Our recent Inside Islam radio show with Oxford University Professor Tariq Ramadan was a good history lesson for me. Ramadan talked about how both the western media and many of Egypt’s politicians are missing the boat: the role of Islam in future structures of Egyptian government is a relevant and important question, but there are much more pressing issues that need to be discussed. The western media has been especially interested in highlighting the headscarf or other tangibles that are symbolic of religious life, when there should be more of an emphasis on what Ramadan identified as the six themes all governments should work towards in their own way: rule of law, equal citizenship, universal suffrage, accountability of elected leaders, separation of power (executive, judicial, and legislative branches), and separation between religious and political power. He argued that it’s dangerous to have our sights on the trees when Egypt should be focusing on its future vision of the forest.
In the last few months, the Middle East has undergone tremendous change with revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt leading to the resignation of Presidents Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak. During these revolutions that inspired others across the region in Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and Syria, different segments of society united with the goal of removing the leaders. In Egypt, especially, Muslims and Christians stood together, even protecting each other while they prayed.
Last month, Egyptians went to the polls to vote on a referendum for constitutional amendments that would pave the way for free elections later this year. Since Hosni Mubarak stepped down on February 11th, Egyptians have witnessed a wave of political activity. Various groups are trying to mobilize to be prepared to participate in the parliamentary and presidential elections. In this new atmosphere, there continues to be fear of an Islamist take over.
When the Egyptian revolution was beginning, many saw hope for democracy and change in a country that had suffered under the same president for 30 years. However, people like Fox News commentator Glenn Bleck saw something more sinister in the Tunisian revolution, Egyptian revolution, and the following protests in the Middle East. Beck did not see these uprisings as the people speaking and finally having their voice heard. Rather, he argued that these uprisings were indicative of a move towards establishing a new caliphate not only in the region but over the whole world.
The revolts in Libya, the most recent in a series of uprisings that has swept the Middle East, began days after former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak resigned on February 11th. Inspired by the successful movements in Tunisia and Egypt, Libyans have taken to the streets to call for Muammar al-Qaddafi, the leader since 1969, to step down. Protesters have been met with violent retaliation from government forces, with estimates of the death toll around 2000.
The protests in Tunisia and Egypt that led to the removal of the leaders of both countries have now spread to Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and Iran. According to some commentators, these protests reflect a relatively new push for democracy by the Arab peoples. In other words, the democracy that Western nations have enjoyed is now appearing in the Middle East. The implicit explanation for this “delay,” for some, is that most Arabs are Muslim and Islam is not compatible with democracy.
Perhaps the most significant world event since the fall of the Berlin Wall has been broadcast around the world: the Egyptian people have overthrown now ex-President Hosni Mubarak through 18 days of peaceful protests. Much of mainstream western media has been in a frenzy over what will come next in Egypt and how the Muslim-majority country will “fair” in “dealing with democracy.” Countless journalists, news articles, and pundits have painted a frightening picture of the Muslim Brotherhood as a violent, Islamic extremist organization on the brink of an Iranian Revolution style takeover of Egypt, imposing Shariah law, and going to war with Israel. In contrast, Howard Schweber, Professor of Law at the University of Wisconsin termed these characterizations “hysterical fear mongering” and called the possibility of Egypt going to war with Israel “wildly implausible.”