In 2017 İhsan Fazlıoğlu, an Islamist professor of philosophy at Istanbul Medeniyet University, was visited by a group of concerned teachers and parents from the İmam Hatip high school (a government-funded secondary school that trains Muslim preachers) he once attended. The visitors wanted his advice on the growing trend of deism and atheism among young people and what was to be done about it. The professor responded with a shocking observation of his own: In the past year, of the many religious students who came to consult with him, no fewer than 17 women had confided that although they continued to wear a hijab (headscrarf) they had left Islam and considered themselves atheists.
The Gezi Park protests were the first time that the AKP faced significant public resistance from below to their urban transformation project. The term “below” is important because the AKP’s legitimacy rests on the claim that it enjoys widespread support from below. The protests, however, revealed an alternative “below,” one that shared nothing with the AKP. Furthermore, the site of the protests—Taksim Square, Gezi Park and the surrounding streets and buildings—was the very place from which many of the pro–AKP religious upper-middle-class families of Başakşehir were fleeing to protect their morality. Encountering this forgotten “below” in Taksim Square held tremendous meaning for the AKP, as that encounter resulted from Erdoğan’s plan to destroy the place’s symbolism and replace it with new symbolism.
The themes of Adam Curtis’ new documentary Bitter Lake should be well known to those familiar with his body of work: power, techno-politics, science, managerialism and the media. The film uses the contemporary history of Afghanistan to tell a story about how polities in the West have become incapable of understanding the complex and horrible happenings around them. Traditional forms of power in the West and Afghanistan have taken advantage of the fear and confusion to consolidate their control, but at the expense of an intellectually deskilled Western public and a world that is fundamentally less governable. Bitter Lake is more fable than scholarship, but the film is nonetheless a devastating examination of how Western interventions in Afghanistan refract the vacuousness of our own politics.
Nearly four years later, the dusty road between Sidi Bouzid’s main thoroughfare and the humble residential quarter where Mohamed Bouazizi grew up is still blemished with the same potholes. He was not known in his hometown by that name. Though international media outlets immortalized this moniker after he set himself on fire, the first name of the young Tunisian street vendor who lit the now clichéd proverbial match was Tarek. (Full name: Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi.) His friends called him Basbousa. In the popular discourse, the story of Sidi Bouzid’s December 2010 uprising is something of a fairy tale: The youth revolted, the tyrant fell and the Arab world’s first real democracy was forged in the fires of Bouazizi’s rage.
Michelle Obama tweeted a photo of herself on her official account last week using the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, joining the Twitter campaign on behalf of the hundreds of schoolgirls, most of them Christian, who were kidnapped a month ago by the Nigerian Islamist group, Boko Haram. The purpose of the kidnappings remains unclear, but at least two girls have claimed to have converted to Islam, and at least 130 appeared in a video wearing, as the Guardian put it, “Islamic-style dress.” The group’s leader Abubakar Shekau, indicated a willingness to release the girls in exchange for jailed militants.
On August 14, 2013, supporters of deposed President Muhammad Mursi were massacred at two protest camps in Cairo and Giza. In the subsequent four months, the Muslim Brothers have regrouped to launch a wave of popular protest the likes of which has not been seen in Egypt since the January 25 revolution. Under the banner of the National Alliance to Support Legitimacy, the Brothers have mounted over 1,800 actions in 26 of Egypt’s 27 governorates to call for Mursi’s restoration to office and justice for his dead supporters. These protests have continued in spite of an ongoing crackdown that has claimed the lives of hundreds more and seen thousands of Brothers and pro-Mursi supporters detained.
The 18 days of revolution beginning on January 25, 2011 united Egypt. A wide range of citizens, men and women, veiled and unveiled, young and old, middle-class and working-class, stood behind the goals of ending the 30-year rule of Husni Mubarak and stopping the planned succession of his son to the presidency, as well as winning bread, freedom, social justice and dignity. The military supported this national consensus and pushed its aims forward.
On June 16, 2012, female students at the University of Khartoum mounted a demonstration that released a wave of protest on campuses and major towns across Sudan. The young women exited the university gates chanting “Freedom, freedom,” demanding the “liberation” of their campus from the grip of the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) and the reversal of a 35 percent hike in bus and train fares announced earlier by the government.
Throughout his 2012 presidential campaign, Muhammad Mursi was keen to emphasize that he would be a president for all Egyptians, not just supporters of the Society of Muslim Brothers, and that he believed in equal citizenship for all, irrespective of religious affiliation. The majority of Egypt’s Coptic Christians were nonetheless suspicious of the Muslim Brother candidate, and in the first round many voted for one of the other main contenders, Ahmad Shafiq or Hamdin Sabbahi. Almost a year into Mursi’s presidency, it is clear that the Coptic minority — roughly 10 percent of Egypt’s population — did not overestimate either the threat to their rights or the strain on social cohesion that would attend a Mursi victory.
On June 29, 12 days after he was elected president of Egypt, Muhammad Mursi ascended a Tahrir Square stage and issued a dramatic pledge to guard the revolution launched there the preceding spring. Mursi opened his jacket, revealing that he wore no bulletproof vest, thumped his chest and yelled, “I fear no one but God!”
Here we go again. A preposterous provocation easily manages to ignite fevered protests in Muslim-majority countries around the world, and everyone is worse off as a result. The episode is playing like a sequel to the 2005 Danish cartoon controversy, but with bigger and better explosions than the original.
To the left of a makeshift stage in a Cairo five-star hotel, the waiting continued. Ahmad Shafiq, the last prime minister of the deposed Husni Mubarak and one of two remaining candidates in Egypt’s first post-Mubarak presidential race, was three hours late. Fewer than 60 hours were left until voting was to start in the June 16-17 runoff. But the atmosphere, beside the burgundy backdrop with its decorative maple leafs flanking the podium, felt more like a garden-variety junket than a last-minute campaign stop. It was not clear why Shafiq would choose on this of all days to address the Egyptian-Canadian Business Council.
Tunisia was the first Arab country to have a pro-democracy uprising in the winter of 2010-2011, and now it is the first to have held an election. Tunisians took to the polls on October 23 to choose a constituent assembly that will be tasked with drafting the country’s first democratic constitution and appointing a new transitional government. The elections were judged free and fair by a record number of domestic and foreign observers, testimony to the seriousness with which the interim government approached the poll. In the eyes of many observers, Tunisia is lighting the way forward where others — notably Egypt — are faltering.
Pakistan’s generals are besieged on all sides. Like never before, they are at odds with their own rank and file. According to the New York Times, the discontent with the top brass is so great as to evoke concerns of a colonels’ coup. The army also is losing support from its domestic political allies and subject to the increasing hostility of the Pakistani public. The generals are even at risk of being dumped by their oldest and most generous supporter, the United States.
Casbah Square in Tunis has the feel of the morning after. Strewn around the plaza are the odd, drooping Tunisian flag and other relics of the mass demonstrations that forced the fall of the ex-dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January and then two “interim governments” deemed too closely associated with his regime. There are still a few protests in the Tunisian capital. But they are no longer transformative of the political order. They are small, sectional, partisan — almost routine.
Save the worsening snarls of traffic, March 19 was a near perfect day in Egypt’s capital city of Cairo. The sun shone gently down upon orderly, sex-segregated queues of Egyptians who stood for hours to vote “yes” or “no” on emergency amendments to the country’s constitution. Although there have been three other constitutional referenda in the past six years, the plebiscite of 2011 was the first to capture the time and attention of the multitudes. It seemed that no one wanted to miss the historic, hope-filled occasion — for many of those who patiently waited, March 19 was the first time they had voted at all. Later, official estimates put the turnout at 41 percent, a rate completely unheard of in a country where citizens, many of them given material incentives, had dribbled in to rubber-stamp a predetermined outcome, usually, yet another presidential term for Husni Mubarak. The winding lines in and of themselves set off sparks of national pride. One young woman smiled when asked about the long wait, joking, “Lines are more organized after the revolution.”
Thanassis Cambanis, A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel (Free Press, 2010).
In the early 1990s, the security forces of Egypt were embroiled in a low-grade civil war with the Gama‘a Islamiyya (Islamic Group), an uncompromising outfit committed to the violent overthrow of the government. The Gama‘a, like the even more radical Egyptian Islamic Jihad and al-Takfir wa al-Hijra, grew out of study circles reading the works of Ibn Taymiyya and Sayyid Qutb, the intellectual godfathers of jihadi groups across the Muslim world, including al-Qaeda. Qutb taught that jahili (pagan) governments and social elites had usurped the entire realm of Islam.