Secular Revolutions, Religious Landscapes

I've found it rather ironic that the same people who complain about the "naked public square" in the US, are among the ones calling for the revolutions in the Middle East to be "secular."  As Shatha Almutawa writes in the Thursday edition of Sightings, while religion hasn't been driving the revolutions, religion -- especially Islam -- has been infused into the revolutions.  Many of the protests have taken place after Friday prayers.  Imams and religious teachers have sought to empower the people to claim their freedoms and rights -- even countering claims by the oligarchs that freedom leads to chaos by pointing out that stability and freedom go together fairly well in the West.   President Bush wasn't wrong about the possibilities of democracy in the Middle East.  He was wrong in his belief that we could impose it from outside through military means.  It has to be homegrown, and the seeds of homegrown democracy are being sown.  Almutawa has written an insightful piece that deserves careful attention and conversation!  


Sightings 2/24/2011

Secular Revolutions, Religious Landscapes
-- Shatha Almutawa

While the Middle East uprisings have not revolved around religion, faith has not been absent from Arab scenes of protest in the last two months. God and scripture are invoked by revolutionaries and those who oppose them for the simple reason that Arab dialects and ways of life are infused with religion.

To an outside observer the revolts of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain might appear to be entirely secular, but Arabic Twitter and Facebook feeds are brimming with prayers, some formulaic and some informal, asking God to aid protesters and remove oppressors. Qur’anic verses and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad are shared on Facebook walls. One blogger titled his post: “A saying of the prophet about President Qaddafi.” In the quoted hadith Prophet Muhammed warns of a time when trivial men will speak for the people.

After Libyan president Moammar Al-Qaddafi ordered brutal attacks on demonstrators, leaving thousands dead and even more wounded, Yusuf Al-Qaradawi urged the Libyan army to kill Qaddafi. “I say to my brothers and sons who are soldiers and officers in the Libyan Army to disobey when (the government) gives orders to kill the people using warplanes,” the prominent Sunni scholar said, according to UPI. Soldiers have already defected in large numbers, and the pro-democracy army has taken hold of many Libyan cities.

In every part of the Arab world religious spaces such as mosques and churches have been stages for demonstrators as well as opposition. In the United Arab Emirates an activist was arrested after giving a speech at a mosque in solidarity with the Egyptian revolution. In his speech he invited worshippers to join him in performing a prayer for the Egyptian protesters.

In Egypt marches began at mosques after Friday prayers, and inside them imams gave speeches in favor of or opposition to the uprising. Egyptians are donating blood at mosques near the Libyan border. In Bahrain pro-democracy and pro-government protesters demonstrated outside Manama’s Al-Fateh Mosque as well as at Pearl Roundabout.

Even though religion is not the driving force behind the revolutions, religious leaders continue to defend protest in speeches that are disseminated via YouTube. Dr. Tareq Al-Suwaidan, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Kuwait, gave a speech in which he urged Arabs to continue demanding freedom, human rights and an end to corruption. He challenged the governments’ claim that revolutions will lead to instability and insecurity, and that new freedoms would lead to chaos. “The west is living with these rights in stability and security, and they are making progress,” he said. “Our religion calls for these rights. Our religion guaranteed them to us.”

Al-Suwaidan’s tone is one of disbelief at dictators’ illogical statements and the contradictions in their claims. But his ridicule of government leaders is tame in comparison to the jokes made by Arabs all over the world following Al-Qaddafi’s speech. The jokes, too, involve religion. “Al-Qaddafi’s demands are simple—only that the people should say: There is no God but Al-Qaddafi,” Nael Shahwan tweeted in Arabic. Mohammad Awaad wrote, “Qaddafi ‘the god’ is a natural result of a media that has become accustomed to not saying no to a president, as if he is never wrong.” He continued, “I believe we have 22 gods”—one for each Arab country.

The opposition, too, is armed with religious rhetoric, but mosque, Qur’an, and hadith have been central in the Arab world’s struggle for freedom and democracy. Religious leaders as well as lay people have found that the language of religion is also the language of revolution. After all religion is very often the spirit of Arab life, and the inspiration for most of its endeavors—jokes and revolutions included.

Shatha Almutawa is the editor of Sightings and a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


In this month's Religion and Culture Web Forum, Jessica DeCou offers a comic interpretation of the theology of Karl Barth, bringing his work into a surprising and fruitful dialogue with the comedy of Craig Ferguson. Both men, she contends, “employ similar forms of humor in their efforts to unmask the absurdity and irrationality of our submission to arbitrary human powers.” The humor of Barth and Ferguson alike stresses human limitation against illusory deification. DeCou argues for understanding both the humor and the famous combativeness of Barth's theology as part of this single project, carried out against modern Neo-Protestant theology. The Religion and Culture Web Forum is at:

Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


David said…
They want to be free from fascist dictators and the dictations of religions. Let's hope the religious leaders don't get too opportunistic. It seems most of the people have the right idea.
Robert Cornwall said…
David -- yes! They just want to be free to live their lives in safety and hope! Just like the rest of us. Faith gives strength and guidance. It can be hijacked and distorted as well. Let's live forward with hope!
John said…
Interestingly, it may be that culture, and exposure to western cultural norms may have contributed so much to their revolutionary impetus when not only their religion but ours was silent.

It is also interesting that we here seem to agree that religion appears more as a threat to their revolutions than a support.

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