Islam and the Arab Awakening -- Review

ISLAM AND THE ARAB AWAKENING.  By Tariq Ramadan.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 2012.  256 pages.

            The West watched in amazement and wonder as popular uprisings took place in North Africa and the Middle East.  First it was Tunisia and then Egypt, with places like Yemen and Bahrain and Libya and even Syria following.   Few observers, especially those who are not close to the ground, knew what to make of it all.  There was hope and fear.  After all, the dictators that were falling had often been American and European allies, who had put themselves forward as a bulwark against Islamist tyranny.   We grew to fear the Muslim Brotherhood and other activists, but then as the uprisings occurred it seemed as if more secular activists had taken the lead.  Maybe, just maybe, this was an uprising we in the West could support.  Perhaps this wouldn’t be another Iran, and besides hadn’t we gone into Iraq in support of efforts to spread democracy in the Middle East and the Islamic world?

            Life is complicated, especially when you don’t know the actors or the ideologies or the histories.  So, who do you turn to?  Could a person like Tariq Ramadan be of assistance?  Ramadan is a well known interpreter of Islam and the Middle East as well as advocate for the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa.  He has been hailed by some and demonized by others.  After all, he is the descendant of the founder of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which in our day makes him suspect.  He is, however, also a leading academic figure who has spent his life trying to bridge east and west.    Born in Switzerland, he currently serves as Professor of Islamic Studies at Oxford University and as President of the European Muslim Network in Brussels.

            In Islam and the Arab Awakening, a book that Ramadan wrote in the midst of the uprisings, we have before us an important and insightful interpretation of the realities taking place in the region.  It is also more specifically a book that reflects on the role of Islam and Islamists in this set of uprisings.  In the West it seems that Islamist equals Islamic militant, but not all Islamists are anti-Western militants – that is Al Qaeda like.  Indeed, the ruling party of Turkey is Islamist (not to mention the fundamentalist regime that rules in Saudi Arabia).  Yet, the Islamist movements began, according to Ramadan, “as a legalist, non-violent movement based on a strategy of reform from the bottom up (educating the masses, the ultimate aim of which was to transform the ‘top’ (reform society and change the structure of the state.)”  More militant versions emerged largely due to repression and frustration.  Thus, when we use the word Islamist (as Westerners are apt to do), we need to be aware of the diversity of views and expressions of those who seek to root their political future in Islamic theology and practice.

The ability of Muslims to express themselves in this way is complicated by how we in the West try to delineate good from bad Muslims on the basis of their support of Western interests.  We like also like Muslims that don’t act like Muslims, but as Ramadan shows, Arab peoples don’t want to rid themselves of either their culture or their religious traditions.
As we read, we’re confronted by current events, but also by history, especially the history of Western interaction with the Islamic world, especially the impact of colonialism.  In addition, no conversation about Islam and the Middle East is complete without the discussion of Israel.  He writes from the perspective of a “cautious optimism” He notes that these uprisings didn’t just emerge overnight, but have been brewing for years.  But with the help of social media it appears that the wall that kept back popular dissent has been breached, and we don’t know where this will lead.  But, as he writes in his introduction:
The peoples of the Middle East have proven that dictators can be overthrown without weapons, by sheer force of number, by a non-violent, positive outlook.
Of course this hasn’t been true everywhere.  In Libya it took military action and in Bahrain and Syria the dissidents have yet to achieve victory.

            In writing this book Ramadan tries to name the causes of the uprisings, which are first and foremost economic, and then examines how they emerged and gained expression.  Although these uprisings didn’t begin with Islamist groups, it’s clear that they will play a role going forward.  In part this due to being better organized than other actors.  The question is – what is the ideology and the direction they will take?  In offering analysis Ramadan seeks to balance respect for Islam while calling for reform – especially regarding the role of women in Muslim society.  His question is this – how will religious identity and principle play a role in this new era?  An important player in all of this is Turkey, a nation that has begun to shed a severe secularist identity and opened itself up to “Islamist” political parties, and has done so in a way that has opened up society.  Will Turkey be the model for others to pick up?       

            The book is composed of four major chapters written for this book, and in these chapters he lays out his understanding of the issues both past and present along with seeking to envision the future.  In addition, the appendix includes a number of previously published essays, most of which were written during the uprisings.  They offer a sort of screen shot of what was happening from moment to moment in different parts of the Islamic world.

            As one reads this book, especially as a non-Muslim American, one will find much that informs and educates, but one will also be challenged.  Indeed, one will likely be made to feel rather uncomfortable with Ramadan’s critique of American and European policies and stubborn unwillingness to see Islam as Muslims see it.  If you believe in American exceptionalism or American purity, then you might find the book disturbing.  Ramadan pulls few punches and he sees little difference between Bush and Obama except in the nature of rhetoric.  Obama is softer in his talk, but similar to Bush in his actions.  While we celebrated the death of Osama bin Laden and were told that Islamic customs were observed, Ramadan raises disconcerting questions.  On Israel, Ramadan writes with hope that an uprising will occur there that opens the way for true conversation between Israel and the Palestinians.  I must admit that even I, a rather liberal person who seeks to be engaged with my Muslim neighbors, I found myself uncomfortable at points.  But then, perhaps that’s the point.  Ramadan makes us all uncomfortable with our positions, but that discomfort maybe what is needed to move us forward into a new day.

            We don’t know what the future holds.  As I write this review the Syrian army is bearing down on rebel outposts, Palestinians are still without most rights we take for granted, and Egypt has had elections that led to the election of the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, but the Army remains in control.  In some ways on the ground actions have changed the dynamics, but the long term issues will persist and we benefit, even if we don’t always agree, from the insights offered by Tariq Ramadan.  

Note:  This book is due to be published in October 2012, galleys provided by the publisher through


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