Secular revolutions, religious landscapes

By Shatha Almutawa
24 Feb 2011

While the Middle East uprisings have not revolved around religion, faith has not been absent from Arab scenes of protest in the last two months. God and scripture are invoked by revolutionaries and those who oppose them for the simple reason that Arab dialects and ways of life are infused with religion.

To an outside observer, the revolts of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain might appear to be entirely secular, but Arabic Twitter and Facebook feeds are brimming with prayers, some formulaic and some informal, asking God to aid protesters and remove oppressors. Qur’anic verses and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad are shared on Facebook walls. One blogger titled his post: “A saying of the prophet about President Qaddafi.” In the quoted hadith, the Prophet Muhammed warns of a time when trivial men will speak for the people.

After Libyan president Moammar Al-Qaddafi ordered brutal attacks on demonstrators, leaving thousands dead and even more wounded, Yusuf Al-Qaradawi urged the Libyan army to kill Qaddafi. “I say to my brothers and sons who are soldiers and officers in the Libyan Army to disobey when (the government) gives orders to kill the people using warplanes,” the prominent Sunni scholar said, according to UPI. Soldiers have already defected in large numbers, and the pro-democracy army has taken hold of many Libyan cities.

In every part of the Arab world, religious spaces such as mosques and churches have been stages for demonstrators as well as opposition. In the United Arab Emirates an activist was arrested after giving a speech at a mosque in solidarity with the Egyptian revolution. In his speech he invited worshippers to join him in performing a prayer for the Egyptian protesters.

In Egypt, marches began at mosques after Friday prayers, and inside them imams gave speeches in favour of, or opposition to, the uprising. Egyptians are donating blood at mosques near the Libyan border. In Bahrain pro-democracy and pro-government protesters demonstrated outside Manama’s Al-Fateh Mosque as well as at Pearl Roundabout.

Even though religion is not the driving force behind the revolutions, religious leaders continue to defend protest in speeches that are disseminated via YouTube. Dr Tareq Al-Suwaidan, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Kuwait, gave a speech in which he urged Arabs to continue demanding freedom, human rights and an end to corruption. He challenged the governments’ claim that revolutions will lead to instability and insecurity, and that new freedoms would lead to chaos. “The west is living with these rights in stability and security, and they are making progress,” he said. “Our religion calls for these rights. Our religion guaranteed them to us.”

Al-Suwaidan’s tone is one of disbelief at dictators’ illogical statements and the contradictions in their claims. But his ridicule of government leaders is tame in comparison to the jokes made by Arabs all over the world following Al-Qaddafi’s speech. The jokes, too, involve religion. “Al-Qaddafi’s demands are simple — only that the people should say: There is no God but Al-Qaddafi,” Nael Shahwan tweeted in Arabic. Mohammad Awaad wrote, “Qaddafi ‘the god’ is a natural result of a media that has become accustomed to not saying no to a president, as if he is never wrong.” He continued, “I believe we have 22 gods” — one for each Arab country.

The opposition, too, is armed with religious rhetoric, but mosque, Qur’an, and hadith have been central in the Arab world’s struggle for freedom and democracy. Religious leaders as well as lay people have found that the language of religion is also the language of revolution. After all religion is very often the spirit of Arab life, and the inspiration for most of its endeavours — jokes and revolutions included.

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© Shatha Almutawa is the editor of Sightings and a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

With grateful acknowledgements to Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Illinois, USA.

ALSO ON EKKLESIA

* John Heathershaw, Analysing the Arab 'democratic revolutions', 24 February 2011.
* Nadim Shehadi, The Arab revolt: transformation to transition, 24 February 2011.
* Malika Zeghal, Al-Azhar and the narrative of resistance to oppression, 24 February 2011.
* Harry Hagopian, Struggling for the Arab Soul?, 22 February 2011.
* _____________, Politics, Religion and the Middle East, 31 January 2011.
* News and comment feed on Middle East issues.

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