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    Southeast Asia
     Feb 23, 2011


Lessons from a whirlwind
By Donald K Emmerson

At this phase in a still unfolding process, all one can safely say of the overthrows in Tunis and Cairo and their spreading repercussions is that they have thrown into question the future of autocracy from the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian Gulf. There are things one can unsafely say, however. Events to date evoke three broad, and broadly revisionist, conclusions:

1. The domino theory is not always wrong
In 1975, when the Indochinese dominos fell to communism, they did not bring down the chain of adjacent Southeast Asian states from Thailand through Malaysia to the Philippines and Indonesia. What toppled was the domino theory itself - the expectation that this would happen. The radical Islamists who seized power in Tehran in 1979 could not knock over the governments of

 
neighboring states in the name of that revolution.

More recently, the Wolfowitzean fantasy of toppling Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein and setting off a chain reaction that would democratize the Middle East was revealed for what it was - absurd. By then the entirely reasonable idea that countries were not inert objects whose stability depended on having stable neighbors had congealed into a conventional wisdom.

Fast forward to 2011. Less than a month separated the January 14 and February 11 ousters of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from Tunis and of Hosni Mubarak from Cairo. Major protest demonstrations have also broken out in Algiers, Amman, Benghazi, Manama, Rabat, Sana'a and Tehran.

Each of these situations is unique; the sequence has been not neatly linear; and it remains to be seen how many more regimes will succumb to pressure from the streets. But the whirlwind across North Africa and the Middle East certainly has illustrated the power of events in one place to inspire them elsewhere in the same region, as a domino theorist would expect.

Proliferating linkages in cyber-space have enhanced the chance that what happens in one place will be quickly and widely known in another. Imitation is not the necessary outcome of awareness. Without their own, home-grown reasons for revolt, the texting and tweeting Cairenes who filled Tahrir Square would not have followed the Tunisian example. That said, however, and other things being equal, access to electronic networks has everywhere lowered the barriers to local mobilization.

A first lesson of these events is that we are likely to see more electronically facilitated demonstration effects spilling across national borders, and more reliance on the Internet to achieve local change.

2. The medium is not the message
There is no such thing as "liberation technology" if by that we mean that cyber-space is intrinsically or inevitably anti-tyrannical - that "information wants to be free" in a political sense. Information does not "want" anything. Democracy is not a tweet. A camera phone with Internet access empowers whoever holds it. But cyber-linkages can be put to progressive or regressive use.

Democrats are the not only ones capable of drawing inferences from recent events. What Ben Ali and Mubarak did or did not do is doubtless already being studied by more than a few of the world's remaining autocrats for clues to avoiding the same fate.

When Mubarak shut down the Internet, he behaved as if cyber-space itself had become the enemy of his regime. If dictators are intrinsically fearful of change, if instead of using new technology they ignore it, and if they close themselves off from information about the way things really are, they will tilt the electronic playing field against themselves. An early student of cybernetics and politics, Karl Deutsch, used to say that power is the ability not to have to listen, to which one could add: until it's too late.

For clever autocrats, on the other hand, the lesson of Tahrir Square may be that their incumbency depends on innovating and manipulating "repression technology": that if halting the flow of information is futile, managing and using it is not. Coercion can be calibrated, as Cherian George has argued with reference to the hitherto successful maintenance of Singapore's illiberal regime.

The uniqueness of conditions in that city-state sharply limits the exportability of its synoptic and thermostatic model of control. But the Internet among other channels of communication can and will be used in efforts to postpone plural politics in the name of state performance - trying to sideline the desire for democracy by acknowledging and responding to the need for welfare.

Striking in this context is the February 9 decision by Syria's authoritarian president Bashar al-Assad to reverse Mubarak's pull-the-plug tactic by canceling long-standing bans on Facebook and YouTube inside Syria. His reasoning, including his timing, is unclear. But it may reflect a sense of confidence following the failure of an anti-government protest to materialize on the previous weekend despite the willingness of some 15,000 people to join the Facebook page calling for "days of rage". A cyber-strategy of surveillance and co-optation is rendered all the more plausible by Assad's previous leadership of the Syrian Computer Society, whose advertised goals include shaping and regulating the local use of information technology.

One can hope that the Internet will help civil societies grow, but cyber-space will remain contested terrain.

3. The secular should not be discounted
In many academic and policy circles, the rise of religion around the world has become, so to speak, an article of faith. The faith is not misplaced. Since the 1970s, Islam has indeed become a more visible frame of personal and social reference among Muslims around the world. The local versions and extents of that global phenomenon have varied substantially from time to time and place to place, but not enough to refute the existence of the trend itself.

It is accordingly fashionable in Western academic and policy settings to downplay the relevance of the secular in the Muslim world. The toponym itself privileges religious affiliation as the defining characteristic of societies from Morocco to Mindanao. Yet Islam is only one reference point in the typically multivalent lives of populations whose actual - as opposed to self-acknowledged - daily fealty to their faith may range from pious to perfunctory.

If religion really had the behavioral weight that the notion of "rising Islam" implies, the revolts in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries lumped together in such an avowedly "Muslim world" would already have inspired the slogans if the not also the aims of the demonstrators.

That has not been true. In Cairo, the slogan that "Islam is the solution" was replaced on Tahrir Square by a motto that paid homage to another nation: "Tunisia is the solution." In country after country, far from rallying under the banner of Islam, the young demonstrators waved or wore the national flag, or showed their familiarity with hypermodern - that is, virtual - reality in signs proclaiming "GAME OVER" for dictators.

Nationalism and cyber-space are not "secular" in an anti-religious sense. Islam has inspired nationalism in Muslim-majority countries since colonial times. Muslim and Islamist websites dot the net. Yet while some protesters have shouted "Allahu akbar!" and prayed in the streets, most have not couched their demands in Islamic terms.

The Shi'ite majority's resentment of Sunni-minority rule has been a key subtext of the protests in Bahrain. But that example hardly reflects the rise of Islam as a single, shared identity. On the contrary, it re-expresses sectarian grievances that have long divided Muslims. And even those grievances have been less theological than socioeconomic. If "secular" means simply non-religious, then the whirlwind so far has been a secular affair.

This may change when the wind dies down, as Islamist political parties and movements become involved in post-euphoric or "morning after" processes of actual - or, at any rate, ostensible - reform, including prospective elections.

Islamists in exile have already come home in the hope of influencing events - Rachid Ghannouchi in Tunis, Yusuf al-Qaradawi in Cairo. The Barack Obama administration's recent decision to veto a United Nations Security Council resolution declaring Israeli settlements illegal will add Islamist, Arabist, and nationalist anti-American fuel to political fires. But the young people who started the storm were not trying to recreate the caliphate. Nor were their demands for freedoms, jobs, and justice, or their disgust over corruption, distinctively Koranic.

If the mainly secular-nationalist minorities who protested are rewarded with majority rule, more explicit religious preferences will have to be taken into account. Yet their likely future influence should not be exaggerated. It is time to retire the fear that an Islamist party that wins an election and becomes the government is bound to cancel all future balloting in order to remain in power. The record of democratically empowered Islamism does not corroborate that suspicion.

From Jakarta to Cairo and back
Muslim-majority Indonesia became a democracy more than a decade ago. Since then, no Islamist party has won a national election by a wide enough margin to form a government on its own. More and less Islamist parties have joined ruling coalitions, and their leaders have become ministers in cabinets. Yet the behavior of these ostensibly religious politicians has not deviated much from what one would expect of their secular counterparts.

Pious candidates who invoke ethical behavior as an Islamic imperative do, however, run the risk of failing to practice what they preach. If politics is the art of compromise, it can also be compromising. Leaders who claim to cleave to a higher standard of morality are especially vulnerable to the charge of hypocrisy if their practices transgress their principles. An Indonesian example is the Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS), an Islamist member of the current ruling coalition. Allegations of corruption leveled at the PKS have been particularly damaging because they so sharply contradict the party's association with pious probity.

A more risible illustration occurred in November 2010 when Indonesia's cabinet ministers lined up to welcome Barack and Michelle Obama to Jakarta. One of the ministers was a leading PKS politician, Tifatul Sembiring. He had prided himself, as a "good Muslim", on shunning physical contact with any woman who was not a relative. Nevertheless, when his turn came to greet the US's First Lady, he shook her hand.

Sembiring claimed to have done so only because she had stuck out her own hand, effectively forcing him to touch it against his will. His blame-the-guest gambit backfired, however, when he was shown on video smiling and extending his own hand proactively to her. The scene went viral in cyber-space. The minister had managed to turn inconsistency into hypocrisy - and himself into an object of amused derision among more cosmopolitan Indonesians. He had also reinforced an image of Islam as a forbidding religion in both senses of that adjective.

In North Africa and the Middle East, the Muslim Brothers may be more skilled in public relations. But Sembiring's case illustrates the difficulty of observing exclusionary prohibitions in a modern democracy whose citizens want to engage with, and be included in, the larger world.

The views of the arguably moderate Egyptian Islamist Qaradawi are instructive in this context. Accessible at IslamonLine.net, his recommendations on "Shaking Hands with Women" rest on a complex scholarly analysis of contrasting texts and opinions. His major conclusion amounts to a series of negations: that it is not forbidden for a Muslim man to shake the hand of a woman who is not his relative by blood or marriage, provided that doing so is not motivated by, and that it will not stimulate, sexual temptation.

Should a conscientious Muslim be able to predict the future? Where does an aesthetic appreciation of beauty end and the risk of physical attraction begin? What if they co-occur? Does avoiding contact to prevent temptation prolong and encourage irresponsibility and immaturity by precluding occasions in which the man allows himself to feel tempted, but then overcomes the feeling by practicing self-control? Is dating the enemy of marriage? What is the nature of love?

It is not disrespectful of either Islam or of Qaradawi to wonder whether such questions could conceivably arise in the mind of a believer trying to follow his advice. Political parties that are committed to religious strictures that imply social closure and reinforce communal identity are likely to have limited appeal.

In Indonesia recently, fearing that its Islamist coloration might have become a political liability, the PKS has tried to soften its image and broaden its popularity among secular Muslims and non-Muslims as well. Still more recently in Egypt, in a Friday sermon delivered to a crowd of more than a million people gathered in Tahrir Square, Qaradawi made a point of honoring the country's Coptic Christian minority and urging respect for freedom and pluralism.

The future of democracy in North Africa and the Middle East is still up in the air, but the whirlwind to date points toward these conclusions:

Politically consequential spread effects will become more common, and as they do, those resisting change will try to rival, divert, co-opt, filter, and block the offending cyber-traffic.

In Muslim-majority societies that do manage to democratize, although anti-religious secularism will remain rare, non-religious secularity will be amply evident in many contexts: demands for modern education and employment in this life; nationalist pride that is not slanted to favor the pious; disgust with corruption especially by religionists with double standards; and the moderating compromises that absolutist politicians in competitive politics will have to make if they want to win.

Donald K Emmerson is an affiliate of the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies at Stanford University and a co-author of Islamism: Contested Perspectives on Political Islam (2010). His website is http://seaf.stanford.edu/people/donaldkemmerson/.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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