Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Polaraized world in the Middle East and elsewhere

Michael Slackman [NYTimes 12/24/08] has written a report on students in Jordan that could apply, with minimal permutations, to the conditions among activists in other countries of the Middle East and South Asia. The article, “Jordanian Students Rebel, Embracing Conservative Islam,” explains how Islamic claims and visions have come to stand for rebellion against repressive government. As one person put it, “Islamism for us is what pan-Arabism was for our parents.” That is, it is a movement driven by a larger vision of common interest by which to react to the injustices of the present. In that sense, “Islamism” is the name for a moral vision that seems well to apply to the contradictions and dilemmas of the present in the same sense that pan-Arabism seemed a way to confront practical social issues in the past. The present situation in Jordan – and several other countries of the region – is that, in Slackman’s words, “By choking off democracy and free speech, the only space where groups could gather and discuss critical ideas became the mosque, and the only movements that had room to prosper were religion-based.” This was the context of the development of the anti-Shah movement in Iran in the 1970s: The Iranian regime had so effectively suffocated every other vehicle of collective expression that the mosque became the natural locus for the formation of an opposition to the Shah. The mosque had an advantage then: The Shah’s regime had so little respect for it that they paid little attention to what was going on there. Now, governments know better. They seem to know that the search among local populations for a way to express their frustrations nowadays has found its voice in Islam. As Slackman puts it, “Today, the search for identity in the Middle East no longer involves tension between the secular and religious. Religion has won.” Or rather, Islamism has won.
This traps individual Muslims in a polarized world. As one Muslim woman put it, “If we implement Shariah law, we will be more comfortable,” she said. “But what happens is, the people who come to power are extremists.” And Slackman adds, “Like others here, she is torn between her discomfort with what she sees as the extreme attitudes of the Muslim Brotherhood and her alienation from a government she does not consider to be Islamic enough. ‘The middle is very difficult,’ she said.”

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