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:
- "The Role of Social Media in the Jasmine Revolution" by cultural anthropology Ph.D. student Alyssa Miller
- "The Jasmine Revolution" by women's studies professor Frances Hasso
- "Morocco" by Arabic instructor Azeddine Chergui
- "Discourses of the Democracy in Authoritarian Contexts" by UNC sociology Ph.D. student Brandon Gorman
- "The Tyrants of the World," a poem read by Arabic literature professor miriam cooke
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."