The Rise of Islam and the Arab Spring
“The best jihad is when one speaks the word of justice in front of a tyrannical ruler.”
These words were reported to have been spoken from the lips of the Prophet Mohammad, peace be upon him. And I believe that this phrase encompasses all other reasons why the Arab Spring occurred over three years ago. I accept that it may also be the reason why violence will not end in the Middle East.
Intellectuals have tackled the issue of the Arab Uprising in terms of economics, politics, and even religion ad nauseam. But none have delved past this superficial template of analysis and examined the intense underlying spirituality passed through proverbs and Islamic tradition from old to new generations of Arabs regardless of their ascribed religions.
Thriving within the above quote is an unadulterated message from fourteen hundred years ago instilling confidence in that a life lost in the pursuit of justice is not a life lost in vain, but an honor gifted by God alone who decreed it. The concept of “jihad” is one highly debated (and outside of the scope of this article), but perhaps the soundest way to describe it is simply a struggle of good over evil. Some of this exertion takes place inside the hearts of each individual human—fighting the “ego,” as a Freudian psychologist may term it—and some involves placing a beating heart at stake to stand for or defend a cause. But this principle challenges a new global culture of superficiality and idle, individualistic pursuits. Although pop culture is saturated in virtually every corner of the Middle East, the above tradition still penetrates the hearts of the majority. The intense polarity between global culture and original Islamic values is apparent in the apparel of the original protesters—adorning western styles as they roared the fourteen hundred year old phrase, “God is the Greatest!” The merge of the two does not mean that one will dominate the other—as time has proven that Islam continues to be revived despite decades of external influences, while still being flexible enough to encompass new cultural norms.
Despite the massive religious history in the Middle East—from Zoroastrianism, to Judaism, to Christianity, one cannot deny the major ideological influences the Muslim majority has had on the region. I first realized this during a prior trip to Syria, when I noticed that my Syrian friends of the Christian faith were more similar to practicing Muslims than the Muslims in Islamic communities in America. From dating rules to personal hygiene, from common phrases to family values, the “decent” individual raised in the Middle East will have been exposed to the same values championed throughout the region and will have unapologetically preserved many of these principles under the umbrella of their own faith with a fervor similar to that of the Muslims.
This is why, in the initial phases of the Arab Spring, Muslims, Christians, and even a minority of Jews, were able to stand together as the face of a new generation who would not be fooled by the factionalism that plagued their forefathers. Walking on the streets with an illegal picket sign meant that they had acknowledged the risk of ending their lives and had deemed the cause worthy of the hazard. In the beginning of the Syrian uprising, both Christians and Muslims referred to their respective dead as “martyrs,” which is worthy, in Islam, of the highest rankings of Paradise.
These protestors believed that it was their honor to step out of the cocoon of silence from the previous generations and adopted the courage needed, preached by centuries of Islamic scholarship, to stop fearing death and, more importantly, to stop desiring life over justice. And what were they standing for? Simply: justice and equality in their most undeveloped and rudimentary forms. They wanted economic reforms, equal educational and work-related opportunities regardless of association with the current regimes. They wanted to end the system of bribery and blackmail, clean the streets, and utilize the region’s vast resources instead of allowing them to be monopolized by an elite few amidst the starving masses. The truth is, they were not standing for any one religion as much as they were standing for an abstract spiritual desire to share basic human rights. But religion was on their tongues as some protesters found it the only way to express themselves and the yearning for governmental integrity that harvested itself inside their hearts.
A mother from Aleppo called a Gulf talk show during the first few months of the Syrian revolution and asked the Shaikh on the episode: “Shouldn’t these protests be qualified as jihad? We can’t even shower because the government turns off the water when they want. We don’t even have regular electricity! Stop teaching your sons to be cowards and let them stand up—and hope that in the process they are granted Paradise!” The truth is, this woman may not have had any level of Islamic education, but the basic supposition popular with Arabs is that religion—especially the Islamic religion—epitomizes reasonableness and evenhandedness. In situations when fairness is challenged, Islam is constantly called to the table to be utilized in judgment calls. Similar messages were posted via YouTube videos from minorities in the Alawite and Christian communities in Syria—if we don’t value standing up for the truth, they said, then life itself becomes meaningless. It, simply put, wasn’t just about the electricity getting cut off anymore.
And in this sense, regardless of the levels of spiritual edification of the protestors or even their own religion, the entire Arab spring resulted from the culmination of years of Islamic teachings brewing deep in the hearts of several generations. During the rise of Islam over the Middle East over ten centuries ago, Muslim rulership was welcomed by the majority of all religions in the region primarily because it promised stability, security, financial equality, and, most importantly, integrity. Jewish Talmud was circulated, preserved until this day, deeming Islam a “mercy to mankind.” The Muslim Caliphate Omar, may God be pleased with him, was known to speak aloud to his own stomach if he heard it grumbling, proclaiming: “I swear by God that you will not even taste the butter this food was cooked in until I have received word that every member of this nation is eating.” Islam brought a new, altruistic meaning to the understanding of leadership in the Middle East. And this idealistic expectation is wounded, but not dead, in the generations participating now in the Arab Spring.
But just as the fall of the Ottoman Empire signified the result of corruption and ignorance that developed after the first few Muslim Caliphates, some countries experienced a revival of these idealized principles after the fall of European colonialism. The region now awoke to the opportunity to create a new, albeit divided, Middle Eastern identity. While some countries suffered a blood bath in order to achieve independence from the countries that colonized them, Syria enjoyed a peaceful revolution with a hopeful ending. Hashem al-Atassi, my great grandfather’s cousin and the individual responsible for leading a grassroots uprising against France that would end with a trip to France to sign Syria’s independence, was known to refuse to eat meat during his Presidency of Syria in the early 1940’s. His lunch would consist of cracked wheat sautéed with zucchini—otherwise deemed as “poor people’s food,” because he believed that tapping into the country’s financial resources for his own personal gain would be a sign of corrupt leadership. After Hafez Assad took power via a coup d'état in the 1970’s, the masses realized this to be true. Slowly, over a period of forty years, Syria suffered poor management and corruption, as its resources—including oil reserves—were exploited for the gains of the Assad family and key members of the Alawite community.
But make no mistake—the issue is still not finances and economics. The Syrian people struggle and believe in hard work, but they are taught from a young age to possess a strong, proud, moral craving for justice. It was not the stolen funds, the suffering populations, or even hopes of a better day that led to the uprising—it was the deeply rooted and recently resuscitated belief that standing for these causes is meaningful and honorable that led to the Arab Uprising and, more specifically, the Syrian one. It was traditional standards of spiritual responsibility that promised to heal the otherwise broken Arab male, cloaked in the disguise of religion, although scholars themselves disagreed on the classification of protesting, according to older jurisprudence texts.
Ideologically, Muslim scholars continue to disagree on whether or not the Arab Spring was an appropriate application of the above quote from the Prophet Mohammad, peace and blessings upon him. Original Muslim scholars, prior to the closing of the doors of “ijtihad,” which was an era of educated debates and intellectual stimulation for the Muslim community, typically believed that the only circumstance in which speaking up against a tyrannical government was worthy of the honorable term “jihad,” would be when the benefits far outweighed the potential risks. Oppression, they taught, is not as terrible a mischief in the eyes of God as massacre. The hundreds of thousands of lives gone in Syria, their followers today may argue, were not worth the hormonal fervor of the adolescent male screaming for reform and convincing himself that he was standing in the cause of God.
Regardless, however, of traditional Islamic jurisprudence, today paves the way for new ideologies and new interpretations of the above Prophetic tradition. This new interpretation, perhaps, is reckless, but it is popular. And the intention behind it is a pure one, although undeveloped, disorganized, and unpolished, as much of the Middle East remains today. When the current leaders of the Arab world, clutching ungraciously to their self-appointed thrones, are willing to blackmail the activists by slaughtering the innocent residing in their nation out of retaliation, we know that we have reached a new low. But this low is combatted by the Prophetic tradition to stand in testimony of truth at all costs, without focusing on the end but simply focusing on one’s personal responsibility to ensure a favorable resolution in the end.