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Islam and the Arab Awakening by Tariq Ramadan (review)
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The rise of major populist movements of opposition to authoritarian regimes in 2011-2012 transformed politics in the Arab world. The consequences of this transformation are still unclear, but analysts have begun to interpret the significance of what has happened. Tariq Ramadan provides a framework for understanding the nature of what has been called by many "the Arab Spring." The book's "overarching concern" is the question: "as the Arab awakening unfolds, what role will religious references play?" (p. 4). Specifically, the "purpose of this book is to situate Islam as a religious and ideological reference in the Arab awakening" (p. 67).

After a short introduction, Ramadan, in chapter 1, presents a summary of major events, concentrating on how those events have been interpreted. While many observers described the events as unpredictable, Ramadan notes the economic distress in which, in places like Tunisia, the "situation had become intolerable; everything pointed to imminent social explosion" (p. 9). Activists utilizing the new electronic media were gaining training and experience, and an opposition emerged that was not defined by the old secularist-Islamist polarity. In Ramadan's view, although the Islamist organizations did not initiate the awakening, "Islam as a frame of reference" is important in the construction of new political approaches that can "reconcile the practices of the present day" with "long-held values" (pp. 14, 15, 21).

Observers in the Middle East and the West raise the issue of whether or not the movements were indigenous or manipulated by foreign powers. In chapter 2, Ramadan argues that both elements are involved: significant outside help assisted in the development of the oppositional skills of the "cyber-dissidents," and the United States was involved in shaping the role of the military, but the mass movements were expressions of powerful popular discontent. "The strength of the mass movements, particularly in Tunisia and Egypt, lay in their capacity to unite people beyond political divisions" (p. 59). Ramadan concludes, "Whatever the schemes and manipulations of the Great Powers, the future of the Arab awakening will depend on the capacity of each society to take its fate into its own hands" (p. 65).

Defining this future, Ramadan argues in chapter 3, means going beyond the old "hollow debates" about secularization and Islamism. In these arguments, "some people continue to refer to secularization and secularism, or to Islam and political Islam, in terms either directly borrowed from Western definitions and categories, or little better than ideologically generated caricatures" (p. 80). The real issues, in Ramadan's view, involve defining "the relationship of Islam to authority in its many forms" (p. 81). The important distinction between divine authority and human authority provides a conceptual framework that transcends the old categories. At present, both advocates of secularization and the traditionalists, conservatives, and Islamists accept "the terms of the warped debate between 'secularists' and 'Islamists'" (p. 89).

The new framework presented by Ramadan in chapter 4 redefines the relationships between human and divine authority in politics, economics, and society. Rather than a secularist separation of "religion" and "politics," Ramadan speaks of Islam "as a corpus of principles and objectives capable of orienting and inspiring political action" (pp. 106-107) in a framework of the ethics of good governance. Also, rather than an old-style Islamist unity of "religion" and "state," he replaces the concept of "Islamic state" with an ideal of a "civil state" involving "the existence of two distinct authorities: one political, the other religious" (p. 105) guided by "applied ethics" based on Islam. In this framework, the "shari'a is not a rigid, sanctified legal structure. Quite the contrary: it corresponds with a spiritual, social, political, and economic dynamic that reaches toward higher goals" (p. 114). In the conclusion, Ramadan provides a brief summary of the wide range of ideas and arguments presented in the book.

The final quarter of the book is a set of 28 short essays published in newspapers and on Ramadan's website as events of the Arab awakening developed, providing a supplement to the text. The short essays are interesting snapshots but, since most of them are undated and the contexts are not provided, the reader not familiar with the details of the events...


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