The West’s two big mistakes in the Arab world

By treating Islam as monolithic and insisting on secularisation Western powers miss opportunities to help democracy take root.
Jennifer S. Bryson | Apr 8 2013 | comment  

Arab Society in Revolt offers policy-oriented advice from scholars in a variety of fields to help European and North American countries discern a way forward through the upheaval the "Arab Spring" has brought to the Middle East. The essays in this volume are substantive and research-rich, covering demographics and migration, Islamic revival movements and their relations to democracy, roles of women, use of modern communication technologies and platforms, and economics.

Some of the authors try to explain what the Arab Spring is, and is not. Merlini and Roy, for example, reject comparison of the Arab Spring to Iran’s 1979 revolution. They observe that in 1979, "the rebels took over power, did not care about building coalitions, and . . . they tried to export the revolution" (p. 6). Now, by contrast, the initial protestors have often not been the ones to obtain power, anyone who is serious about doing anything is trying to build a coalition, and the primary focus of each population in revolt remains domestic reform. In addition, constitutions as well as increasing recognition of diversity within societies are the new norms, and Islamists seeking power, or at least influence, are focused on manoeuvring their way inside of, rather than abolishing, this new reality.

Roy examines some of the West’s key interpretive missteps. For one thing, Roy sees the West hindering itself from development of successful policies due to "[a]n entrenched prejudice in Western public opinion . . . that secularization in Muslim-majority societies must precede any process of democratization" (p. 47). Instead, asserts Roy, "the real issue is institutionalization of democracy, not the secularization of public space" (p. 52). In other words, Western powers are missing opportunities to help democracy set roots by distracting themselves with concern and even fear about public religiosity.

At the same time, Roy sees an opportunity for Western self-reflection to help inform policies. For one thing, he observes, the West is and has long been philosophically, politically, and religiously diverse, and the view of religious actors toward the state has been varied and has changed over time. Yet many Westerners act on an assumption of homogeneity, especially religious homogeneity, among Muslims in the Middle East. He suggests that if perhaps Europeans and North Americans were to consider how it would feel to have outsiders view them as a single culture and treat Western Christianity as a homogeneous block then they might begin to understand why Western policies assuming homogeneity among Arabs, especially among Arab Muslims, are misguided.

Roberto Aliboni maintains that the real choice the West faces is between moderate and conservative Islamist movements, and not supporting the former would be a mistake. The only alternative to these two he sees as "weak and confused Western-style liberals" (p. 204).

Jonathan Laurence and Roberto Aliboni, respectively, provide overviews of U.S. and E.U. policies and programs in the Middle East. These surveys may be helpful to policy makers on both sides of the Atlantic (including Canada, although generally omitted from this volume) so that they may understand each other’s policies and programs. Merlini sees opportunity "to devise a strategy that takes advantage of . . . the complementarity between American and European priorities or capabilities" (p. 251).

Regarding U.S. efforts, Laurence points out that the plethora of U.S. programs doesn’t entirely reflect a clear policy. Despite this situation he gives strong praise to the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) and its efforts to provide aid outside of government institutions to build civil society. As for European efforts, both Aliboni and Merlini warn in strong terms of the perils the Europeans will face if they continue to let their policies be shaped by poor information about and fear of what they perceive as Islam.

The one significant gap in this collection is how to approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The conflict gets passing mention in a few essays, but only in observations about how serious a problem this is, not in terms of potential ways to approach this. Laurence, for example, observes, "the continued resonance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict overshadowed even the most momentous attempts [by the U.S.] to reframe or reset relations" (pp. 155-156). In his concluding chapter Merlini notes that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a challenge for the West going forward. Yet none of the authors offer advice for the West on what, feasibly, can be done. Much has been written on this topic and tackling this in just a chapter would be difficult. Still, the absence of this topic is an elephant in the room for this book.

More positively, the advice these essays offer is not for governments alone. Businesses, NGOs, and private individuals seeking constructive ways to engage the Arab-Spring Middle East would also benefit from this volume. For example, Gonzalo Escribano and Alejandra Lorca examine the role of social and commercial entrepreneurship in the changes underway. Caroline Freund and Carlos A. Primo Barga provide an economic perspective on this, identifying problems which need to be tackled such as the need for rule of law, high unemployment and the excessive bureaucratization of business regulation. Also, Merlini notes that opportunities may likely open with private sector engagement and potential for some partnerships in emerging activism by wealthy Gulf countries.

Gary R. Bunt surveys the diverse, active engagement of Muslims in several online platforms and via mobile phones. Bunt notes shifts in key networking nodes and proliferation of sources of "authoritative" Islamic opinion. He observes that increase in peer-to-peer knowledge sharing "has become a challenge to traditional top-down authority models," including government control of religion, among Arab Muslims. (p. 79)

If readers have time for only one chapter of this book, I recommend the thoughtful, brief essay, "Islamic Revival and Democracy," (Chapter 2, pp. 47-52) by Olivier Roy. Roy sees the handling of issues such as apostasy and conversion as something akin to a lynch pin in the democratization process, with political and religious freedoms serving as mutual reinforcement, and each being a sine qua non to the other. At a time when U.S. foreign policy shows signs of marginalizing religious freedom promotion as a niche-interest, and Europeans show themselves often disinterested in religious freedom, it is particularly interesting to see Roy stress the strategic implications of religious freedom. He highlights the risk of acting as if religious communities were closed, monolithic units, thereby reducing religious liberty to protection of minorities.

By contrast, maintains Roy, if apostasy and conversion for Muslims and all others in these societies were to cease to be state-governed crimes, in other words "if freedom of religion is defined as an individual right," thus including freedom not to believe or convert, "and not a minority right, then there will be a correlation between religious and political freedom, the only way to reconcile citizenship and faith, democracy and religion." (p. 52)

Jennifer S. Bryson, Ph.D. is Visiting Research Professor in the Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, PA.

Copyright © Jennifer S. Bryson . Published by You may download and print extracts from this article for your own personal and non-commercial use only. Contact us if you wish to discuss republication.

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