread famines was to ‘let them eat cake’.Across each new protest in every Muslim country the complaints are remarkably similar; poverty, unemployment (particularly the young and newly educated), crippling food prices and aging dictators brutally clinging to power characterise these protests, as Muslim people mobilise, seeking a voice. Arabs, Africans, Persians and just about all other peoples in the region are finding strength and inspiration in the continuing momentum of each other’s protests because, at their core they are all part of the same civilization of people sharing in the same humiliation and suffering.
Similarly, the misplaced hope so many in the Orthodox world had in the promise of Marx and Lenin was that in a democracy they would have greater freedom and an end to famines. It was these dual needs that led to the razing of the old communist guard in repressed countries labouring under the spectre of poverty and autocracy. History shows that an entire span of culturally similar countries suffering the same sicknesses only need the spark of a single revolution before they will all fall like dominoes.
However it must not be underestimated what challenges lie ahead when revolution turns to Reformation. Despite the huge potential for progress, each of these turning points can also include some horrific relapse. The rise of emperors and the Napoleonic wars, the trials of the British Parliamentarians, the unfulfilled democratic promise of Leninism, and the election of another communist government in post-collapse Lithuania speak volumes for the power of human beings to return to repressive regimes.
The great threat is that the new power vacuums will be filled by despots rather than by democrats. The Islamic world seems especially vulnerable to this possibility because of a long history of military governance and as well as a relatively shorter history of Islamist extremism.
Already some threat exists from the caretaker military government in Egypt and the newfound power of the Muslim Brotherhood who may still be willing to derail the reform process. While both are probably more interested in a moderate democratic Egyptian state there will be armies and organisations in other Muslim countries who are a lot more interested in seizing power for themselves, particularly in Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The terrible eventuality may be that, despite the best intentions of this Islamic Reformation, a civil war erupts and envelops the country that spills over into an international conflict in the world’s most volatile region.
When you look at the deep changes to civilisations the world has undergone in the last few hundred years it is apparent that we are witnessing another such event in the Islamic world. Revolutions don’t spread across countries like wildfire unless there is a cultural link (in terms of both shared suffering and inspiration) between the people demanding change.
But if there is to be a Reformation in the Middle East, and heaven knows they need it, then the whole world must remain vigilant. A single revolution in a single country can create a failed state; a failed Reformation can start a continental war. Let’s all hope that freedom remains to be worth the risk.