As I write this, NATO is enforcing a no-fly zone to protect anti-Qaddafi forces in Libya. It at once evokes memories of despots reduced to hiding in spider holes, and the gunboat diplomacy once so effective for great powers. We have the bizarre image of the local despot holding forth on his fight against al-Qaida, even as we worry that the rebels may be little more than an assortment of fundamentalists. Is this the fruiting of the Arab spring that has held the world's attention since a Tunisian street vendor burned himself alive and ignited protests from Egypt to Saudi Arabia?
We are indeed witness to a revolutionary moment sweeping an entire region of the world. Comparisons are dangerous when made too directly, but this is evocative of the unrest that stirred Africa, particularly Kenya and the Congo, after the colonial pullback in the 1950s and 1960s. It reminds me of the chaos that overwhelmed Southeast Asia in that same post-World War II colonial era. It reminds me, too, of the Prague Spring of the late sixties. It reminds me, as it does many others, of the collapse of the Soviet empire and the jubilant young people pulling down a suddenly-not-so-strong Berlin Wall. It puts me to mind of the ecstatic crowds holding Gamal Abdel Nasser aloft in an Egypt free of colonial influence and the playboy King Farouk.
But even as it reminds me of these revolutionary antecedents I know it is profoundly different—not least because second-act revolutions like Egypt's seldom approach the white robes of the first ceremony.
First we must acknowledge the context of the apparently spontaneous. The world financial system broke two years ago. And while we do not yet see how the capitalist engines can reinvent themselves out of this, we do know that the poor around the world have been pushed to greater desperation by rapidly rising prices of food and basic commodities. That always breeds social upheaval.
We have watched as most of the players in the region have overplayed their hand. The expected graft and corruption have become untenable to the "street." The policies of the governments, while arguably in the reasonable self-interest of the regimes, have become disconnected from the everyday expectations of the citizenry. The Western powers give the appearance of empowering this grand betrayal, which more quickly removes a sense of legitimacy. What is more amazing than the uprising is why it took so long.
He may have been wrong about other things, and he may have got the dosage horribly wrong, but George W. Bush was right about the pent-up demand in the area for self-determination. Iraq may well be a significant part of the causality of the Arab Spring.
Then there is the popular conception of these being the Twitter and Facebook revolutions. I do not hold to that view per se. These social engines did not create the mood; they at best facilitated its late-stage expression and coordination. What is vastly more pertinent to the changing consciousness is the emergence and availability of Al Jazeera—a credible, in-your-face incitement to Arab sensibility. The West feared it for its potential to turn the region against it. But the entranced street has lashed out at the immediate inhibition to their need for expression. And yes, the Internet has clearly done there what it is doing globally—accelerate by its instant nature the dissemination of information and put the processes of history on steroids.
There is another not-at-all inconsequential factor: religion. It amazes me how assiduously the commentators ignore it. They ignored that the secular Ba'athist regime of Saddam Hussein was engaged in a death struggle against radical Islam. They ignored the religious implications of the Iraq-Iran war, which killed
1 million. They ignored that the post-invasion Iraqi civil war was in large part between religious factions. They think "surge" and forget that it was an alliance with Sunni Islam, which brought some measure of control and began to thwart radical Shiite Iran. And those same people generally fail to make sense of the Middle East because they ignore the religious factions of various regimes or their more and more untenable secularity.
The plain fact is that while there are many contributing elements to the Middle East shock wave the religious part of the narrative is the most important.
Remember, this is a post-nationalist moment for a region that has sent Nasser's fellow officer Mubarak on his way. The colonial dislocations have left many of these geographical constructs the camping place of several tribes, not one people. What they share is the all-embracing commonality of Islam . . . a religion stirring itself after some centuries of subservience.
While we ought not to believe all that the departing leaders said, it is worth remembering that Mubarak warned for decades of the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood; President Saleh of Yemen for years has ridden the tiger of al-Qaida and radical revolt. Moammar Qaddafi to the end has railed against the al-Qaida attack on him (he might have been a terrorist, but not that kind), and Saudi Arabia has both fed radical ideology and persecuted it in a game that shows signs of getting out of control.
While Tunisia was the first country to see large public demonstrations, Egypt is certainly the most significant and, given the advance signals given there, arguably the one leading the way. There was a presidential election scheduled for September 2011, and it was expected that the Muslim Brotherhood would openly challenge for power. Rising religious tensions were immediately evident with the January 1 bombing of a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria. The underlying issues are many, but the complaint was that Copts were detaining some women who had converted to Islam. This is a curious issue, because a Pew survey in 2010 showed that 82 percent of Egyptian Muslims, who make up at least that proportion of the population, support the imposition of severe penalties, even death, for conversion from Islam. So much for freedom of religion in the fullest sense! And what does this say for the hoped-for secular state at the end of the inevitable power plays?
There is no doubt that in the early days of the Egyptian revolution religion was secondary for many of the demonstrators. There was even a revolutionary camaraderie between young Copts and Muslims. There is also no doubt that the mosques quickly became, as one would expect in a majority religion society, centers of political exhortation and planning. More and more the Islamic "religious right" emerged. Late in the piece I listened with dismay as one of the youth leaders of the original uprising said he was afraid for his own future, as the Muslim Brotherhood had taken over. Elections have yet to be held. At a minimum the Brotherhood will be a significant parliamentary force. They may even emerge immediately as the power makers. They may even prove to be socially responsible and tolerant of secular diversity. Just as the American Religious Right is!
A religious community not willing to extend to others the rights they demand for themselves is not at all helpful for religious freedom. It may not even be much help to general civil liberties.
A person of faith can only pray that religious freedom in practice and profession is advanced as the world writhes its way through revolutionary times. We must not confuse faith with wishful thinking. We must hold up the increasingly counterintuitive banner of religious freedom. It can be a revolutionary banner if adopted.
Author: Lincoln E. Steed
Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."