food for thought

Like, well, probably just about everybody, I’ve been following the events in North Africa and the Middle East with interest of late. But here’s what I do: Finding the regular English-language media’s coverage of Africa and the Middle East to be wholly inadequate, I rely as much on Al Jazeera English and the French-language media for news and analysis from those regions of the world. Still far from perfect, but I do find a get a far more rounded-out, complete picture of what’s going on. I was reading of troubles in Tunisia and Algeria in the likes of Le Monde, Liberation and Le Figaro days before I saw anything written on the subject in English (which is certainly not to say English-language articles hadn’t been appearing. There are only so many hours in a day), and I’ve found the French-language coverage to go into considerably more depth than anything I’ve seen in English. Perhaps that has something to do with France’s colonial past in Africa – and especially, in this case, the Maghreb – and continued deep involvement in African affairs?

And finally, today, I find the kind of analysis of the situation I’ve been waiting some time to see, published, of course, in Le Monde. “Post-Islamist Revolution”, the headline screams. Well, in French, naturally, but still. By Olivier Roy, who certainly seems to know whereof he speaks. What follows are some of the things in this article that grabbed my interest. It is largely just translation and summary of the points that got me thinking, as I have precious little insight of my own to add.

A note before I continue: All translations are mine. They are dodgy. Any comments that help improve the translations are most welcome.

Here’s the opening paragraph:

L’opinion européenne interprète les soulèvements populaires en Afrique du Nord et en Egypte à travers une grille vieille de plus de trente ans : la révolution islamique d’Iran. Elle s’attend donc à voir les mouvements islamistes, en l’occurrence les Frères musulmans et leurs équivalents locaux, être soit à la tête du mouvement, soit en embuscade, prêt à prendre le pouvoir. Mais la discrétion et le pragmatisme des Frères musulmans étonnent et inquiètent : où sont passés les islamistes ?

European opinion is interpreting the popular uprisings in North Africa and Egypt through a prism over 30 years old: the Islamic revolution of Iran. Therefore it is waiting to see the Islamist movements, in this case the Muslim Brotherhood and its local equivalents, either at the head of the movement or lying in ambush, ready to take power. But the discretion and pragmatism of the Muslim Brotherhood surprises and worries: Where did the Islamists go?

And I have to concur. While I have not seen little in the facts presented in the coverage, Anlgo- or Francophone, to indicate a nefarious Islamist influence, I have seen constant reference to the Muslim Brotherhood and Ennahda in Tunisia, as if we can’t be allowed to watch things unfold without constant reminders of this ever-present ‘threat’.

But this raises questions.

Mais si l’on regarde ceux qui ont lancé le mouvement, il est évident qu’il s’agit d’une génération post-islamiste. Les grands mouvements révolutionnaires des années 1970 et 1980, pour eux c’est de l’histoire ancienne, celles de leurs parents. Cette nouvelle génération ne s’intéresse pas à l’idéologie : les slogans sont tous pragmatiques et concrets (“dégage”, “erhal“) ; il ne font pas appel à l’islam comme leurs prédécesseurs le faisaient en Algérie à la fin des années 1980. Ils expriment avant tout un rejet des dictatures corrompues et une demande de démocratie. Cela ne veut évidemment pas dire que les manifestants sont laïcs, mais simplement qu’ils ne voient pas dans l’islam une idéologie politique à même de créer un ordre meilleur : ils sont bien dans un espace politique séculier. Et il en va de même pour les autres idéologies : ils sont nationalistes (voir les drapeaux agités) mais ne prônent pas le nationalisme. Plus originale est la mise en sourdine des théories du complot : les Etats-Unis et Israël (ou la France en Tunisie, qui a pourtant soutenu Ben Ali jusqu’au bout) ne sont pas désignés comme la cause des malheur du monde arabe. Même le pan-arabisme a disparu comme slogan, alors même que l’effet de mimétisme qui jette les Egyptiens et les Yéménites dans la rue à la suite des événements de Tunis montre qu’il y a bien une réalité politique du monde arabe.

But when one looks at those who’ve launched this movement, it is clear one is looking at a post-islamist generation. For them, the great revolutions of the 1970s and 1980s are ancient history, that of their parents. This new generation is not interested in ideology: their slogans are all pragmatic and concrete (“Get out”, “erhal“); they don’t appeal to Islam as their predecessors did in Algeria at the end of the 1980s. They express above all a rejection of corrupt dictators and a demand for democracy. This does not necessarily mean that they are secular, but that they don’t see in Islam a political ideology capable of creating a better order: they are more in a secular political space. The same goes for other ideologies: they are nationalist (see the waving flags), but they are not pushing Nationalism. Newer is the silencing of conspiracy theories: the United States and Israel (or France in the case of Tunisia, which supported Ben Ali until the very end) are not painted as the cause of all that is wrong in the Arab world. Even Pan-Arabism has disappeared as a slogan, although the mimic effect that through the Egyptians and Yemenis into the streets following events in Tunis shows that there is a political reality to the Arab world.

So these kids are different from their elders and predecessors and have dumped all the old slogans and -isms. But who are they and how have they changed? Roy gives us some sociological changes: These kids are pluralists because they’re more individualistic. They’re better educated than their elders and live in nuclear families with less children. But – as was reported a lot in coverage of the Tunisian uprising – this better education hasn’t necessarily translated into jobs or social advancement. Quite the opposite. There is also, of course, modern communications technology which means they are better informed and, knowing that Islamism has simply turned into dictatorship, not interested in the examples of Iran or Saudi Arabia. It also enables them to directly form social networks free of the old intermediary of political parties. But it’s the end of the third paragraph that grabs my attention:

Ils sont peut-être croyants, mais séparent cela de leur revendications politiques : en ce sens le mouvement est “séculier”, car il sépare religion et politique. La pratique religieuse s’est individualisée.

They may be believers, but they separate that from their political views: in this sense the movement is “secular”, because it separates religion and politics. Religious practice has been individualised.

The next paragraph I find particularly interesting:

On manifeste avant tout pour la dignité, pour le “respect” : ce slogan est parti de l’Algérie à la fin des années 1990. Les valeurs dont on se réclame sont universelles. Mais la démocratie qu’on demande aujourd’hui n’est plus un produit d’importation : c’est toute la différence avec la promotion de la démocratie faite par l’administration Bush en 2003, qui n’était pas recevable car elle n’avait aucune légitimité politique et était associée à une intervention militaire. Paradoxalement l’affaiblissement des Etats-unis au Moyen-Orient, et le pragmatisme de l’administration Obama, aujourd’hui permettent à une demande autochtone de démocratie de s’exprimer en toute légitimité.

They protest above all for dignity, for “respect”: This slogan appeared in Algeria at the end of the 1990s. The values they claim are universal. But the democracy they demand today is not an import, and that’s the key difference with the Bush administration’s promotion of democracy in 2003, which was not acceptable because it had no political legitimity and was associated with a military intervention. Paradoxically the weakening of the United States in the Middle East and the pragmatism of the Obama administration are now allowing an indiginous demand for democracy to express itself in complete legitimity.

Indeed. But it’s not just the kids that have changed. The Islamists, too. And in this section I see three key themes.

First of all, Al Qaida and its ilk are irrelevant. They recruit around the margins of society, the deracinated, dispossessed, those cut off from their families and communities. Their focus on The West and their lack of any social or political base means they are completely disconnected from what is happening in muslim societies. They’re too busy in Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, Pakistan and the London suburbs. Hmm… an interesting choice of locations, that.

Second, Roy warns us not to get confused by the Reislamisation that’s happened over the last 30 or 40 years. Why?

C’est le paradoxe de l’islamisation : elle a largement dépolitisé l’islam.

This is the paradox of Islamisation: it has largely depoliticised Islam.

All these things we’ve been seeing, the wearing of veils, the proliferation of religious TV networks, the numbers of mosques and preachers, are actually signs of an opening of a religious market in which there is no monopoly, which has occured along with a new and individualist religious quest in the youth.

Third, these dictators certainly haven’t been guardians of secularism. Instead, they’ve favoured a conservative Islam, Salafism, that has concerned itself not with politics, but with personal morality and piety.

Bref, aussi paradoxal que cela puisse paraître, la réislamisation a entraîné une banalisation et une dépolitisation du marqueur religieux : quand tout est religieux, plus rien n’est religieux. Ce qui, vu de l’Occident, a été perçu comme une grande vague verte de réislamisation ne correspond finalement qu’à une banalisation : tout devient islamique, du fast-food à la mode féminine.

In short, as paradoxical as this may seem, Reislamisation has brought a banalisation and a depoliticisation of religious symbols: when everything is religious, nothing is religious any more. That which, seen from the west, was perceived as a great green wave of Reislamisation in the end was only a banalisation: everything became Islamic, from fast food to women’s fashion.

But all this new piety was individual and personal, not political, and the rise of Salafism coincided with a revival in other religious trends such as Sufism.

And far from protecting secularism:

ils se sont accommodés d’une réislamisation de type néo fondamentaliste, où l’on parle de mettre en œuvre la charia sans se poser la question de la nature de l’Etat. Partout les oulamas et les institutions religieuses officielles ont été domestiqués par l’Etat, tout en se repliant sur un conservatisme théologique frileux.

they adapted a neo-fundamentalist Reislamisation, where one spoke of putting Sharia into effect without questioning the nature of the state. Everywhere the Ulemas and official religious institutions were domesticated by the state, all while retreating into a fearful theological conservatism.

And the religious old guard has as little to offer as its political master. The youth are looking for new ways to live their faith in a more open world.

Tunisia, of course, is an exception to the above, where Ben Ali imposed a more liberal, secular line.

The political Islamist movements have changed, too, and Roy uses a beautiful word to describe this change: l’embourgeoisement. They’ve gotten all bourgeois and conservative in their middle age. Well, it’s a common enough phenomenon. I now even have a car, for the first time in my life, for crying out loud! But yes, the picture Roy paints of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ennahda, and their ilk reminds one of those youthful radicals waving red flags, distributing Socialist Worker and other radical literature, vowing to overthrow the oppressive capitalist state who grow up to get a decent job, nice house and two cars, and join the Labour Party to sit around sipping chardonnay discussing how to adjust the tax system and reform the welfare state so as to improve outcomes for the poorer families, having realised that revolution would lead only to either civil war or dictatorship. Indeed, just as Tunisia’s Rachid Ghannouchi himself did in an interview with Le Monde just before his return from exile (but not being a subscriber and this article having appeared more than 15 days ago, I can’t access it now), Roy draws an explicit comparison with Turkey and Erdogan’s AK Party:

Erdogan et le parti AK ont pu concilier démocratie, victoire électorale, développement économique, indépendance nationale et promotion de valeurs sinon islamiques, du moins “d’authenticité”.

Erdogan and the AK Party have been able to reconcile democracy, electoral victory, economic development and the promotion of values that if not islamic, are at least “authentic”.

And then this paragraph grabs me:

Mais l’embourgeoisement des islamistes est aussi un atout pour la démocratie : faute de jouer sur la carte de la révolution islamique, il les pousse à la conciliation, au compromis et à l’alliance avec d’autres forces politiques. La question aujourd’hui n’est plus de savoir si les dictatures sont le meilleur rempart contre l’islamisme ou non. Les islamistes sont devenus des acteurs du jeu démocratique. Ils vont bien sûr peser dans le sens d’un plus grand contrôle des mœurs, mais faute de s’appuyer sur un appareil de répression comme en Iran, ou sur une police religieuse comme en Arabie saoudite, ils vont devoir composer avec une demande de liberté qui ne s’arrête pas seulement au droit d’élire un parlement. Bref ou bien les islamistes vont s’identifier au courant salafiste et conservateur traditionnels, perdant ainsi leur prétention de penser l’islam dans la modernité, ou bien ils vont devoir faire un effort de repenser leur conception des rapports entre la religion et la politique.

But the embourgeoisment of the Islamists is an advantage for democracy: rather than playing the Islamic revolution card, it pushes them towards reconciliation, compromise and alliance with other political forces. The question today is no longer to know whether dictators are the best rampart against Islamism or not. The Islamists have became players in the democratic game. They will certainly push for a greater control over morality, but without a represssive apparatus to rely on like in Iran or a religious police as in Saudi Arabia, they will have to compromise with a demand for liberty that will not stop at a mere right to elect parliament. In short, the Islamists will identify themselves with the Salafist current and traditional conservatives, thereby losing their pretence of thinking of Islam as modern, or they will have to make an effort to rethink their concept of the relationship between religion and politics.

There are still many questions, of course, but:

Le processus va être long et chaotique, mais une chose est certaine : nous ne sommes plus dans l’exceptionnalisme arabo-musulman. Les événements actuels reflètent un changement en profondeur des sociétés du monde arabe. Ces changements sont en cours depuis longtemps, mais ils étaient occultés par les clichés tenaces que l’Occident accrochaient sur le Moyen-Orient.

The process will be long and chaotic, but one thing is certain: there is no longer an Arabo-Muslim Exceptionalism. The current events reflect a profound change in the societies of the Arab world. These changes have been underway for a long time, but they have been obscured by the stubborn cliches the West has fixed on the Middle East.

Indeed, and one thing that has remained constant for me over the last couple of months is the sense that there must be so many more things going on in these societies contributing to these events and the way they’ve unfolded, so much more that we’ve simply never been told. How is it that Tunisia could suddenly explode in the face of Ben Ali, the Trabelsis, France and the USA? Why has the Muslim Brotherhood been behaving in an entirely different manner than we’d expect from the Islamist spectre that has haunted so much coverage of Middle Eastern affairs?

And why can’t the media combine the usual superficial reporting of facts and events with more, much more, of this kind of analysis?

About the Author


A Kiwi teaching English to oil workers in Beijing, studying Chinese in my spare time, married to a beautiful Beijing lass, consuming vast quantities of green tea (usually Xihu Longjing/西湖龙井, if that means anything to you), eating good food (except for when I cook), missing good Kiwi ale, breathing smog, generally living as best I can outside Godzone and having a good time of it.

6 thoughts on “food for thought

  1. Very nice post, and your translations from French are very good ! You may be a little bit optimistic but I sure hope you are right !

    If you only read the free online version of Le Monde, you may be missing the more interesting articles. I don’t know exactly how they work but I don’t think they publish everything online for non-subscribers.

  2. A rare piece of multi-cultural appreciation coming from the anglo-saxon world, nice. (I live on an island nearby NZ BTW ;-)

    “why can’t the media combine the usual superficial reporting of facts and events with more, much more, of this kind of analysis?”

    I’m not sure but I’d venture that:
    – this kind of analysis is costly to produce (compared to reproducing just “facts and events”) AND it doesn’t sell well (tl;dr);
    – it goes against the old clichés about islam, clichés that are very, very convenient to sustain the artificial sense of emergency that allows occidental states to gradually remove civil liberties in the name of fighting against terrorism.

    I’m not saying medias are part of a plot, but they certainly do their fair share of spreading FUD based on spin and old views of the world, more because of short-term economic tactics and mediocrity than willingly participating in a political game.

  3. @Jean, Thanks! But I must say the optimism is not mine. I was more intrigued by the article, and I also hope Olivier Roy is right to be so optimistic. For myself, I’m glad this article added to my understanding of what’s happening in the Middle East, but I remain cautious. It’ll be an interesting few years in the Middle East and North Africa, and there are many possible ways events could swing.

    As for subscribing, to be honest, I’m too cheap. Well, and I have no way to pay for such things. But I make sure to get my news and analysis from as wide a source as I can.

    @Padawan, I wish I could be offended by your comment “A rare piece of multi-cultural appreciation coming from the anglo-saxon world, nice.”, but I have to admit the anglo-saxon world is rather closed in on itself.

    I totally agree on the “short-term economic tactics and mediocrity”. Let’s face it, fear sells just as well as sex does, and a quick glance at the media shows the ‘lowest common denominator’ approach dominates these days.

    Now, note that the article that inspired this post was written by an academic. What’s to stop more of the media combining regular reporting with analysis by academics and more specialised journalists? It does happen, but nowhere near enough. And then, of course, newspapers and TV and radio channels do prefer to keep their content close to their chosen editorial line.

  4. “I have to admit the anglo-saxon world is rather closed in on itself.”

    Very much so for France, so I would not have taken any offense. But on that particular subject, France has been the direct target of terrorism on its soil far sooner and more often than the US, and has its own extensive history with the Arab world. That, too, might explain why you can see this kind of analysis in French media.

    Why don’t media extend their “short attention span” reporting with extensive analysis on a more regular basis? I hinted at the financial explanation (#1 IMHO) and as Jean said, you can see that if you pay for it. I’m afraid the vast majority of the potential readership fall into the “tl;dr” category and don’t want to pay for that. I’m not optimistic at all about that, as I watch my own politicians in “le pays des droits de l’Homme” be content with easier-to-manipulate uneducated masses.

    The media are spending too much time complaining about the internet instead of using that time to leverage it to do stuff (like publishing long pieces with close-to-null delivery costs) they can’t do with the economics of paper (where space is constrained and delivery is awfully expensive). If they play it like the music industry, they’re dead, and our democracies won’t get any better. (Quite ironic when put in perspective with the subject at the heart of your post.)

  5. Fair point about the terrorism in France and its history with the Arab world.

    I find there is plenty of quality analysis online, it’s just that the proportion of quality analysis to run-of-the-mill superficial, lowest common denominator news is far too low. Sure, there’s more available to those who pay for it (in my defence, in addition to being cheap, I lack the necessary credit card/paypal/whatever to pay, anyways), but even so, every time I buy a dead tree edition of a newspaper, I see the same tiny amount of analysis and vast amount of shallowness as online. So I don’t think it’s just that the media could be dealing better with the opportunities the internet provides, but that they really need to revamp their overall game plan.

    “I’m not optimistic at all about that, as I watch my own politicians in “le pays des droits de l’Homme” be content with easier-to-manipulate uneducated masses.”

    Bread and circuses.

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