French scholar and expert on contemporary Islam, Jean-Pierre Filiu, has a new book due to be published called 'The Arab Revolution - Ten Lessons From The Democratic Uprising'. The book, has the title suggests, draws ten important conclusions from the recent upheavals in the MENA region. These being:
1) Arabs are no exception
2) Muslims are not only Muslims
3) Anger is power for the younger
4) Social networks work
5) Leaderless movements can win
6) The alternative to democracy is chaos
7) Islamists must choose
8) Jihadis could become obsolete
9) Palestine is still the mantra
10) No domino effect in the renaissance
Essentially Filiu attempts to use the Arab uprisings to challenge popular stereotypes about the people who inhabit the Arabic speaking world, stereotypes that have also guided policy towards the region in western capitals. In particular, and not surprisingly for a Frenchman, he is very critical of recent and historic US policy in the region. US policy, he argues, traditionally favoured stability over democratisation in the region. When the shift towards democratisation was made, under the Bush administration around the time of the Iraq war, it was too late because anti-American sentiment was already at an all-time high and prevented social activists from embracing US led democratisation efforts.
Filiu correctly points out the fact that, prior to the uprisings, Arabs were often singled out in political discussions for being exceptional, in that they collectively inhabited some of the most politically repressive, intellectually stagnant and socially backward societies on earth. Yet in spite of this predicament, they seemed unable or are reluctant to change their situation. But according to Filiu, Arabs are no exception, they have been "...fighting for their rights as citizens for more than a generation, but cultural prejudices and political bias prevented to grasp the extent of this disaffection". The Arab uprisings have certainly illustrated the point that Arabs thirst for freedom, democracy and accountable governance just as much as other people and they are ready to fight and die for these ideals. In short, the uprisings have smashed the myth of Arab exceptionalism. However, I think it is still too early to adopt a celebratory tone as Filiu does, since we have yet to see what these struggles will produce.
The post-911 environment, both socially and politically, produced many negative consequences for perceptions of 'other' peoples. In particular, Muslims around the world began to be discussed and viewed simply as Muslims. This, of course, was a boost for Islamists who had long argued that Muslims should form a single political bloc. However, this assumption was also a very dangerous one since it ignored many other factors that contribute towards shaping the identity of people who happen to be Muslim. It also prioritised the fight against Jihadism over urgent political and economic reform.
The Arab uprisings, thus far, have been largely devoid of religious slogans and it seems that religion, or ideology of any form, is not driving the mass popular protests. Indeed, the protestors seem to have bonded on the basis of nationality and their demands centre on employment, corruption, the pace of reform and other economic factors. According to Filiu, "The incorporation of Islamic components in a much larger revolutionary programme or discourse can also be the result of a process of individualisation of religion, which remains critical in terms of ethical mobilization, but has lost its holistic ambition". In other words, even when God or religion is cited by protestors it is an attempt to bring an ethical dimension to their efforts.
Overall Filiu's book is a very good read and could well be a real eye-opener for anyone who has relied entirely on western media reports or western government spokespersons for their understanding of the Arab world. The Arab uprisings have changed a great deal of things, including dealing a potentially dealing lethal blow to the Jihadist movement which had been seeking to present itself as the only effective agent for change. But there is still a long way to go and much more needs to be done. We in the west could contribute towards efforts in the region by correcting our own perceptions of Arab people and understanding what the uprisings actually represent. From that point on we will be in a much better position to gauge how we could constructively help those who are sacrificing their lives for what we take for granted.