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When I practised Islam, I remember praying alone as a chore: I would perform my ablutions, shroud myself and spread my little prayer mat, face Mecca and go through the obligatory series of bows and prostrations. My thoughts would soon wander away but it was obligatory and the prayer-enforcers in my family would notice if I didn’t. So I went through with it.
The experience was very different, however, when I went to mosque. There I stood shoulder-to-shoulder with other women; all shrouded, on a wall-to-wall mat; below us the men were assembled in even larger halls; we faced Mecca and went through the movements of submission. This time I felt a sense of animation. At the end of the recitation we all sang-aaaaammmmeeeennn!!!. My heart throbbed. I was in the crowd of the faithful. I felt its power.
Watching the images of the masses in Cairo I can imagine the strong sense of unity they feel. Many western television viewers also identify with the thousands who have taken to the streets-not only in Egypt, but in Tunisia, Jordan, Yemen and elsewhere-to call for an end to authoritarian rule. Innumerable commentators have drawn analogies with the revolutions that swept eastern Europe in 1989.
This is to miss the profound difference between the western and the Muslim crowd. The people taking to the streets in north Africa and the Middle East have many motivations. But nothing unifies them more than the mass prayer of their religion-particularly the Friday prayer. It is the mosque as much as the street that is key to understanding this uprising.
Nearly all religions rely on crowd cohesion, but Islam is exceptionally good at doing so. None of the despots of the Muslim world who emerged in the era of decolonisation dared to challenge the crowd of the faithful. They purged the Muslim Brotherhood, killed their leaders and imprisoned them by condemning them as the perverters of the true faith. But the mosque was sacrosanct. That is why for so long it has been the only place of association for the Arab masses. That, of course, is why the most effective political force in the Arab world has for years been Islamism.
Those who look forward to a 1989-style outcome-a peaceful transition to a secular, multi-party democracy-should remember how little experience the proponents of secular democracy have. The Muslim Brotherhood has been around since 1928, and draws on a 1,400-year-old tradition of submission.
The problem with political Islam was something identified by Elias Canetti in his classic Crowds and Power. “Believers,” he says, “yearn for God’s force; His power alone does not satisfy them; it is too distant and leaves them too free. The state of continuous expectation of command, to which, early in life, they surrender themselves for good and all, marks them deeply and also has a momentous effect on their attitude to other people.”
The Mubaraks and Gaddafis of the Middle East are not an anomaly; they are the product of structural lack of freedom inherent in the crowd culture of the Islamic world. In this culture submission is instilled early on. If you are not allowed to talk back to your father, or teacher, or clergyman, submission to state tyranny becomes almost second nature. In such a setting, the methods to empower oneself-indeed to survive-are conspiracy, manipulation, intrigue and bribery. Those aspiring to positions of power fear that sharing it will weaken them and lead to humiliation. So once a position is achieved it is made permanent, from the lowliest bureaucrat to the president.
A culture that elevates individual submission oscillates between periods of apathy and occasional bouts of revolt. Arab leaders either rule for life, grooming their sons for succession, or end up having to flee.
So what can today’s Muslim crowds do to avoid the fate of all those mice who thought they glimpsed freedom but were in fact mere playthings of the cat?
The protesters must begin by acknowledging the factors that create an environment where tyrants thrive. For too long, outside forces have been the scapegoats of the Arab street. It is easy to blame the Zionists and America. It is harder to admit one’s own shortcomings.
But today’s crowds also need to articulate what they want. A participant in Egypt’s mass protests was asked on the BBC to comment on the leaderless quality of the demonstrations (February 4). His answer-“We don’t need a leader”-baffled the interviewer and no doubt most western viewers.
His aversion to leadership is understandable in the light of past Arab regime changes. Here, men who arrive as liberators have a way of morphing into dictators until the time when another man mobilises the masses to liberate the nation from their ex-liberator. The new man then rebuilds the old infrastructure of spies and torture chambers.
But is it realistic to have a leaderless revolution? In my view it is not. In the absence of leadership-which means not just one man but a legitimate command structure, as well as some kind of explicit manifesto-these protests will never achieve the truly revolutionary changes we saw in Europe in 1989.
Instead we shall see chaos and instability followed by a new era of authoritarianism; a brief democracy followed by a coup or a sharia government led by the Brotherhood.
So the crowd must become a real movement. They have to build civil institutions. They must hurry and compose a list of demands before they are dispersed. It is not enough just to ask for the despot to go. There need to be amendments to existing constitutions or new ones need to be written. And here America and Europe can offer help.
But when it comes to changing the culture of submission no one can help the Arabs but themselves. It is not their inexorable fate to be ruled either by dictators or by religious fanatics. They will achieve true freedom, however, only when they emancipate themselves from the peculiar power structure imposed on the Muslim crowd-by itself.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a resident fellow at AEI.
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