IN an essay for The New Statesman, French political scientist Olivier Roy offers an interesting perspective on the recent spate of revolutions erupting in the Middle East and North Africa.
The leaders of the revolution, Roy argues, are the ‘post-Islamist’ generation — young people who have little memory of the nationalist slogans of the 1970s and 1980s and who are more interested in pragmatic solutions than ideological rhetoric.
Based on Roy’s perspective, it can be argued that the secular versus Islamist divide, used by Europeans to understand the Middle East for the past 30 years, has been largely discredited. The young leaders of the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia and other parts of the Middle East are neither Islamist nor secular, inhabiting instead a middle ground and creating a new ‘post-Islamist’ identity.
The identification of the Arab world’s young as ‘post-Islamist’ is notable. Indeed, as Roy observes, both American and European political scientists have been obsessed with the simplistic binary urging their governments to align their foreign policy in support of the most virulent autocrats so long as the threat against Islamism, real or imagined, can be averted.
A slew of autocratic leaders and bumbling monarchs have benefited from the Islamist bogeyman, from Pakistan’s own Gen Pervez Musharraf to Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak to more recently Libya’s Muammar Qadhafi; the list is long and the sins many. The collapse or disorder in these regimes and the absence at least of an imminent Islamist takeover has thrown much of the neo-liberal and neo-conservative discourse into disarray.
But the emergence of youth-led movements in Egypt, Tunisia and other parts of the Middle East does not simply suggest the end of Islamism. Indeed, it is possible to argue with Roy’s representation by questioning the reality of an Islamist moment in Middle Eastern history in the first place.
What this recent spate of movements does suggest, however, is a move away not only from Islamism but also from the ideological preoccupation with post-colonialism. The diversity of the movements, their conscious and overt return to nationalism and their emphasis on concrete changes, the need for jobs, economic development and constitutional reform all point to the shift from an obsession with the excesses of foreign powers and a history of subjugation. The move is towards a relocation of the power to change within the people themselves.
The identification of this move is crucial for several reasons.
It is undeniable that Islamism and post-colonialism have been inextricably linked in these societies for many decades. If post-colonialism created an identity that was hinged on rejecting all that was western, Islamism conveniently added to it by promising that only Islam provided an authentic political identity.
Together they produced what has now been proven as the old model of revolution — the Iranian model where the establishment of a utopian society would magically rid the polity of all evils. The tragedy of colonialism, the divestment of dignity, it was imagined could only be lessened with the establishment of an Islamic state.
This was the premise of the revolution of old that took place over three decades ago in Iran, where, as philosopher Slavoj Zizek points out, the Left had to artificially insert itself in the midst of a drive for theocratic rule. Egypt and Tunisia have gone in a markedly different direction, a move towards constitutionalism and a denunciation of the simplistic Islam versus secularism binary that fails to capture the complexity of life in the contemporary Muslim world.
The result thus has been a rejection of both Islamism and its attendant post-colonialism. While sceptics may well point out that true democratic change in either country will take time, even the most stalwart cynic must grant that in both cases the retaking of human agency has marked a return to dignity and faith in self-initiated change. In taking back the streets of their countries the Arab public has broken out of the stagnation that leaves post-colonial populations obsessed with the sins of the past and unable to change the present.
While the Middle East continues to revel in the euphoria of having reclaimed the dignity that comes with working actively for change, Pakistan continues its march of pathos in the opposite direction. Unlike the youth of the Arab world, Pakistanis are still rapt in their infatuation with Islamism and quite happy to continue with the paralytic navel-gazing that happily blames the West at the cost of believing in one’s own ability to change circumstances.
The flogged-to-death issue of Raymond Davis provides a useful example, with the substantiation of the truth of American evil providing such gratification that further action on any of the many ills facing the country is considered conveniently unnecessary. In the illogicality of the post-colonial mindset, the fact that an evil has been committed by a foreign power is considered enough to make the defeat of local and possibly more pervasive evils superfluous.
Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian Google executive who led the youth movement in Cairo, would never have been successful in Pakistan where the taint of working for an American company would have immediately delegitimised him. The question in Pakistan would not be the celebration of the resourcefulness of a courageous young person and his use of all the skills available to him to catalyse a revolution, but the search for conspiracy that would extinguish the spirit of anyone wanting to go beyond pointing fingers.
The youth of the Middle East, similarly Muslim, similarly poor, are moving beyond the obsessive denunciation of the West, whose evils are familiar to all. Tragically, Pakistanis continue to be only spectators in this historic moment that could well mark the end of the post-colonial era. They continue, instead, to look at the world though a dated frame that fails to harness their own power to produce change.
The writer is a US-based attorney teaching constitutional history and political philosophy.