Islamic Factor in Middle East/Mediterranean Protests?

On December 17, 2010, Muhamed Bouazizi, a 26-year old fruit vendor from the economically deprived Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid set himself ablaze (dying from his burns three weeks later) after a female police officer and her two colleagues vandalized his fruit cart, confiscated his scales, and allegedly assaulted him in the middle of the street. Mr. Bouazizi, supporting a family of five, had been harassed by authorities in the past for his street vending and was enraged by the latest incident. After being refused a meeting with authorities at the governor’s office Mr. Bouazizi poured paint thinner on his body and lit himself on fire.

Just over a month later, the then-President of Tunisia has resigned and fled the country in the wake of widespread protests. Mr. Bouazizi’s bold act has inspired others around the Middle East/Mediterranean region to follow suit and take to the streets in demanding regime change from their own corrupt governments. Albania, Egypt, Yemen, and most recently, Jordan–all of which are Muslim majority countries–have seen tens of thousands of people protesting against widespread fraud, a lack of economic opportunities, and general illegitimate rule. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen is calling it Tunisian Dominoes. Additional protests may be looming in other countries, since at least 7 others have also set themselves on fire in protest of the economic conditions in Algeria and Mauritania.

Although less than half of those who have burned themselves have perished, the majority (all young men) were believed to have been intending to die from their acts. And while suicide is forbidden by nearly every Islamic scholar, outspoken opposition and action against injustice is an Islamic tradition. One of the most widely-referenced hadiths cites the Prophet Muhammad as saying,

“Whosoever of you sees an evil action, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart; and that is the weakest of faith.”

Countless examples in Islamic history highlight Muslims rising up against illegitimate rule. One of the most important non-violent Indian leaders spearheading the resistance to British rule was Muslim. While less well-known than Mahatma Gandhi, Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan (a.k.a. Badshah Khan) was a lifelong pacifist, close friend of Gandhi, and instrumental in the non-violent Indian uprising of the 1930’s and 1940’s in present-day N.W.F.P. of Pakistan. In 1929, Badshah Khan, an ethnic Pashtun, recruited over 200,000 men and women to join his non-violent army known as the “Red Shirts.” Under the official name of the Khudai Khidmatgar (KK or Servants of God), the Red Shirts led strikes, political rallies, and other opposition efforts and were instrumental in their efforts to defeat the British and gain independence.

And while Islamophobic pundits cite corrupt and despotic Arab leaders as evidence for what they call “Islam’s backwardness,” there are also numerous passages in the Qur’an that explicitly condemn injustice. In one such surah, or chapter, God encourages humans to teach “Truth,” “Patience,” and “Constancy” [Al-Asr 103:3].

Muslims all over the Middle East/Mediterranean are demanding change from corrupt leaders. While mainstream media may not be highlighting some of the socio-religious underpinnings of these uprisings around the region, it should be remembered that Islamic law, history, and culture are reflective and supportive of the protesters’ sentiment and actions.

What do you think about the recent protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Albania, and Yemen? What relationship do you see between the uprisings and Islam?