By Nurhidayahti Mohammad Miharja
Last month, Dr. Tariq Ramadan’s most recent book, The Arab Awakening, provided the context for his talk that was co-hosted by MEI and MUIS (the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore) at the Shangri-La Hotel, which was filled to capacity.
While the downfall of authoritarian regimes in the course of the uprisings unleashed many positive sentiments, the uprisings have not resulted in as many new freedoms as is often described. “Cautiously optimistic” was thus Ramadan’s approach to the uprisings. He maintained that the terminology used—particularly “revolutions” and “Arab Spring”—have produced a narrow understanding of the events that is not consonant with the reality or the consequences.
Arab critics construed such caution as casting doubt on Arab capabilities. On the contrary, Ramadan asserted that he never implied that the Arabs were not able to “make it.” “That they were the only ones to make it or to make it the way it was described is what is problematic,” he said. It is known, for instance, that over the last five years international organizations such as CANVAS were disseminating a philosophy of nonviolent demonstrations using social networks and the Internet. He gave the example of the first international network of Middle Eastern and North African bloggers, located in Budapest, which was financed by Google.
While some have called such statements indicative of a conspiracy theory, Ramadan argued that it is only a strategic overview of the present state of affairs. He contended that there is a need for a more complex understanding of events because in history, “very often colonizing forces, the American or Russian administrations, were playing behind the scenes.” He did, however, acknowledge the presence of an intellectual revolution and a cultural shift whereby the Arab masses are now convinced that dictators can be removed through nonviolent protests. At the same time, it is important not to replace the hegemony of Western-supported dictators with the hegemony of Islamism. While the uprisings were initiated by the Arab masses whose unifying values were against autocratic rule, the revolts’ chief beneficiaries have been the better organized and funded Islamists.
Ramadan noted that discussions on the Arab uprisings have a tendency to overlook nuances in the economic realities on national, regional, and international platforms. The task is thus to acknowledge the place of new economic actors such as Brazil, India, Russia, and China without overlooking the resulting power struggle in the Middle East. He asserted that the economic shift toward the East before the uprisings made it impossible for Western countries to maintain their standing in the Middle East and North Africa, implying a Western interest in seeing the region transform in order to easily wield influence once again.
Ramadan then advanced four main recommendations to keep in mind when discussing the aftermath of the uprisings. Firstly, he advocated avoiding notions that polarize Islamism and secularism. Such a view, he said, often closes the door to a “deeper understanding of what could be the political project in terms of its institutions.” To the extent that the conception of a civil state with Islamic references from an ethical viewpoint is a legitimate alternative, laying out the specificities of such a project is key.
Secondly, he contended that no proper democratization can be pursued without clarity in regard to educational projects. Thirdly, he argued that an increase in Middle East economic interaction with the South and East presents the most persuasive strategy to open up new channels for rebalancing economic dependency and independence. Finally, resisting world culture or Westernization requires that the Arab world celebrates its culture and language, provided the masses do not confuse cultural modernity with Western hegemony.
Ramadan concluded that while it is incorrect to assume that “everything is controlled from abroad and nothing can be done by the people,” it is also necessary to take into account the multiple facets of the uprisings to understand the ways in which the uprisings were—and continue to be—affected by geostrategic economic and political interests.