Rethinking Revolution at Duke

"Revolutions are the only political events which confront us directly and inevitably with the problem of beginning," writes Hannah Arendt in her remarkable book, On Revolution. Revolutions are signs that a particular political logic has outlived its utility; that this logic no longer makes sense to people. In coming out of private spaces to protest, people undo their commitments to this retiring political logic. They refuse to go back to their lives as individual subjects until they witness the birth of a new era in thinking and acting politics as citizens. In our world of instant communication, the global citizenry joins in to witness a new political beginning as well. 

2011 began with the promise of revolution. The visibility of people proved successful to oust the authoritarian regimes of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. People began asking, "Who's next?"

Taking inspiration from the dizzying Tunisian "Jasmine Revolution" and the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, protestors showed up in Pearl Square in Manama (Bahrain) and wide civil unrest followed in Libya. 

Duke University professors and students wasted no time in coming together in colloquia and teach-ins to rethink revolution with reference to the Middle East. The first event organized to think about the unfolding of revolutinary politics in the Middle East drew a large audience and included the following talks: 

These unsettling social conditions in the Middle East mark what Ebrahim Moosa calls "a spring of discontent." Like other Duke professors, Moosa brings his scholarly expertise in educating and engaging local and global publics about the potential positive possibilities of revolution but also, if things go bad, the negative political perils of revolution. (See Moosa commenting on Egypt on the local TV channel, WRAL, and his Duke On Demand interview called, "A New Test of Islam and Democracy"). Commenting during the Egyptian uprising, Moosa presciently anticipated the earthquake effect of this discontent across the region, which has subsequently seen uprisings in Bahrain and Libya that have been forcefully suppressed.

I recently asked Professor Moosa to comment on the ongoing spring of discontent. He said, "These uprisings are not revolutions because they have not fully upended the previous political orders, but promise to do so. The achievements of the mass uprisings in the Middle East, especially Tunisia and Egypt where the key autocrats have given way, have yet to result in a meaningful roadmap to a full democracy. There is still a very high risk that the military or another set of autocrats could subvert the aspirations of the people in these countries. It will require popular vigilance and global solidarity to see these movements and currents of political energy turn into revolutions, namely the complete displacement of the old by the new." 

There are also concerns about the Islamization of these popular protests in the Middle East. A leading Egyptian cleric, Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, recently issued a legal ruling (fatwa), permitting Libyan soldiers to shoot Mu'ammar Ghaddafi. Qaradawi has also called for changes in the administrative structure of Egypt's leading Sunni Muslim seminary, the Al-Azhar University. I therefore asked Professor Moosa to comment specifically on Qaradawi, to which he replied with the following explanation:

"I am concerned about the Islamization of the Tahrir Square demonstration by Shaykh al-Qaradawi’s unrestrained and euphoric rhetoric.  More disconcerting was his televised fatwa urging Libyan soldiers to shoot Mu'ammar Ghaddafi and relieve Libya from this tyrant. While few people show any admiration for Libya’s discredited leader, it is unbecoming to issue kangaroo-court like fatwas to execute others. The afterlife of these kinds of utterances will come to haunt Qaradawi when fanatics see this as a license to kill. One would have thought he had learnt something after the imbroglio and consternation caused by the Ayatollah Khomeini when decades ago he issued a fatwa to execute the British-Indian novelist, Salman Rushdie, for his seemingly offensive comments about revered Muslim personages. As to Al-Azhar, few will disagree with Qaradawi that the faculty at Cairo’s famous al-Azhar University should elect its grand rector. Part of the democratization of the region requires that the monopolization and nationalization of religion by the state and its minions should come to an end."

On 24 February 2011, Duke Literature professor Michael Hardt contributed an op-ed piece to The Guardian titled "Arabs are democray's new pioneers." For Hardt, the recent political movements of the Middle East are not repetitions of past political impulses, but represent "original experiments that open new political possibilities, relevant well beyond the region, for freedom and democracy." Hardt also points out that these revolutions should serve as corrective antidotes for certain observers who had assumed "the clash of civilizations" thesis. Hardt writes, "The multitudes in Tunis, Cairo and Benghazi shatter the political stereotypes that Arabs are constrained to the choice between secular dictatorships and fanatical theocracies, or that Muslims are somehow incapable of freedom and democracy." Hardt proposes that both capitalism and Islamism are incapable of redistributing the "form of democracy adequate to the new forms of expression and needs of the multitude." These revolutions put into question current global economic governance; the coming out of multitudes in Arab cities highlights the imminence of social struggle. These struggles demand "a common plan to manage natural resources and social production." These revolutions pose the following question to their global audiences: "What [will] these new experiments in freedom and democracy teach the world over the next decade?"
 
Duke women's studies and international comparative studies professor Frances Hasso brings pointed attention to viewing these changes, or the promise of new beginnings, at the intersections of state instiutions, social networks, and personal identity and subjectivity. Her various interviews are available via video through Duke On Demand and other media sources. In "Youth Over Technology in Egypt," she advises to be careful in not romanticizing or "make an automatic connection between technology and the political transformation." Technology, she explains, "does not drive politics." For an interview with Al-Jazeera TV journalist Riz Khan on Arab Feminism and the revolution, she addresses the need to be careful in not making hasty conclusions about women's roles in these uprisings as well as questions concerning sexuality in light of these changes. 
 
The question of revolution and political change also came up in the recently organized "Human Rights in Islam: The Politics of Cultural Translation" colloquium organized by Duke Arabic literature and culture professor Ellen McLarney
 
The conversations chronicled above highlight the need for concerned critical engagement with world events. By rethinking revolution, Duke schoalrs show their commitment to engaged and concerned critique that takes seriously the patterns and problems of the social. 
 
* Image: Painting by Tagelsir Ahmed, photography by Ali Altaf Mian.