Islam and the New Modes of Participation

Professor John O. Voll. Photo: Georgetown University

This past weekend academics and journalists from around the world gathered at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for the Inside Islam-cosponsored conference Islam and Democracy. The changing political landscape of the Middle East was a central focus of the event in general and was the main topic of a keynote by John O. Voll, Professor of Islamic history and Associate Director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. In tune with perspectives expressed on Inside Islam by Reza Aslan, Marc Lynch, and Tariq Ramadan, Voll stressed that the desires of the people have largely stayed the same—peace, justice, economic stability—but that the ideologies and particular models of making these demands, have shifted.

Voll, a resident of Cairo in the 1960s, spoke of the fundamental transformation that has occurred worldwide.

[While protesting in Tahrir Square in the 1960s] I never saw a tent with a library or a soup kitchen or a medical facility in it. This is a new format [Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring]. The new mode of political participation is this occupation. … These demonstrations have a strong physical component to them.

Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as a young Air Force Lieutenant in 1952. Photo: AFP/Getty

Voll talked about the old models of political participation in the Middle East that involved top-down thinking from upper-class European-educated nationalists like Gamal Abdel Nasser, Hosni Mubarak, and Hafez Al-Assad, father of Bashar Assad. Handsome military leaders used combinations of strong nationalist and religious ideologies to carve new political structures and movements. The problem, Voll argued, was that in the long run, their strategy failed because their messages didn’t continue to transform over time. The young enthusiastic supporters of the 1950s and 1960s grew older and subsequent generations had a vision incongruous with that of the older, power-wielding generation.

And they rose up through what Voll referred to as “new, unstructured flash mob engageism.”

The Arab Spring was different. … It became clear, at least to the younger population. They understood that the old male nationalist replaced the colonialists and that old male nationalists simply sit in the same chair that the French general sat in. The new face is Facebook. The new face is YouTube. The new face is Wael Ghonim … Google marketing executive before he became a leader of the revolution. He didn’t come from an ideological background. … We’ve got a new mode and approach that is no longer ideological in our old conceptualizations of ideological.

Internet activist Wael Ghonim. Photo:

Voll also spoke about the recent history of Islam in political movements in majority-Muslim countries. He cited Turkey as the first country in the 20th century Middle East to significantly shift its political model. Voll emphasized that although Turkey’s relatively secular positioning looks somewhat similar to Tunisia’s renewed constitutional framework, it is unlikely to take hold in Egypt, Libya, or a post-Assad Syria. He highlighted how early to mid-20th century western academics incorrectly believed religion would fade into the background of politics in favor of a dominant and worldwide secularism. Voll explained how the role of religion in the public sphere has been the front and center issue in almost all Middle Eastern countries recently, even those that saw little social and political uprising.

Voll encouraged the audience to look beyond the Middle East when trying to understand any global trends related to the relationship between Islam and politics. He spoke of Indonesia as a “new, non-ideological Islamic voice.” Voll emphasized that “constitutional religious pluralism is the guideline for the future political reality of Indonesia,” and that it may become the dominant form of democratic politics in much of the Middle East.

Following the completion of the keynote, a fellow conference speaker challenged Voll’s characterization of the Arab Spring as a non-violent movement sparked by Twitter. He reminded the audience that there has been a great deal of violence, and he argued that the west’s romanticized claims of social media-driven activism are largely unfounded, given the low internet literacy and usage of many Egyptians. He refuted the idea of an ideology-free revolution and said that a neo-liberal counter-narrative was the ideological glue of the Arab Spring. In short, he argued that although religion played an important role in shaping people’s discontent, the ideological driver was opposition to the western-backed, post-colonial economic power that remained at the top.

Most observers agree that the modes of political engagement have shifted, but there is less consensus on types of ideologies guiding these revolutions. What do you think of Voll’s main points? Do you agree, or are you more convinced of the challengers’ arguments? Please share your comments below.

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