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 stand-out feature, it would be its subjugation to Western colonialism. Post-WWI, Britain and France divided up the Muslim World 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.
The list of colonial indiscretions is, of course, as long as it is ugly. 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 occupied lands eventually became a much more wide-ranging resistance, as it encompassed the intellectual and political fronts.
Intellectually, the West failed – notwithstanding virtually complete domination – 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 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 phenomena 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 (Mubarak, King Fahd), to going to war to remove those who no longer curried favour (Saddam), to establishing more military bases in Islamic lands (which continues till now), 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. In the Muslim World, the time had come. As the masses returned to Islam, both as a spiritual guide and a source of solutions for their economic and political problems, and as the political wedge between ruler and ruled widened, something had to give. Add to this the debilitating status quo of social and economic breakdown, pervasive poverty and unemployment, ever-increasing difficulty to fulfil basic needs of food, shelter and security, and open oppression. Something had to give.
It was only the pervasive fear, created and nurtured by years of tyrannical rule, that forced people to remain silent and accept the unacceptable. If the shackles of fear could be broken, something would give.
In late 2010, it did. With the trigger of a poor soul self-immolating himself in Tunisia, the country erupted, and with her, the entire region. The awe-inspiring rest is history.
This is the proper historical and political context of the uprisings.
But what of the future?
The extent of the malaise in the Muslim World requires a comprehensive change, not just a change of faces. Replacing Ben Ali in Tunisia or Mubarak in Egypt with those who worked with, supported, or even legitimised their regimes is no solution. Democracy is not the solution either. Pakistan and Sudan are democracies after all, and are no better than an Egypt or Tunisia. What is required is comprehensive change at the level of the regime and system.
This is what the people want. The emphatic slogan of the uprisings was unequivocal: the people want the downfall of the regime [al-sh’ab yureed isqaat al-nidham]. Not the president, or this minister or that, but the entire regime. Indeed, the word ‘nidham‘ in Arabic has denotations of ‘system’ as well as ‘regime’, and as such this ubiquitous slogan of the uprisings, one surely to be etched into the chronicles of history, manifests the desire of the people in the Muslim World for radical and comprehensive change.
This is, of course, the type of change Western governments do not want. They have been working hard to hijack the uprisings and to get away with mere cosmetic changes. Undoubtedly, their role in the uprisings has been intrusive, exploitative and hypocritical.
In this regard, the Australian Government, though with a much less significant role, is no different. No-one was fooled by Kevin Rudd’s rhetoric in February 2011 against the Egyptian regime following its demise, given that only a few months earlier in December 2010 he was wining and dining with Mubarak and officials of his regime, celebrating 60 years of Australian-Egyptian ties that he said were ‘economically strong and politically good’! Sixty years of tyranny for the people of Egypt, justified for Australia’s political and economic elite in the name of profits.
He also travelled to Saudi Arabia in March 2011 furthering economic ties, whilst having nothing to say about Saudi tyranny at home or it repressive intervention in Bahrain.
The propaganda is also persistent. If one were to go by the coverage of the mainstream media or the pronouncements of Western leaders, one would think that people of the Middle East and North Africa have finally seen the ‘light’ of the Western way of life, and are calling for liberal democracy.
This could not be further from the truth. Being subject to decades of Western imperialism, Muslims have an intimate appreciation of what Western ideology has to offer, and they reject it outright. Instead, keeping the historical context in mind, it is clear to any impartial observer that it is the Islamic revival that gathers steam and the Muslims want change on the basis of Islam. The proof of this has been furnished elsewhere.
And so they should. It is not the European model of the secular nation-state that represents the values, beliefs and history of the Muslim World; it is the Islamic model of the Caliphate.
The Caliphate, far from being a threat to the world that some would have us believe, would be a source of progress. For one, it will fill the political and leadership vacuum in the Muslim World and, thereby, would be a source of stability, and, in turn, progress and prosperity. A stable Muslim World means a much more stable and peaceful world. Two, the Caliphate would offer a new intellectual and political leadership to rival, and break the monopoly, of the United States as the sole superpower, whose foreign policy has wreaked much havoc on the world. Surely, advocates of liberalism cannot argue against competition?
Many in the West will disagree with our arguments. As long as they are open to civil debate and discussion, we are ready to respectfully engage. Many will vehemently oppose the idea of the Caliphate in the Muslim World. As long as they are sincere and consistent in applying their criterion of judgment to current superpowers, we are ready to listen. This is a discussion that needs to be had. But we hope that people in the West will call a spade a spade and will take the moral and principled stance to account their governments and prevent them from quashing the dreams and wishes of the people in the Muslim World.