2011: Islam redeemed, and by God, we came a long way



“You can crush the flowers, but that will not delay the Spring.” – Protest graffiti in a Cairo mosque

The year that is about to pass is historical for Islam for the reason that a much-derided faith has proved to be capable of being all that it was thought incapable of.

An awakening that swept the Arab world ended up re-inventing Islam in the eyes of the world. I consider myself lucky for being able to travel to some of the lands and meeting some of the people who were part of this.

The changes have been variously called “Arab Spring”, “Arab awakening” or “Arab Empowerment”. I prefer to call it Islam’s second renaissance.

For this to be the second renaissance, you may wonder, there ought to be a first one in the first place. Digression be excused, Ibn Rushd’s (Averroes for Europe) rescue of the Aristotelian texts (when Europe almost buried them) should be counted as one of the key features of the first Islamic renaissance.

The Arab spring was sparked in Tunisia in late 2010 by protests that followed the self-immolation of a young vendor harassed by police. His death in a hospital in January prompted thousands to take to the streets that forced the longtime president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, to flee to Saudi Arabia.

Bolstered by the success in Tunisia, protests soon bobbed up in other Arab lands. Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians rallied to the centre of Cairo, camping in Tahrir Square, to call for Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. Despite three decades of unbridled power, Mubarak could hold out for no more than three weeks of a popular uprising.

In June, Yemen’s president fled his country and eventually cobbled up a transition deal to end his 33-year rule. In Libya, an opposition movement that sprung up at Benghazi spread like wild fire, ultimately resulting in the killing of Muammar Gaddafi’s, captured by rebels in his hometown and promptly killed. He had ruled Libya since 1969.

In Syria, Bashar Assad’s regime is still brutally cracking down on rebels, resulting in, according to the UN, 5,000 deaths so far. In Bahrain, Saudi troops helped quell protests.

Morocco held a referendum and swiftly approved a constitutional reform, allowing more democracy.

In the birthplace of Arab Spring, Tunisia, An Hada, an Islamist party, came to power in post-uprising elections. In Morocco, the PJD, another Islamist party, emerged victorious. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is way ahead in the three-stage elections.

These victories have showed that the choice of newly democratised Arab masses is an Islamist one. Why? That’s because the Arabs have tried out the men in uniform. They have also tried out the men in dapper business suits.

Now they want to try out the men in the robes.

All the Islamist parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood, have demonstrated a strong will to reconcile Islam and modernity – a much delayed project. And most of them are in coalitions with secular allies.

The Brotherhood has promised a respect for gender and minority rights. In Morocco, which I visited twice this year, the ruling Islamist PJD’s chief told me that they would do nothing to alter Morocco’s remarkably open society, which still seems caught in the old French colonial frame.

The Arab Spring has in fact redefined Arabism itself, which was once marked by demagogic big rulers with thick black moustaches. The Arab Spring was inspired by genuine aspirations for equality, participation and individual dignity. The Islamists scored because they have always been articulating these concerns.

The churning in the Arab world has brought political Islam to the centrestage but it is a peaceful, democratic Islam that has chased away al Qaeda to the remotest corners of the desert. The Arab Spring is still work in progress, but there are no signs yet that it could go awry.

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