The popular uprisings against authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Yemen, Jordan and Egypt herald the beginning of a new political era in the Middle East. At the center of this new political order is a generation of young Arabs, educated, highly marginalized, and numerous. The members of the so-called Arab “youth bulge” are demanding neither the unification of the Arab world as espoused by the pan-Arabists of the 1960s, nor an Islamic state of the 1980s, but rather a dignified life, social justice, and freedom. They are mobilizing and making their demands via the new language of technology and social media. For those in the Middle East discontent with the status quo, Islamism and pan-Arabism are no longer the only oppositional discourses available. Globalization and the spread of an international human rights agenda have provided an alternative to historical Middle Eastern tropes of opposition.
As a failed experiment in Iran, Sudan and Afghanistan, Islamism has lost its energy, legitimacy, and appeal among the new generation of Arab Muslims. The failure of these regimes to deliver on their promises of social justice, equality, rule of law, and freedom from foreign domination hindered the political Islamist’s project of establishing an Islamic state and derailed the popular support behind it. The Arab defeat by Israel in the Six Day War in 1967 and the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel in 1978 had a similar effect on pan-Arabism.
Failures of past ideologies have resulted in the development of a new political discourse that offers an alternative relationship between local and global, sacred and secular, Islam and politics, rationality and ethics. The thousands who prayed on Friday in Tahrir Square before resuming anti-regime protests herald the beginning of a new synthesis between Islam and politics. This is markedly different than the one offered by traditional Islamism. Contrary to the political role of religion within Islamism, this new doctrine promotes a moral and social conservatism in which Islam provides some of the terms of a new public ethic. It emphasizes rights instead of duties and plurality instead of a single authoritative voice. This new politics harmonizes Islam and liberty, faith and freedom, religious devotion and social responsibility. Politics is no longer confined only to the realm of state and governance but also involves the creation of an overarching discourse that includes social and cultural (not just religious) values.
The new discourse will allow a political space for a uniquely Middle Eastern democratization process, distinct from that of Western nations. It offers a role for religion that is equally distant from Western Enlightenment ideals and the traditional Islamist political project. Those who have been anxious about a radical Islamist wave ready to sweep through the Middle East have no reason to be. Arab youth -- the chief architects of the anti-status quo social movements determined to bring down the decades-old authoritarian regimes of the Middle East -- are quite clear about their endgame, and it is not the reproduction of an Iranian-style Islamic republic.
A recent study conducted by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) () has found that 75 percent of the Arab respondents considered Turkey a successful example of the coexistence of Islam and democracy for the Arab world and wanted Turkey to play a bigger role in the region.
Turkey is an important country for the future of the Middle East not because of its role as regional mediator. The current Lebanese crisis is the most recent example of the limitations of Turkey’s mediation efforts in the region. Rather, Turkey is important because it represents the manifestation of the very same post-ideological condition that gave birth to the recent uprisings in the Middle East. The failure of two competing ideologies - Kemalism and Islamism - to deliver on their promises led to a new era in Turkish politics. Kemalism, the founding ideology of the Turkish Republic, has lost its monopoly over modernization. Kurds, Alawites, non-Muslims, and all those who have been excluded from the Kemalist project have pushed for a new, modern discourse that tolerates the articulation of different identities in public sphere. Political participation is not confined to those who subscribe to Kemalist ideology anymore.
Similarly, Islamism has lost its monopoly over religion. Demands for the right to wear Islamic headscarves in universities are articulated in the vocabulary of human rights, not Islamism. The issue of religious expression in the public sphere has been adopted by a variety of actors including artists, scholars and NGOs from different socio-economic backgrounds and with different political views.
Turkey is in a post-ideological era where Islam and secularism co-exist, each subconsciously influencing and transforming the other. It has produced its own modernity and represents an alternative democratization path that is organically linked to local culture and yet in dialogue with global norms and ideas. The process that is just starting in the rest of the Middle East has been proceeding in Turkey for some time. Although the specifics of Turkish history have cumulatively created the current political reality, the democratization path taken by Turkey might still inspire the rest of the region. In the face of increasing demands for change, Arab states that have been emboldened by rentier economies and US military aid, must undertake the new socio-political project embraced by their people. It will no doubt be a difficult and painful process for the people of Tunisia and Egypt, one requiring a delicate balance between structural changes in state and society on the one hand, and public culture and ethics on the other. And yet, we have reason to be optimistic. The Arab street, long disregarded by both Western governments and their own autocratic regimes, has broken its silence and is demanding a brand new social contract.
Assertions and opinions in this Policy Insight are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.