Questions about the Arab Revolution

Dr Salim Nazzal

The Arab Revolution is still going on after 6 months of its eruption. And most observers expect it to continue and to expand to more Arab countries in what has been considered to be the most historical moment in the Arab history since the advent of Islam which put Arabs on the stage of history. This revolution revived much of the hopes for progress after decades of Arab defeats and stagnation on various levels.
Studying the socio cultural phenomenon, especially in sociology and anthropology teach us that societies are all the time subjected to continuous change whether through internal factors such as despotism and corruption or through the influence of external factors such as accularation, foreign invasion etc. That’s why many saw in the Arab revolution a revolution of a globized youth who adapt the values of modernity, which might collide to this or that extent with the traditional values.
If that assumption is true, the Arab revolution might be the first fruit of the impact of globalization on non western societies. Yet we need to remember that Arab historians view the advent of the Arab enlightement period (1830-1920) as the reaction to the Napoleon invasion of Egypt and Palestine which made Arabs realize their weakness compared with the French invaders. This naturally consolidated the argument which put emphasis on the external factors .And here I would consider the invasion of Iraq and the American Zionist propoganda towards Arabs and Muslims a major factor of the role of the external pressures.
However I am tempted to comment on the impact of the European invasion and the globalized (invasion) and its impact on the current Arab thinking in order to draw some comparison between both, but I will made quick comment because I prefer to leave this to an independent paper.
Therefore it is noteworthy to note down that there is some correlation between the Arab enlightement questions and the current questions because these questions were mostly focused on the notion of Progress if it is possible to put it in a generalized word though of the fact that the question of human rights has not been clear in previous questions compared for instance with the current revolution. And also we find similarity between the Arabs of today who view the Turkish model of combining” authenticity and modernity” as a good example to follow, and the enlightment Arab period which showed interest in the Japanese experience which represented in their view a successful experience of the combination between modernity and authenticity.
Nevertheless, the Arab revolt has raised problematic questions that are difficult to answer them or it has not been, until now deeply debated. On top of these questions, is it possible for the traditional religious culture to adapt modern values?
In the European experience for instance as the Syrian thinker Sadiq Al-Azm rightly notes, the liberal culture preceded democracy and this is expressed in the anti despotic literature of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes in England, Voltaire and Rousseau in France and others. Al Azm is known for his book (critique to the religious thinking) which appeared after the 1967 war in which Al Azm returned the Arab defeat in the war with the Zionist state to the domination of the religious traditional culture. In this regards he was a pioneer to explain the Arab problems through examining the socio cultural structure. This methodology has been invested in later period by major Arab thinker such as Abu Al Jabre and Muhammad Arkoun who both died few months before the eruption of the current Arab revolution.
So whatever was said about the role of modern communication in the current Arab revolution we need to remember that the major revolutions in history took place before the modern means of communication? In this regards, the role of Face book in initiating the Arab revolution is a question that need a deeper debate despite that it is not possible to ignore the impact and the importance of modern communication in connecting people together.
The French Revolution usually seen as the inspiring revolution in the modern times was the first implementation in the political reality of the age of enlightenment.
It was an (orphan!) in every sense of the word. It took place in a time when all Europe was subjected to absolute monarchies. This, which might explains the alliance of all Europe against the French revolution. Especially in Britain's the traditional enemy of France which considered supporting the revolutionary ideas equal to treason. Which created the trend of the (British McCarthyism) about 300 years before the emergence of the hysteria of McCarthyism in America?
We do not have a parallel example in history of the role of counter-revolution outside of the experience the French Revolution except in the Bolshevik revolution. Which also possess uniqueness of the French Revolution, which also led to the unity of the conservative forces in Europe to fight (the Ghost of Communist, which is wandering in Europe)?
In this regards Arabs might be lucky because they can learn or benefit from the experiences of democracy in the East and West, unlike the French Revolution which had to make its way alone, and perhaps this explains the linkage done between the ideas of modern liberalism and the ideas of democracy of the Greek antique culture. This coupled with efforts to weaken the role of the Church in public life towards modernizing the democratic ideas towards establishing the society run by all and for all citizens.
The question is, if the French Revolution found a (Greek ancient ancestor) to build on what are the Arab historical references in this matter?
The late Arab thinker Muhammad Al Jabre has widened the perspective of the Arab word (Good Salaf, good ancestors) which pointed towards the first ideal Islamic period to make it include all ideologies. According to this view all ideologies in this regard has a sort of Salaf, or reference to build on, whether this in liberal thought or communist or Islamic.
In the Arab region, there is no historical predecessor that could be building on except in the period of the Arab enlightment era which extends from the middle of the 19th century and lasted until the beginning of the 20 century. That period witnessed much critical writings with the aim to modernize the Arab political and cultural life. This is clear in the writings which addressed political issues about the state and the right of citizens and social questions as the situation of woman in the society. This was obvious in the writing of Abd Al Rahman Al kawakibi anti despotic writings and Farah Anton call for liberalism and others. But despite the impact of the Arab critical writings it is obvious that Arabs could not convey these thoughts into the realm of politics due to various internal and external reasons, nor they succeed to made these ideas part of the mass culture.
This is the problematic which was behind the question posed by Antoine Douaihy about the capabilities of communities of traditional loyalties where the interest of the group comes before the individual to achieve a real break with the pre modern culture. The legitimacy of this question lies in the fact that Arab societies are still living pre-modern loyalties, viewed by most Liberal and left winger as a major obstacle towards achieving democracy and freedom. This is precisely what Majed al sheikh meant when he said about the difficulties of establishing a transition towards democracy without custodian cultural able to break with the past and cause a democratic penetration.
However Al Douaihy like many Arab intellectuals wonders about the possibility of adopting the Turkish model seen by many as a sort of balancing between the religious and secular values.
Nevertheless the dangers threatening the Arab revolution are too many to mention in one article. These dangers are both internal from the counter revolution forces and the uncertain ability of the cultural structure to carry a huge change, and the external which lies in the imperial powers and the Zionist state which undoubtedly will try to influence the Arab revolution for its interests.. But as I have devoted the article to cast some light on the socio cultural phenomenon assuming that the major challenge which faces the Arab revolution might be the traditional culture more than the political. I tend to think so because the change this time is not to replace the current corrupted rulers with less corrupted rulers but rather to create a new social order which could not be established without solid cultural grounds.
And as I do not have any answer to this question I like to draw the attention that the expectation of the Arab revolution must not be much high simply because integrating democratic culture in traditional societies cannot be achieved only by changing the head of the political system. My expectation is not however part of the optimism, pessimism dualism but rather on the belief that major changes cannot be achieved over night to say the least.
Posing these questions does not mean not to support the Arab Revolution but rather to raise some questions that were not dealt with properly especially in the first wave of optimism after the success of the revolution in both Tunis and Egypt.
Yet the question remains where the Arab Revolution goes, is difficult to answer, especially in the light of many possible scenarios. These scenarios are ranging between the successes in openings more windows towards democracy or the failure, and possibly chaos. But if one is not sure about these entire scenarios one can be sure that it is impossible to return to the pre-revolution era because the revolution brought about a social volcano that would have a major impact on the Arab societies in the years to come.
Dr Salim Nazzal is a Palestinian-Norwegian historian in the Middle East, who has written extensively on social and political issues in the region. His writing has been published in various publications and translated into more than 13 languages