Revolutions: What Went Wrong In The West?

IN FOCUS, 4 Apr 2011

Prof. Hayrettin Yucesoy – Al Jazeera

The recent revolutions in the Arab world rewrites Western paradigms on the “Arab” and “Muslim” narratives.

Many have been watching the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya with astonishment, not just because they seem to be coming out of the blue, but also because they have been amazingly civil, peaceful, unpretentious, and transformative.

There are still several other revolutions now in the making – the closest one to the finish line seems to be the Libyan uprising.

The credit, of course, goes to the people of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and to whoever might ultimately follow; who knows who will be the next?

If we would like to define this moment and describe the stage at which the revolutions stand, there is nothing better than the proverb attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, as preserved in the traditional pious Muslim consciousness: the time for the greater struggle of building self has come.

Having succeeded in the lesser struggle of overthrowing the dictators, the revolutionaries face now the difficult task of keeping the momentum alive after reaching the peak.

It is easy to forget the reasons why these revolutions happened in the first place. It is ultimately up to the people of the region to decide the future direction of this transformation, but one must not forget that winning a battle does not guarantee winning final victory in the overall struggle.

C’est la vie

As we have seen since the French rose up against King Louis XVI in 1789, revolutions can go disappointingly awry.

Rest assured, as we speak there are many working behind the scenes just to reach that goal. One needs not be an expert to guess that horse-trading among domestic and international actors is well underway in Tunisia, Egypt, and now Libya.

The choice for the revolutionaries, their allies, and supporters is clear but fraught with peril: the revolutionary forces can change everything only to find that everything stays the same, like what eventually happened in Iran after the revolution of 1979, or they can start a Promethean struggle for the betterment of their societies piece by piece as part of a struggle for freedom, peace, social justice, and dignity, hand-in-hand with Les damnés de la terre.

Analysts in North America and Europe did not expect revolutions in the region, and those who did, did not expect them to come from these seemingly irrelevant and unlikely actors and to be this widespread and peaceful.

This blanket statement covers both the longstanding members of the media and academia. My question is simple: Why?

Why were the antennas of the media and academia unable to perceive that an earthquake of this magnitude was coming?

It is not that they were innocent of predicting things. Was it because social media had not been tested as a means for revolution and the pundits and analysts were not yet prepared to assess the impact of social media?

This was not the case. For everyone knows that a large part of the success of Obama’s election campaign was due to its effective use of internet media to mobilise the Democratic base and the independents.

So, one cannot explain away the failure of being caught off guard via inexperience in social media’s transformative power.

Furthermore, let’s not jump to the conclusion about social media as the reason for or the facilitator of the revolutions.


The role of social media in the revolutions seems to be inflated more than it can bear.

Let’s not forget that there was the Tahrir Square as a physical public space where people gathered and demonstrated.

True that social media facilitated the dissemination of information faster and better and therefore succeeded in bringing people together to organise collective action. As a facilitator it did a superb job.

However, still it did not have the means to inspire, give sense of how wide spread the uprisings were, and articulate and validate whether the protests were going to bring any result. This Al Jazeera did.

The role of social media in Tunisian and, especially, Egyptian uprisings was important, but as the Libyan uprising shows clearly, the role of Al Jazeera has been central and critical.

As a news outlet, Al Jazeera had already become the voice of the disaffected even before they protested. During the revolutions, it sympathised with the people, reported events from their perspectives, inspired them to seek better lives, encouraged them to push forward, and made them feel they had agency and power.

So hiding behind the sudden rise and novelty of social media to explain the failure to see this tectonic change is not convincing.

One needs to recognise where media and academia had preferred to focus their attention as a contributor to this failure.

The bogeymen of 9/11

Let’s be honest. The spirit of the time marked by 9/11 revolved around the bogeymen of “Islamic fundamentalism” and “Osama bin Laden”.

Knowledge production in Europe and North America has developed primarily in the context post-9/11 propaganda tsunami created by the Islamophobic ranting of far-right extremists, whose opinions no longer even merit a serious response.

So, many sensible analysts found it expedient to combat the anti-Muslim/Arab propaganda with debunking propaganda’s arguments.

They all shuffled from class to class, campus to campus, temple to temple, and NGO to NGO to explain Islam and Muslims.

Yet, even in the back of the most-respected pundits’ and academics’ heads the fear was that these bogeymen might have been much more real and widespread in the “Muslim world” than they were willing to admit

This goes for those who strove to forge a common ground between Muslims, Arabs and the West in a spirit of objectivity, empathy, sympathy, experience, and scholarly honesty, and sought to strengthen the cross-cultural dialogue and understanding by debriefing the European and North American audiences after generations of misinformation.

Despite their best intentions, they all ended up being wrong about a lot of things in the process.

Even the progressive journalist Robert Fisk’s initial reaction to the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings was disappointingly paradigmatic.

Let’s dialogue, Muslim. I want to understand you!

As far as I can see, the recent scholarly and learned discourse on Middle Eastern societies has been shaped by two sympathetic narratives intended to inform the public and battle the far right-wingers’ bigotry.

The first narrative had to do with the observed. The explanation went that Islam was not an inherently violent religion; fundamentalism and terrorism were marginal historically, demographically, intellectually, and politically.

The majority of Muslims belonged to more peaceful Muslim movements and currents of thought and despised bin Laden’s type of extremism.

The second was about the observer and went along these lines: The “Westerners” ought to develop and nourish cultural and religious dialogue and understanding so that we overcome the temptation to think that all people were like “us”.

Muslims had the right to be different and think differently. Secularism might not be a universally applicable experience, certainly not in Muslim societies.

So the lesson was that the “Westerners” had to learn, understand, and accept Muslims and Arabs as they are without imposing their “Western” categories on them.


But somewhere in all of this there was a fatal flaw: the good-hearted, progressive, pro-peace activists, pundits, and academics still followed the trend du jour analyses firmly within the framework of “Muslim religiosity” and “cultural understanding”.

They affirmed rather than denied the basic premise of the conventional wisdom that when it came to Muslims and Arabs, all was about “religion”.

Was it because the ubiquitous and perhaps unconscious thinking that Muslims and Arabs were different? I do not know.

But the fact is that almost no one had envisioned any real alternative to those dictators except the various shades of “fundamentalism” and the nebulous category of “Islamist movements”.

Mubarak and Gaddafi’s overworked canards about “fundamentalism” was not simply their own, it was also that of much of our political leadership, media pundits, and scholars – wittingly or unwittingly.

Therefore, the discourse about Islam as a construct in the progressive media and academia was, by and large, similar to Marie Antoinette’s oft-quoted but always mis-attributed, “qu’ils mangent de la brioche“.

Good-hearted true, but it showed no understanding and solved no problems.

Inconvenient facts and the failure of the paradigm

Fortunately, a beautiful theory is being spoiled by an inconvenient fact.

The revolutions are forcing all of us to confront the nature of our own thinking. Pundits and many academics found that they had not only miscalculated the real dynamics of these societies, but also knowingly (or more disturbing, unknowingly) indulged deep-seated stereotypes as foundations for analyses, which come across as shameful reminders of the caricature we describe as “Muslim” or “Arab” society.

The inconvenient, but certainly long due and welcome, truth is that the uprisings made us see that labour organisations, students, women, professional groups, in a word the civil society, provided the shock troops for the revolutions.

Looking back at the history of the last century or so, it is hard to imagine how we missed to see these dynamic groups, which have been an integral part of political reforms in the region since the late nineteenth century. They suddenly fell below our radars in the post 9/11 world.

The fact that various components of the civil society staged the revolutions has been a matter of grief for some. Had “Islamic fundamentalism”, as a scholarly as well as media construct, played a major role in these revolutions, they would have affirmed the forecast, fit the existing paradigm, and therefore validated the traditional analyses.

However, the paradigm utterly failed. Even the Islamist movements jumped on the band wagon of the popular uprisings (and belatedly at that) and came across as willing to negotiate with the other actors and embrace a pluralistic society.

In addition, the revolutions are deflating the ultimately hollow concepts of “religious dialogue” and “cultural understanding” as a framework for understanding “Muslims” and “Arabs” with the same speed that a needle would deflate a balloon.

That is a good thing – both concepts helped only highlight and emphasise Arab and Muslim exceptionalism.

They promoted mediocre and irrelevant groups with essentialist views of “Islam” and “Muslims” as partners in such undertakings at the expense of engaging more relevant actors in Middle Eastern societies.

In a sense, this has been a project to create a prophecy that would ultimately fulfil itself and affirm our pre-conceived ideas about “Muslims”.

Thanks to the revolutions, we now have been forced to rethink whether the categories “Muslim” and “Arab” have any meaning at all.

It is time to approach three hundred million Arabic speaking people and more than one billion people professing Islam as their faith in their own ways not as “Muslims” but as an integral part of human society – within the context of particular social experiences, needs, aspirations, worries, and grievances, which are as real, complex, and the same as that of the most other peoples around the world.

It might indeed prove disorienting for the media and academia to see Muslims as individuals from various walks of life (women, students, workers, and professionals) and as members of diverse and competing social classes, who can raise their voices demanding jobs, better wages, freedom, participation, and independence.

But those who still prefer to see nothing other than chants of religious slogans may do so on their own peril as the events of the recent revolutions are changing the way we see the region once and for all.

It is called ezber bozmak in Turkish – breaking the routine. Indeed, revolutions are teaching us a lesson, or so one would hope.


Dr. Hayrettin Yücesoy is an Associate Professor of History at Saint Louis University and author of Messianic Beliefs and Imperial Politics in Medieval Islam (Columbia: South Carolina University Press, 2009) and Tatawwur al-Fikr al-Siyasi inda Ahl al-Sunna (Amman: Dar al-Bashir, 1993).

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