The uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East are arguably the most significant occurrence of 2011. Spreading throughout the region like a wildfire, they have led to the ousting of decades-old dictators (Egypt, Tunisia), to widespread civil strife (Yemen) and repression (Syria), and to civil war and foreign intervention (Libya). But what does it all mean for the immediate and long-term future of the region?
The understanding of the present and anticipation of the future requires an appreciation of the past. The Muslim world for the last century has been in dire straits, and if one thing were to be selected as its standout feature, it would be its subjugation to Western colonialism. Post-WWI, Britain and France divided it up into numerous weak statelets, each graced with its own arbitrary borders, flag, proxy regime, and fair share of problems to keep it internally occupied for decades to come. In sum, the colonial project bequeathed the Muslim world a recipe for perpetual instability and chaos – a carefully crafted peace to end all peace.
Notwithstanding the comprehensive extent of economic, political, cultural and ideological imposition on the Muslim world, the motivation and vigour for resistance was always present. What was originally a primarily material (armed) resistance in the occupied lands eventually became a much more wide-ranging resistance, as it encompassed the intellectual and political fronts. Intellectually, the West failed to convince the Muslims of the superiority or efficacy of secular liberalism. Politically, any amount of support the regimes in the Muslim world had (such as popular support for Nasser in Egypt) withered away as the Muslims realised that all the regimes were mere agents of foreign powers.
Thus, we saw a more complete revivalist tendency take root across the Muslim world. By the 1970s, this Islamic revival was as clear as day, and in time became the subject of both intellectual and political attention in the West. In academia, much research was conducted on the phenomenon of ‘Islamic revivalism’. In political circles, Western leaders could see that with the demise of the Soviet Union, the next challenge would come, as Margaret Thatcher intimated, from ‘beyond the Mediterranean’. Charles Krauthammer warned in January 1990, in the Washington Post, of an “unnoticed but just as portentous global intifada…an uprising spanning the Islamic world.”
The late 1900s and early new millennium, then saw Western governments do all they could to face this ‘threat’. From reinforcing their support for dictators, to going to war to remove those who no longer curried favour, to establishing more military bases in Islamic lands, to increasing anti-Islamic propaganda globally so as to show Islam as a backward regressive force that was a threat to the progress of humanity. But they were fighting a losing battle, for let alone cheap propaganda, even standing armies are not enough to stop an idea whose time has come.