Reviewed by Faiza Mushtaq

A protester, wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, stands in front of Egyptian military police standing guard near the Ministry of Defense in the Abbassiya district of Cairo on April 30,2012  - Reuters

Public intellectual and Islamic philosopher Tariq Ramadan has written extensively about Muslims in contemporary Western societies, the troubled relationship between Islam and the West more generally, and how he believes it can be mended. His latest book, The Arab Awakening: Islam and the New Middle East, takes up similar themes against the backdrop of the Arab uprisings of 2011, asking how these Muslim majority countries can leverage this historic political opening to bring about comprehensive social and cultural change.

Ramadan begins the book by outlining his position of “cautious optimism” regarding the mass mobilisations against dictatorial regimes that shook many countries of the Middle East and North Africa. This interpretation of events lies between two extremes: a premature celebration of radical reform and renewal that has yet to unfold, and a cynical dismissal of popular protest movements as being manipulated and engineered by external forces. Ramadan takes pains to identify the role played by US and European governments and media, such as the selective coverage and diplomatic support granted to opposition movements in some Arab countries versus others, and how economic and geopolitical concerns dictated these choices rather than humanistic ones. He makes special mention of the training in pro-democracy, non-violent activism that young Arab bloggers and cyber-dissidents had received in certain Western countries in the decade leading up to the unrest. These enabling factors, he suggests, should not be seen as controlling the agenda and outcomes of the broad-based mobilisations.

Tunisia and Egypt are two cases that figure most prominently in this account, with occasional references to events in Libya, Syria, Bahrain, Morocco, Yemen and others. The author repeatedly urges a holistic understanding of the extraordinary developments unfolding across the region. Yet his analysis ultimately adds little that is new or especially insightful by way of sociological, economic or geopolitical explanation. The book becomes much more interesting in the second half as Ramadan moves to his core concerns: critique of the ideological narratives deployed by insiders and outsiders to frame events, outline of an intellectual project to guide the future course of action, and the special contribution that Islam can make.

Two salient characteristics of the Arab movements — they remained largely peaceful, and were joined by people of various ages, classes, and genders without being taken over by any one political party — rendered them especially palatable to Western observers. The dominant discourse portrayed the protestors’ demands for democracy, justice and freedom as an embrace of quintessentially Western values, leading to the conclusion that the Middle East is finally ready to democratise, modernise and become more like the West. Ramadan is quick to denounce such a reading of events as imperialistic and ahistorical, one that deliberately erases the Muslim identity of activists. He finds it even more problematic that protagonists within Muslim majority societies subscribe to this understanding of their own history.

Ramadan reserves the bulk of his criticism for the current condition of public discourse within the Arab world. It is marked by a polarisation between ‘secularists’ and ‘Islamists’ on the one hand, and between ‘us’ Muslims perceived as victims and ‘them’ in the West who are blamed for all our problems. Those who advocate secularisation as the solution for Middle Eastern societies oversimplify and are out of touch with real social issues, he shows, just as those espousing Islamist platforms have little to offer other than emotive appeals to tradition to enhance their own credibility. An instructive section of the book discusses why secularism has become a much-loathed and feared term across the Muslim world where processes of secularisation were experienced as repressive control and loss of freedoms, as opposed to the political democratisation and religious pluralism that defines the history of secularisation in Western societies. A similar discussion of political Islam situates it within the early-20th century context of nationalist, anti-colonial resistance where it first arose and traces the evolution of its many ideological currents across time and place.

Ramadan challenges Arabs and, more broadly, Muslims to abandon a counter-productive debate between outmoded conceptual categories and to overcome their intellectual colonisation. He calls for a sustained project of self-criticism and intellectual reconstruction, one that engages with indigenous histories, cultures and identities and promises to restore dignity. He sees lasting change resulting from the mass uprisings only if they don’t stop at the removal of oppressive political regimes and instead go on to launch a comprehensive programme of cultural, economic, social and political transformation.

This ambitious call for social and cultural renewal contains many standard elements from a reformist’s wish list: full rights and participation for women, revamped educational systems, democratic political processes, religious freedoms and pluralism, and an end to poverty, corruption and military interference. The emphasis on social justice also includes a strident critique of the global neo-liberal economic order and the control exerted by international financial institutions, multinational corporations and powerful states on countries of the global South. In fact, Ramadan identifies the shifting realignment of global powers — with the decline of Western economies and the increasing significance of China, Brazil, Russia, India and others — as another critical enabling factor in the toppling of Middle Eastern dictatorships. He sees this moment of multiple overlapping crises as an opportunity for Arab and other third world countries to press for more equitable economic relations, without really specifying how that will come about.

The distinctive part of Ramadan’s proposals concern the role that Islam is to play in the new Middle East that he envisions. The “Islamic reference,” as he calls it, is ever-present as oppositional mobilisations in Egypt and Tunisia have given way to elections, and the formation of new governments and new constitutions but these debates about the place of religion continue to engage in formal, procedural details and tinkering at the margins. He advocates a fundamental re-thinking whereby Islam becomes an ethical framework guiding political conduct and ensuring social justice, an alternative simultaneously more expansive and more limited than what we have been accustomed to. Instead of providing laws, rules and prohibitions, Islamic teachings are to serve as a source of spirituality and meaning. It is an elegant formulation but not easily translatable into actual practice. Unfortunately, Ramadan has developed this notion of Islam as applied ethics in his other works and it is only briefly showcased here (along with his other postulates, such as the distinction between the concepts of religion and culture).

What he does clearly reject is the concept of an “Islamic state,” insisting that a separation between divine and worldly authority has always been present in Islamic jurisprudential thought. He prefers the alternative “civil state” that some Islamist movements are now advocating, i.e. a democratic, secular state de-coupled from religious authority, the closest contemporary approximation of which is the Turkish model. Yet without a flourishing civil society and an active engagement with their Islamic heritage, he warns, Muslim societies will not experience real emancipation and peace.

In the midst of his cautious optimism about the future of the Muslim world, Ramadan downplays the potential threat of radical and militant Islam or the ongoing ‘war on terror’ that is warping relations with the West. He might be correct that the style and substance of the Arab uprisings signal an end to earlier confrontational paradigms, but that assertion still merits some more careful examination. Similarly, he assumes the continuing salience of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the new paradigm rather than demonstrating it. This slim volume was written even as the events it describes were still unfolding, and serves primarily to clarify the religious and political positions that the author has been a passionate proponent of. It is full of exhortations for its readers and frequently becomes repetitive and tendentious. The careful middle ground that Ramadan tries to chart might still, however, appear too bold or controversial to some within his Western or Muslim/Arab audiences who will no doubt find something here to be offended by.

The reviewer holds a PhD in Sociology and is affiliated with the Collective for Social Science Research, Karachi

The Arab Awakening: Islam and the New Middle East


By Tariq Ramadan

Allen Lane, UK

ISBN 184614650X