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Middle East experts Asef Bayat and Linda Herrera
What sway do Islamists really hold in the midst of the revolutions, protests and crackdowns roiling the Middle East? And just how did young people and the Internet help bring this all about? Sociologist Asef Bayat and education professor Linda Herrera spent 16 years in Egypt ending in 2003, and co-edited and co-wrote the recently published book “Being Young and Muslim.” Bayat, a native of Iran, studies social movements and political change, and also wrote the recently published book “Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East.” Herrera studies youth culture and politics in the region, and followed recent developments in Egypt as a Facebook friend of university students there, an outgrowth of her research on their use of social media. Bayat and Herrera were interviewed by News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
We’ve heard a lot of concern about Islamists taking over from deposed dictators in the Middle East, with Iran cited as the case study. But you say that concern is misguided and outmoded. Why?
Religious politics in the Arab world, and by extension in the Muslim world at large, are changing. The Islamic revolution of 1979 in Iran ushered in a new phase of Islamist politics that really engulfed the Middle East and the Muslim world in general for about two decades, through the ’80s and ’90s. Things have changed, and it seems to me that now we are moving into what I’ve called a post-Islamist phase. Islamist politics, because of its rather undemocratic and often anti-democratic tendencies, has lost its legitimacy before the vast majority of Muslims, and also before some of its previously ardent supporters. It has not worked, both as a state form like in Iran and also as a movement.
So what’s the difference between “Islamist” and “post-Islamist”?
By Islamism, I refer to ideologies and movements that want to establish some kind of Islamic order. That means an Islamic law or Sharia, an Islamic state, and moral codes. One of the major characteristics of Islamism ideologically is that it emphasizes very much the principle of obligations as opposed to the principle of rights. So the Islamists are there to tell people what to do, what not to do, and there’s a lot of emphasis on this aspect of citizenship, whereas the language of rights are very much missing. Now, interestingly, post-Islamists want to reverse this in some way. For them, the responsibility and duties of Muslims, and by extension citizens, are still very important, but they also recognize that rights are also very significant, and that makes it very much part of a very modern sort of movement.
So if Iran has lost credibility, what country now serves as a model?
Turkey, by and large, has appeared as a model for a lot of ex-Islamist movements in the region, and by extension in other parts of the Muslim world. Here is a model that wishes to develop or nurture Muslim ethics in society, wishes to maintain a religious ethic, Islamic ethics in society – but at the same time, at least so far, wishes to have a secular democratic state. It wants to separate the affairs of religion from the affairs of the state, and by and large for the sake of the state and for the sake of religion. As Muslims they feel that mixing the two in some way spoils the essence of religion itself and obviously the character of the state as well. I should emphasize that post-Islamism is still in the process of experimentation; post-Islamists are still in a quandary about the limits of individual freedoms and the extent of democratic rights and pluralism.
What are the key factors or groups driving this unrest throughout the region?
There has been, in the last two decades or so, a major structural transformation in the Middle Eastern countries. These societies are also becoming very urban, and now there are more people living in the cities – about 65 percent in general in the region. And living in the cities tends to generate urban individuals with lots of possibilities (for instance, communication and interaction on a larger scale) and yet numerous needs (for cash, networks of support, ability to afford urban costs and services). Also, a large number of these societies have a youth bulge. In addition, there is an explosion of universities, and every year you have thousands of graduates. The current economic policies, however, exclude the vast majority. This whole situation creates a particular sort of class that I’ve called ‘middle class poor’ that has middle class aspirations and knowledge, and knowledge of the world, and knowledge of their own deprivation, but a standard of life very similar to the traditional poor. That generates a strong moral outrage among this class. These are the protagonists, in a sense, of these new movements. And I think if the economic situation in the region is not resolved, this is likely to continue.
You’ve been following the lives and online activities of Egyptian youth for the last five years. How did you see things evolve?
When I returned to Egypt to continue research in 2006 on youth I found that they were using the Internet for many things, but one that stood out was how they were using it to construct an alternative news universe. Students in high school and university were beginning to understand the power inherent in selecting, circulating, and commenting on news stories that often contradicted the official version of an event. There was a growing culture among computer users to spread the “truth” and raise consciousness, whether about corruption of the Mubarak regime in Egypt, the U.S. occupation of Iraq, Palestine, or the headscarf affair in France.
As Facebook and social media became available around 2006, and with the introduction of Arabic applications to Facebook in 2009, youth expanded their circles and became much more interactive. Facebook was turning into a kind of virtual public square where they were experimenting with deliberative democracy. Someone would toss out an issue and others would discuss and debate it. Facebook became a very plural and dynamic space.
In authoritarian states where there are restrictions on association and expression, Facebook is used in distinctive ways. In a place like Egypt, for instance, the schools are restricted spaces where there is a lot of surveillance and adult regulation. In universities, police are present and there is a high degree of censorship and restrictions on assembly and political organization. It’s important to note that these youth also have fun on Facebook; it’s a playful space, but it’s also a place for serious matters – for building social movements and for constructing coalitions around issues that are very important to people, like inequality, and, in the case of Egypt, police brutality and the lack of civil rights.
How did things play out online leading up to the revolution?
We saw the first significant political mobilization take place on Facebook in 2008 when a youth movement created this platform, the Sixth of April Movement, to support strikes of workers in an industrial town. That was a precursor to the 2011 revolution. In those two years between 2008 and 2010, there were a lot of experiments of this sort, but nothing on a mass scale.
In June of 2010, something hit a nerve among wide segments of the online community and that was the brutal killing of a young man named Khalid Said. He was dragged out of an Internet café and ferociously beaten to death by two police officers in Alexandria in view of witnesses. His parents released a photograph of his very disfigured face on his corpse and activists posted this photo on Facebook, along with a portrait of the youthful-looking Khaled. This incident of police brutality sparked a reaction and anger that brought together a generation on a common mission. They agreed it was time to put a stop to the regime’s torture and brutality and demand civil and political rights. A Facebook page “We are All Khaled Said” was created and that blossomed into a youth social movement.
I would say it was this case of Khalid Said that broke the fear barrier. Suddenly the youth were saying “we’re not afraid anymore,” “we’re fed up,” “enough is enough!” They were getting bolder and bolder on Facebook, insulting the president and political figures, spreading photos of corruption and torture. When I asked one of them, “Aren’t you afraid to do this?” she said: “What are they going to do, arrest millions of us? Millions of us are doing this.” So this became a moment when a collectivity, a generation, crossed the fear threshold. This was very instrumental in the lead-up to the “day of rage” on Jan. 25, to the call from the “We Are All Khaled Said” Facebook page that ignited the revolution.
You don’t like people calling this a “Facebook Revolution,” but you do say it’s valid to talk about a Facebook generation. What do you mean?
I object to that term because revolutions belong to people, they belong to actors. In the Arabic press, we hear people calling this a “dignity revolution.” This is a revolution where people are trying to claim their dignity. Facebook on its own is not an actor, and it can’t cause a revolution. But I do use the term “Facebook generation” because of the attributes this generation shares and the culture they have collectively fashioned, in part because of their growing up with social media. I think this revolution would have been impossible – although this is a broad-based revolution, it’s not a youth movement alone – without the change of consciousness and political behavior of a whole generation of young people. I think Facebook and other social media that rely on Web 2.0 applications that allow for sharing, collaboration, forming on-line communities, circulation of user generated content, have changed the political culture of a generation.
I would go so far as to say that in the case of Egypt, youth behavior on social media has led them to adapt a behavior and commitment to nonviolence. I have watched on Facebook as conversations among young people evolved. For instance, someone might write how they have got to take their rights by force, and others would come in and have a conversation with them and say “no, we’ll always lose if we do it this way, we have to stick to peaceful means, that should be our weapon” and so on. In this way the virtual space was being used as a public square for deliberative democracy. And during the revolution we witnessed the transference of certain behaviors and ethical codes from the virtual square to the physical space of Tahrir Square, which became the symbol of non-violent revolution, freedom, and the extraordinary power of the people.
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