Learning from the Middle East

However this chapter plays out, the world will see that democratic dissent in Muslim-majority countries is not dead.


Maajid Nawaz February 01, 2011

The recent assassination of Salmaan Taseer has been nothing less than devastating for Pakistani civil society and its democratic activists. Quite apart from being a national tragedy, the event seems to have dealt a final death blow to the ever-shrinking space for democratic dissent in Pakistan; the fear in raising one’s voice is almost palpable now. But in another corner of the world, surprises of a different nature are cropping up. First Tunisia, and now Egypt and Yemen have erupted in protest against their governments, leaving many a Middle Eastern dictator quaking in his shoes. What is noteworthy is not just the unprecedented levels of mobilisation that the countries have witnessed, but the identity of those who are taking part. The majority of those who have come out onto the streets are not Islamists campaigning on a religio-political agenda, but ordinary disaffected citizens demanding change.

And the price of this dissent is not an easy one to pay. Already over 140 people have died in Egypt in the week-long protests and many more have disappeared into the country’s notorious torture chambers. As an Amnesty International adopted Prisoner of Conscience and a survivor of the infamous Egyptian state torture, I know all too well the danger that those spearheading this democratic action currently face. One such person is my friend Ahmed Salah — a fearless revolutionary who has been galvanising Egyptian youth into action through civil-revolt strategies. Till January 31, Ahmed was in custody, but I’ve been told that he has since been released with ‘only’ a broken nose. And as I write this, I’m sure he is back on the streets agitating once again.

Others who have become symbols of hope are leaders in the Egyptian ‘Kifaya’, or ‘enough is enough’, movement, such as the leftist Ahmed Saif, the lawyer who defended me during my own trial, and former presidential challenger, Ayman Nour of the Tomorrow Party. Coming in second after challenging Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak during the 2005 elections, Ayman was imprisoned for seven years. Ayman, too, was once an Islamist from the group I had belonged to but he had decided to leave Islamism behind and campaign for democratic politics. I soon followed the precedent he set.

It is for these reasons and more that I have hope in the democratic nature of the Egyptian uprising. But what can we in Pakistan learn from these developments? For long we have been told that Islamist movements present the only viable alternative to repressive regimes in much of the Arab world. And a similar kind of thinking has gained traction over the years in Pakistan: extremist organisations seem to be the only real force in the country. For obvious reasons, the extremists have encouraged this view, positioning themselves as the only ‘authentic’ opposition to corruption and injustice, with the resources and popularity to organise large-scale demonstrations and intimidate opponents. Perversely, our leaders have often stood to gain from this view as well, drawing international support for their inept regimes by playing on western fears of an ‘extremist takeover’.

But as the recent Arab example has illustrated, this excessively binary view is flawed. The streets of Egypt and Tunisia were filled, not by Islamists hijacking the name ‘Khilafah’, but by the urban angry. The protests have not been about the establishment of theocratic rule but rather about citizens expressing their outrage at the lack of jobs, housing, and education, the years of corruption, the rising prices of food and petrol and the coercive and brutal methods used to suppress their democratic will.

In these times of darkness in Pakistan, I choose to see this as an encouraging sign. Between corrupt regimes and extremist takeovers, there can be another way. However this latest chapter in the history of the Middle East plays out, the world will have seen that democratic dissent in Muslim-majority countries is not dead. So let’s not lose hope just yet.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 2nd, 2011.

COMMENTS (18)

PK Expat | 10 years ago | Reply Hey Akram, Thanks for your replies. The first article you post, from the Guardian in 2010, actually speaks in favour of Majid Nawaz and Quilliam. Yes there are critics, there always will be when someone takes a bold step and often its the truth that stings the most. Interestingly, the critics are usually apologists or sympathisers of hard line "Islamists". Indeed jail time would be hard for anyone. I don't know Majid personally but, as you do, I have sympathy for someone who has been to jail, but more accurately, who has been tortured in jail. However, I don't think it is jail time that makes someone an expert on radicalization. It probably contributes, because there are many reports of Majid meeting several people while in jail who were militants, islamists, anti-Mubarak activists and even religious scholars, because remember, Egypt was in the business of locking up Muslim scholars. I think before comparing "jail time" on the surface and assuming that a a car burglar in LA or a drug smuggler in Bombay all share exactly the same experiences as political/ideological prisoners like Mandela is a little naive. In the context of Egypt and its history with a rather unforgiving jail system - the kind of people in there were actually trying to do good for their country. I'm sure there are examples in Pakistan too ;) On your third note, no I don't work for Quilliam, but I have been involved with senior management of an Islamic Soc, both at University and after that. For the safety of its members I would rather not name specific names. But, I hope it gives you perspective of the fact that I am highly aware of what "muslim brits" are thinking, I've met them in their tens and hundreds on a daily basis for years. You are right, some of Quilliam's dossiers on funding are not as clear cut as other charities, for example those related to child welfare in the UK, yet government funding information is available publicly. The reason they are not as clear is for security reasons and the protection of parties involved. The kinds of Muslims in the UK who are strongly opposed to Quilliam's research are people who align themselves with extremist ideology. It is a serious problem on the college campuses in the UK. What Hizb-ul-Tehrir ideology promotes is lack of tolerance and an aggressive "we-are-better-than-the-rest" "we-are-the-warriors" type of primitive, childish, unnecessarily macho mindset which actually puts them at loggerheads with the overwhelming majority of normal Muslims in the UK, and I'm sure most places in the world. I realise you are quoting names of people who have voiced their concerns against Quilliam, and its fair, a lot of them are raising constructive debate. Is Quilliam a government stooge? I personally don't think so. But let me ask you this - Do you support what Quilliam is trying to expose as the real problem? Just look up Ahmed Chaudry and his speeches and debates and what he stands for here. And finally, Muslim Scholars in the middle east are on TV, just not in the UK or in Pakistan. They don't all speak English. They go on several appearances in many many countries in the middle east, primarily speaking in Arabic. But yes, he doesn't know as much as them I'm sure, he is younger than many of these shayk's you're probably referring to. At least he's trying to raise awareness in people that we don't have to be cowards and except extremist ideology which is spreading in society, both here and in Pakistan amongst the Muslim community. Extremism or Islamiya or Islamicism is NOT the way.
Akram Nawaz | 10 years ago | Reply If TV Appearances are evidence of expertise then Sarah Palin, Veena Malik, Zaid Hamid and Imran Khan are the biggest experts in the world. TV invitations has more to do with how well you appear on screen than credentials. Why is that Maajid is on more TV shows than experts on Middle East who have spent decades doing proper academic work and not jail time? The answer lies in smooth talking and making friends. Maajid had made friends in the right places and made a fortune out of it but now people can see the facade for what it is and his manjan is no longer selling.
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