The secular wave
Since the Middle East was my area of academic specialization, I've naturally followed the wave of protest and rebellion sweeping the region with intense interest. The most startling feature of it, to me, has been the near-absence of Islamist slogans and ideology.
This is a region in which, historically, religion has dominated life and society to a degree almost unimaginable in the modern West. In decades past, Islamism was especially visible and influential in episodes of resistance and rebellion against the dictatorial regimes in the various countries. There was a good practical reason for this: while dictators could and did crush political opposition with all the standard tools of police-state repression, they seldom dared attack Islamic institutions in the same way. Thus Islamists were often the only well-organized opposition force left standing to take advantage of any opportunities which arose. The mullahs' seizure of power in Iran in 1979, and the Islamist victory in Algeria's 1991 election (subsequently abrogated by the military, which triggered a civil war) are examples. In Egypt, too, much attention has recently been focused on the Muslim Brotherhood, which has stood for decades as the country's most prominent opposition force.
There has long been a strain of conventional wisdom holding that democracy in the Middle East was dangerous because Islamist parties would inevitably win, exploiting the religious fervor of the uneducated masses. Better to leave rulers like Mubarak in charge than to risk state after state falling to people like the Taliban or the Iranian theocrats.
Yet no human society is totally immune to change, and there is reason to think that Islam's grip on the minds of its adherents is much more fragile than it appears to be. Islam cannot change, but Muslims can. Education and exposure to foreign culture and ideas tend to broaden the minds of human beings in general, Muslims included. Islam is far less amenable to "interpretation" to become compatible with modernity than Christianity is, and inevitably some people react to the contradictions by fleeing back into the old certainties of pure Islam (al-Qâ'idah being the best known example, but far from the only one), but others do not. The human mind has a great capacity to ignore dissonance between what it wants and what it has been taught it must believe.
Consider the response of Egyptian Muslims to the jihadist terror attack on a Christian church in Alexandria on New Year's Eve. Thousands went to churches for the Coptic Christmas services a few days later, to act as human shields -- a genuinely dangerous undertaking, since jihadists have seldom hesitated to kill Muslims they viewed as soft on infidels. Millions changed their Facebook profiles to show solidarity. It was a victory of common humanity over traditional religious intolerance.
During the uprising against Mubarak, demonstrators waved the Egyptian national flag with great enthusiasm, but in all the media coverage, I saw no sign of Islamist slogans or of ranting against Israel. It may well have been there, but if so, it wasn't prominent. According to a poll of Egyptians, only 15% approve of the Muslim brotherhood and barely 1% would vote for a Brotherhood candi- date for President; there's little interest in Sharî'ah law.
When exiled Tunisian Islamist Rached Ghannouchi returned home after his country's revolution, reaction on the streets was guarded, even critical -- and Ghannouchi himself clearly feels the need to position himself as a moderate, recently saying that Sharî'ah "has no place in Tunisia".
In yesterday's demonstrations in Algeria, many of the protesters were women -- and so were quite a few of the police.
Clearly these are no longer rigidly-Islamic societies. They surely self-identify as Muslim, but modernity has made inroads. Internet access, and perhaps the influence of increasingly-secularized Muslim minorities in Europe, make it impossible to keep out the seductive influence of new ideas.
One shouldn't set expectations too high. Few people in the Middle East are ready to accept atheism or even, perhaps, explicit secula- rism. Countries differ radically in level of cultural development; places like Yemen and Afghanistan are probably the equivalent of millennia behind Egypt, Tunisia, or Algeria. The continued preva- lence of atrocities like honor killings and clitorectomy testifies to a strain of barbarism which is far from eradicated.
But the secular character of the present wave of rebellion suggests that the situation is far more promising than would have seemed possible even ten years ago. If democracy and an open society can take root in the region's most populous country, perhaps it will get better still.