The Arab Reawakening

With rebellion sweeping the Arab world, Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies, talks to Columbia Magazine about the prospect for real change.

Published Spring 2011
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Photo: © Mohamed Omar / EPA/ Corbis

COLUMBIA MAGAZINE: The revolutions across the Arab world may have been precipitated by Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia, but how far back do we need to go in order to understand what has been happening?

RASHID KHALIDI: During the Cold War there were authoritarian regimes on both sides of the Iron Curtain. At the end of the Cold War, there was a series of democratic transitions in many parts of the world: Latin America, East Asia, and ultimately the Communist bloc. It happened in Turkey. It happened in many Muslim countries, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Bangladesh. But it did not happen in the Arab world.

The Arab world had what analysts call a democratic deficit. The question was, Why was what was happening in South Korea or Taiwan or Indonesia or the Philippines not happening in the Arab world?

This winter’s revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere were long overdue. They show that a lot of what people glibly said about this region was wrong, not so much that it had a democratic deficit — it did — but that this was an area that was uniquely immune to democracy. Or that the values of ordinary Arabs differed fundamentally from those of people everywhere else in the world: that here people were more affected by extreme religion, that here somehow religion played a much larger part, that here somehow certain kinds of values that had become universal had not taken hold.

What does this tell us? For one thing, that everything we have been told systematically by talking heads, by pseudo- experts, by self-appointed gurus on the Arab world has been proven to be completely false. These people should be on their knees in sackcloth and ashes as far as I’m concerned.

I think what we have seen in every single Arab country where there have been demonstrations, or the beginnings of regime changes, are expressions of the same universal values that we’ve seen from East Asia to Latin America: democracy, social justice, rule of law, constitutions. Notably absent have been words like Sharia, or even Islam.

COLUMBIA: Religion obviously plays a role in the politics of this part of the world.

KHALIDI: It certainly does. But the terrorists — people who believe that only violence will suffice to achieve change and who have an extreme vision of some kind of religious order they want to impose — are big losers; they’re nowhere to be seen. Clearly, there are ways to change other than by guns and assassination and bombing. Moreover, even those religious parties that are pointed to as the great bogeymen — the Muslim Brotherhood, the Ennahda movement in Tunisia — are nowhere near the head of these movements. Some of the religious groups are barely involved; others, like the Muslim Brotherhood, opposed the January 25 demonstration. The youth movement of the Muslim Brotherhood followed the groups that were organizing the demonstrations and split off from their leadership.

Clearly, if things do not play out positively for democratization, these parties could easily regain their footing; they do have a constituency. Polls suggest that the Muslim Brotherhood might get as much as 15 percent of the vote in Egypt. It’s not a negligible force. Yet somehow these groups missed the bus.

COLUMBIA: Does that mean that the young secularists we’ve seen in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria can hold their own?

KHALIDI: It’s not just the young secularists; there’s a huge middle class in Egypt. These are people who, whether they’re pious or not, in their great majority believe that religion should not determine public life. In Egypt this belief is as strong as anyplace else in the Muslim world, and that transcends religious morals; it transcends political lines. It’s a deeply ingrained feature of Egyptian public life, together with a lot of public piety. I don’t think we should be so scared of public piety; we live in a country that is drenched in public piety. But we’re also a nation that has established a separation between church and state. Admittedly, we’ve had a couple of hundred years in the U.S. to work on these things, while the Egyptians are in uncharted territory. In any case, I think this fear of an Islamist takeover is overblown.

COLUMBIA: What did the Muslim Brotherhood mean when it announced in February that it was going to run only for a certain percentage of seats?

KHALIDI: The Brotherhood was explicitly trying to set to rest fears people had about them. They understood that they had been used by the Mubarak regime to scare foreign powers into backing the regime, and to scare the middle classes into backing the regime. The Muslim Brotherhood is the most tried-and-true bogeyman of every despot in the Arab world. Both Sadat and Mubarak inflated the threat of the Muslim Brotherhood, even as they sometimes covertly colluded with them.

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I'm certain others have commented as I am going to do. The idea that "experts" are "completely false" who doubt the "Arab Spring" -- and I didn't get much further along reading since the pov is stated so absolutely and clearly -- is now dated and absurd. It's obvious that sectarian (that is, religious) violence is a big part of more the Arab Winter, this true in Jordon, Bahrain, and Syria. What is going on in Yemen and Lybia is more tribal, I suppose. But anyone charactrerizing any of this as mainly about democracy -- it might be about a hopeless standard of living, but that is more again capitalism and corruption -- has some false agenda of propaganda. Egypt, of course, is on hold, it is a basket case economically -- none of these countries can much compete in the international marketplace beyond oil -- and now Christians are being attacked by fundamentalist Islamists. Maybe nothing much happened there, the army still in control, or what happened is also likely to bring about a Muslim Brotherhood at least sharing power. I doubt if this would bother the author much, but then I suppose he likes Hamas too, but I stopped reading. If this is the propaganda that passes for expert analysis at Columbia, I can only quote Saul Bellow when meeting Sartre and other communist existentialists around 1948: "I knew more in high school about communism than they do now."

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