NOTE: on 3 October I gave a public lecture on the above topic. Many of my blog readers do not live in Melbourne or Australia so, for their sake, I am providing a summary of the public lecture in three parts. This is Part 01.
It all began with a simple but tragic event. On 17 December 2010, Muhammad Bouzazizi, 26, a Tunisian street vegetable vendor and sole breadwinner to his widowed mother and 7 siblings, was smacked by a policewoman and his dead father cursed while being told he was illegally selling. He went to the provincial office to complain but they didn’t want to listen. So he returned to the scene, doused himself with petrol, and set himself alight.
Though he didn’t die immediately, Bouazizi’s immolation set in motion a chain of events that led to Tunisia’s ‘Jasmine Revolution.’ Within days, long-term president Zine el-Abidene Ben Ali, in power since 1987 was chased out of office and into exile in Saudi Arabia. Within a short time, the rumblings of revolution spread across the Arab world, from Morocco in the west to Iraq in the east. It is grass-roots, youth-driven, and internet-fueled. After decades of repression, they have broken the ‘fear-barrier’ and are pressing forth towards freedom.
The western media calls these spontaneous, region-wide uprisings ‘The Arab Spring.’ Yet the Arabic language press simply calls them ‘revolution.’
During the ‘Arab Spring of 2011,’ other Arab strongman have been shaken and toppled from power. These include:
• Hosni Mubarak, President of Egypt from 1981 to 2011;
• Muammar Gaddafi, supreme leader of Libya from 1969-2011
• Ali Abdullah Saleh, President of Yemen since 1978. As of this writing, he returned from convalescing in Saudi Arabia after being wounded in a bomb attack, seeks to bring elections, and plans to leave again.
Why are the Arab people, much suppressed by long-term autocrats and brutal police states, finally throwing off the dictator’s yoke? Several key reasons include unemployment, lack of opportunity, lack of freedom and human rights in an age of democracy. Rising food prices are guaranteed to cause civil unrest. Of the 350 million people in the Arab world, 100 million are between the ages of 15-29. At least of third of these are not working ... or have never worked ... and with all that time on their hands and a good grasp of social media and internet, you have a combustible cocktail for rebellion.
So what do these mostly youthful protestors want? Pretty much what we in the West already enjoy: democracy, justice, accountability, civil liberties, rule of law, and human rights.
Let us remember, however, that democracy is more than holding an election; after all, the Arab world has hosted elections for many years. Often, there is only 1 candidate -- the incumbent -- and to no one’s surprise he receives 99.9% of the vote. Democracy means regularly scheduled ‘fair and free elections,’ a free press, independent judiciary, separation of the executive, legislative, and judicial power, balance of power, and freedoms, including conscience, speech, and religion.
Yet there is a challenge when it comes to the Arab world and democracy. While the masses genuinely want democracy, they also want Islam and Sharia, the 7th century Muslim legal code. One thing the western world learned by hard experience is that ‘church and state’ (or, in the Middle East, ‘mosque and state’) must be separated. Neither is to dominate or control the other. When this separation is in place, then freedoms are guaranteed for all. Only a handful of Muslim-majority countries, like Indonesia, Malaysia, and Turkey, have a separation of ‘mosque and state.’ The Arab world does not appear to be heading in this direction. For this reason, should the new governments put Sharia instead of a secular civil code, then the first to suffer from the inevitable oppression will be women, Christians and other non-Muslims, and dissident Muslims. Again, let me stress that the ‘separation of church and state’ applies to all religions, not just one.
For all their many faults, the ousted autocrats knew how to keep ‘mosque and state’ separate, thus holding political Islam at bay. The western nations, while not approving of their dictatorial ways, did appreciate the stability that Mubarak, Ben Ali, and Saleh provided in this sensitive part of the world.
Now, with the autocrats gone, other forces are being unleashed that could make this a bumpy ride: tribalism, regionalism, and radical Islam. Sectarianism is also a grave threat, pitting Shia Muslim against Sunni Muslim and Muslim against Christian. We all need to remember that there is no guarantee that an emerging ‘Arab democracy’ is going to look like the western-version, or even be pro-west.
Next week, you will get an ‘Arab Spring Report Card.’
(The DVD of this 75 minute lecture, which is far more expansive than the blog and includes powerpoint, will be available early in November for $18 [Australia] or $25 [elsewhere]. You can safely order from the Teach All Nations website www.tan.org.au)