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This is not an Islamic revolution

The uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia show that Islam is now less potent politically, even as its socia

In Europe, the popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East have been interpreted using a model that is more than 30 years old: the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. Commentators have been expecting to see Islamist groups - the Muslim Brotherhood and their local equivalents - either at the head of the movement or lying in wait, ready to seize power. But the discretion of the Muslim Brotherhood has surprised and disconcerted them: where have the Islamists gone?

Look at those involved in the uprisings, and it is clear that we are dealing with a post-Islamist generation. For them, the great revolutionary movements of the 1970s and 1980s are ancient history, their parents' affair. The members of this young generation aren't interested in ideology: their slogans are pragmatic and concrete - "Erhal!" or "Go now!". Unlike their predecessors in Algeria in the 1980s, they make no appeal to Islam; rather, they are rejecting corrupt dictatorships and calling for democracy. This is not to say that the demonstrators are secular; but they are operating in a secular political space, and they do not see in Islam an ideology capable of creating a better world.

The same goes for other ideologies: they are nationalist (look at all the flag-waving) without advocating nationalism. Particularly striking is the abandonment of conspiracy theories. The United States and Israel - or France, in the case of Tunisia - are no longer identified as the cause of all the misery in the Arab world. The slogans of pan-Arabism have been largely absent, too, even if the copycat effect that brought Egyptians and Yemenis into the streets following the events in Tunis shows that the "Arab world" is a political reality.

This generation is pluralist, undoubtedly because it is also individualist. Sociological studies show that it is better educated than previous generations, better informed, often with access to modern means of communication that allow individuals to connect with one another without the mediation of political parties - which in any case are banned. These young people know that Islamist regimes have become dictatorships; neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia holds any fascination for them. Indeed, those who have been demonstrating in Egypt are the same kinds of people as those who poured on to the streets to oppose Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009. (For propaganda reasons, the regime in Tehran has declared its support for the opposition movement in Egypt, though this is little more than a settling of scores with Hosni Mubarak.) Many of them are religious believers, but they keep their faith separate from their political demands. In this sense, the movement is "secular". Religious observance has been individualised.

Above all, people have been dem­onstrating for dignity and "respect", a watchword that emerged in Algeria in the late 1990s. And the values to which they are laying claim are universal. But the "democracy" that is being called for is not foreign, and therein lies the difference from the Bush administration's attempt to promote democracy in Iraq in 2003. That did not work, because it lacked political legitimacy and was associated with a military intervention. Today, paradoxically, it is the waning of US influence in the Middle East, together with the pragmatism of the Obama administration, that has allowed a native and fully legitimate demand for democracy to be expressed.

That said, a revolt is not a revolution. The new popular movement has no leaders, no structure and no political parties, which will make the task of anchoring democracy in these former dictatorships difficult. It is unlikely that the collapse of the old regimes will automatically lead to the establishment in their place of liberal democracies, as Washington once hoped would happen in Iraq.

What of the Islamists, those who see in Islam a political ideology capable of solving all of society's problems? They have not disappeared, but they have changed. The most radical of them have left to wage international jihad; they are in the desert with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, in Pakistan or the suburbs of London. They have no social or political base. Indeed, global jihad is completely detached from social movements and national struggles. Al-Qaeda tries to present itself as the vanguard of the global Muslim "umma" in its battle against western oppression, but without success. Al-Qaeda recruits deracinated young jihadists who have cut themselves off entirely from their families and communities. It remains stuck in the logic of the "propaganda of the deed" and has never bothered to try to build political structures inside Muslim societies.

Because al-Qaeda tends to concentrate its activities in the west or aims at so-called western targets elsewhere, its actual impact is next to nil.
It is a mistake, therefore, to link the re-Islam­isation that has taken place in the Arab world over the past 30 years with political radicalism. If Arab societies are more visibly Islamic than they were 30 or 40 years ago, what explains the absence of Islamic slogans from the current demonstrations? The paradox of Islamisation is that it has largely depoliticised Islam. Social and cultural re-Islamisation - the wearing of the hijab and niqab, an increase in the number of mosques, the proliferation of preachers and Muslim television channels - has happened without the intervention of militant Islamists and has in fact opened up a "religious market", over which no one enjoys a monopoly. In short, the Islamists have lost the stranglehold on religious expression in the public sphere that they enjoyed in the 1980s.

Dictatorships in the Arab world, though not in Tunisia, have often favoured a conservative Islam that is highly visible but not especially political, and that is obsessed with controlling public morals. (The wearing of the hijab, for instance, has become commonplace.) This has meshed with the "Salafist" movement, which emphasises the re-Islamisation of individuals rather than the development of social movements. What has been perceived in the west as a great, green wave of re-Islamisation is in fact nothing but a trivialisation of Islam: everything has become Islamic, from fast food to women's fashion. The forms and structures of piety, however, have become individualised, so now one constructs one's own faith, seeking out the preacher who speaks of self-realisation, such as the Egyptian Amr Khaled, and abandoning all interest in the utopia of an Islamic state. The Salafists concentrate on the preservation of religious values and have no political programme. Moreover, other religious currents until now regarded as being in decline, such as Sufism, are flourishing once more. This growing diversity of faith goes even beyond the confines of Islam, as in the cases of Algeria and Iran, where there has been a wave of conversions to Christianity.

It is also a mistake to see the dictatorships as defending secularism against religious fanaticism. With the exception of Tunisia, authoritarian regimes in the Arab world have not made their societies secular; on the contrary, they have reached an accommodation with a neofundamentalist form of re-Islamisation in which the imposition of sharia law is called for without any discussion of the nature of political power. Everywhere, official Muslim institutions, based on an austere conservative theology, have been co-opted by the state. This has become so effective that the traditional clerics trained at al-Azhar University in Cairo no longer have anything to say about the main social and political questions of the day. They have nothing to offer a younger generation looking for ways of living their faith in a more open world.

These developments have also affected Islamist political movements, as is exemplified by the changing face of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and al-Nahda, the "renaissance party", in Tunisia. The Muslim Brotherhood has changed in response to troubling events, as much in what seemed like success (the Islamic Revolution in Iran) as in defeat (the repression that has been meted out to it everywhere). A new generation of militants has drawn lessons from this, as have such veterans as Rachid Ghannouchi, founder of al-Nahda. They have understood that seeking to take power in the wake of a revolution leads either to civil war or to dictatorship. And in their struggle against repression, they have come into contact with other political forces and formations. Knowing their own societies well, they are aware that ideology carries little weight within them. They have also learned lessons from Turkey, where Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AK party have succeeded in reconciling democracy, electoral success, economic development and national independence with the promotion of values that are, if not Islamic, at least "authentic".

Above all, the Muslim Brotherhood no longer advocates an alternative economic and social model. The Brothers have become conservative with regard to morality and liberal on the economy. This is without doubt the most striking evolution in their outlook, because, in the 1980s, Islamists claimed to defend the interests of the oppressed classes and called for state ownership of the economy and redistribution of wealth. Today, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt endorses Mubarak's agricultural counter-reforms, which have returned to landowners the right to raise prices and sack tenant farmers. So complete has this transformation been that Islamists are now wholly absent from the social movements active in the Nile Delta, where there has been a resurgence of the "left", particularly of trade union militancy.

However, the embourgeoisement of the Islamists is at the same time an asset for democracy, because it pushes them towards reconciliation and compromise, and into alliances with other political forces. It is no longer a question, therefore, of attempting to establish whether or not dictatorships are the most effective bulwark against Islamism; Islamists have become players in the democratic game. Naturally, they will try to exert control over public morality, but, lacking the kind of repressive apparatus that exists in Iran, or a religious police on the Saudi model, they will have to reckon with a demand for liberty that doesn't stop with the right to elect a parliament. In short, the Islamists will either identify themselves with the conventional, Salafist tradition, abandoning in the process any pretence to reconceive Islam's place in modernity, or else they will make an effort to rethink their understanding of the relationship between religion and politics.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood will play a central role in the coming changes as long as the revolt remains largely apolitical. For the moment, this is still the politics of protest; it is not the dawn of a new type of regime. Moreover, Arab societies remain somewhat conservative. The middle classes that developed following the period of economic liberalisation want political stability. They are protesting, above all, against the predatory nature of dictatorship. Here, a comparison between Tunisia and Egypt is illuminating. In Tunisia, the extended Ben Ali clan weakened all its potential allies by refusing to share not only power, but wealth, too. The business class was swindled by the ruling family and the army marginalised both politically and financially. The Tunisian army was poor, and thus had a corporate interest in seeing the advent of a democratic regime that would give it a bigger budget.

In Egypt, by contrast, the regime has had a much larger social base, and the army was involved not just in shoring up political power but also in the administration of the economy, with all the benefits that flowed from that. In this respect, that country is typical of the Arab world. Democratic movements throughout the region will therefore come up against deeply rooted networks of clientelism. Is the demand for democracy capable of overcoming complex arrangements of allegiance and belonging, in the army, among tribes and among the political elite? To what extent will regimes be able to exploit old allegiances - among the Bedouins in Jordan, say, or the tribes of Yemen? Conversely, can such groups themselves become actors in the movement for democratic change? And how will religion adapt to the new situation?

The process of change will undoubtedly be long and chaotic, but one thing is certain: the age of Arab-Muslim exceptionalism is over. Recent events point to profound transformations in Arab societies which have been under way for some time, but which until now have been obscured by the distorting optic of western attitudes towards the Middle East. What the convulsions in Egypt and Tunisia show is that people in those countries have drawn the lessons of their own history. We have not finished with Islam, that is for sure, nor is liberal democracy the "end of history", but we must at least learn to think of Islam in relation to an "Arabic-Muslim" culture that today is no longer closed in on itself - if it ever was.

Olivier Roy is professor of social and political theory at the European University Institute in Florence. His most recent book is "Holy Ignorance: When Religion and Culture Part Ways" (C Hurst & Co, £20)

This essay, written exclusively for the New Statesman, was translated from the French by Jonathan Derbyshire

This article first appeared in the 14 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The Middle East

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.