How should we make sense of the revolts that have engulfed the Arab world? Some observers see them as postmodern revolutions, diffused and leaderless, with no fixed ideology. Others view them as the next wave of democratic and liberal revolutions. Most commonly, they are described as youth revolutions, since young people played a key role in initiating them. Still others argue that they may be Islamist revolutions and will turn the region into a theocracy resembling Iran. In the United States, this is the position that many Republicans hold. The Iranian hard-liners concur, insisting that the Arab revolts are inspired by Iran’s 1979 Islamic takeover.

Religious factions have been involved in the Arab protests to an extent -- al-Nahda has in Tunisia, the Muslim Brotherhood has in Egypt and Syria, and the Islamic opposition has in Yemen, for example. But in truth, the revolutions transcend the Islamist politics that reigned in the region just a few years ago. In a 2008 essay on the future of Islamic revolutions, I suggested that the Iranian experience “may well remain the first and the last Islamic Revolution of our time,” for the “growth of democratic sensibilities and movements [in the Middle East] is likely to push Islamism into the ‘post-Islamist’ course, paving the way for a democratic change in which an inclusive Islam may play a significant role. The outcome may be termed ‘post-Islamist refo-lutions’ [a mix of reforms and revolutions].”

Post-Islamism is not anti-Islamic or secular; a post-Islamist movement dearly upholds religion but also highlights citizens’ rights. It aspires to a pious society within a democratic state. Early examples of such movements include the reform movement in Iran in the late 1990s and the country’s Green Movement today, Indonesia’s Prosperous Justice Party, Egypt’s Hizb al-Wasat, Morocco’s Justice and Development Party (PJD), and Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Each was originally fundamentalist but over time came to critique Islamist excess, its violation of democratic rights, and its use of religion as a tool to sanctify political power. They all eventually opted to work within the democratic state.

The protest movements underlying the current revolutions seem set to follow these earlier post-Islamist experiments. So far, religious rhetoric has been remarkably absent, even though the participants of the Middle East’s many uprisings remain overwhelmingly people of faith. In Tunisia, protesters’ central objective was to establish a democratic government. Rachid al-Ghannouchi, the founder of Tunisia’s main Islamist party -- Islamic Nahda -- has publicly rejected a Khomeini-style state and has declined to run for president in future elections. Similarly, in Egypt the revolution demanded “change, freedom, and social justice” and was broadly secular. In fact, the major religious groups -- Gamaiyya Ansar al-Sunna al-Muhammadiyya, a Salafi movement that controls 500 mosques and scores of schools and associations; al-Azhar, the main establishmentarian Islamic institution; and the Coptic Church did not initially back the revolution. The Muslim Brotherhood’s old guard joined reluctantly and only after being pushed by the group’s younger members.

Libya’s rebel movement and provisional government, the National Council, is composed not of Islamists or al Qaeda members but of a mix of the secular and faithful, including doctors, lawyers, teachers, regime defectors, and activists working to end Muammar al-Gaddafi’s oppression. According to their spokesman, Abdul Hafidh Ghoga, a human rights lawyer, Islamist presence is minimal, since the country’s Islamists were, for the most part, crushed by Qaddafi long ago. And in Yemen and Syria, where protesters are also demanding democracy, there has also been no evidence of a major Islamist presence. In Bahrain, of course, the protests have taken on a sectarian dimension, since the monarchy is Sunni and the population is Shia, but the mainstream opposition still has largely secular demands: an elected government, a free press, the right to establish organizations, and the end to religious discrimination.

Today’s overwhelmingly civil and secular revolts represent a departure from the Arab politics of the mid-1980s and 1990s. Bolstered by Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, in those days the political class was consumed by the idea of establishing an Islamic order, including a religious state and sharia. Their primary goal was to forge an ideological community through which secular concerns would be addressed. For Islamists, the state was seen as the most powerful and efficient institution for spreading “good” and eradicating “evil.” In turn, Islamists viewed citizens as dutiful subjects and placed an emphasis on their obligations to the righteous state, with little concern for their rights.

The means for achieving such an order differed depending on the group. Militant Islamists, such as Egypt’s al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, took up arms in the 1990s to dislodge the secular states. The moderates, or electoral Islamists, such as the Muslim Brotherhoods in various Arab countries, preferred da’wa (religious outreach) and working within the system to achieve gradual Islamist change. The militants and the moderates were united by their hostility toward the West. But their shared goals and enemies could not completely reconcile their differences on foreign policy. Shia militant groups, such as Iraq’s Hizb al-Dawa and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, allied with Iran, while their Sunni counterparts remained closer to Saudi Arabia.

Arab authoritarian states unintentionally sowed the seeds of their own demise. In the 1980s and 1990s, as populations grew and urbanized, demand for rights -- specifically for paid and secure jobs, decent housing and amenities, and respect -- rose. Of course, the economies of Arab countries could not keep pace with the demands. Throughout the 1980s, massive urban riots shook major Arab cities. Rather than taking on welfare tasks themselves, Arab governments, following the neoliberal economic agendas popular in the 1990s, tasked the growing sector of religious charities and nongovernmental organizations with providing help. Yet these arrangements proved too feeble to ameliorate the deep poverty and inequality that plague Middle Eastern societies. Indeed, the combination of new economic policies and a weak safety net increased the income gap between the rich and poor, made the working middle class more economically vulnerable, and marginalized much of the educated middle class.

The last two decades saw the expansion of a “middle-class poor”. This paradoxical class obtained college degrees, enjoyed contact with the rest of the world, used digital forms of communication, and expected a middle-class lifestyle, only to be forced to live in poverty with few prospects for improvement. Similar to the other disenfranchised groups in the Arab world, such as the marginal poor, women, and youth, the middle-class poor quietly struggled to improve their life chances. Many Muslim women strove to assert their presence in public, go to college, and pursue justice in courts. Youths forged collective identities in colleges, tea shops, and online and they attempted to affirm their autonomy and change politics by engaging in civil society and volunteer work. Yet these efforts mostly fell short. (The youth would only become a real threat to the regime in mid-2010, when social media facilitated their collective mobilization against entrenched regimes.) In the 1990s then, the most serious political challenge to the Arab regimes was the Islamist opposition, which much of the middle-class poor supported.

But recently, Islamism began to lose its appeal considerably, and the Iranian model of revolution lost much of its luster. The regime’s reputation for repression, misogyny, exclusionary attitudes, and unfulfilled promises became widely recognized, alienating its onetime sympathizers. Al Qaeda’s violence, moreover, had caused a backlash against ordinary Muslims, who found al Qaeda’s practices abhorrent to the true spirit of Islam. Much of the faithful in the Arab world decried the Islamists’ disregard for human rights, tolerance, and pluralism. They could no longer accept the exploitation of Islam as a tool for procuring power and privilege. To rescue Islam, they began to abandon the Islamic state. At the same time, the political class realized that its nationalist, anti-imperialist, and pro-Palestinian campaign would falter so long as it was associated with the demagogic rhetoric of the authoritarian regimes. Thus, the next logical step was to focus on a key internal issue: democracy.

The beginnings of a post-Islamist vision were first evident in Egypt in 2000, when a group called the Popular Committee for Solidarity with the Palestinian Intifada managed to bring together youth, civil society, and political activists to stage mass rallies in Tahrir Square against Israeli sieges of Palestinian territories. But it was the 2004 Kefaya (Enough) movement that heralded the coming of post-Islamist democratic politics: it focused more on democracy and human rights at home than on politics abroad, and it bridged ideological divides, especially between religious and secular activists and between leftists and nationalists. In doing so, it transcended exclusivist Islamist politics.

This new way of doing politics in the post 9/11 era eventually influenced the inner circle of Islamism, compelling activists and ideologues, such as the youth in the Muslim Brotherhood, to rethink their political project. Many groups -- including the reformers in Iran and Indonesia’s Prosperous Justice Party -- explicitly departed from their earlier vision of Islamism. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood took piecemeal and pragmatic steps toward recognizing the legitimacy of democracy, the separation of powers, and minority rights -- when the Kefaya movement and former U.S. President George W. Bush’s rhetoric of democratization pushed it to do so in the late 2000s. Post-Islamism emerged as a frame within which religious politics could become more inclusive. Muslims could confidently remain Muslim but also have a democratic state -- as Turkey’s example indicated. And as electronic media expanded, Muslim and secular activists alike had an unprecedented opportunity to communicate, mobilize, and place their democratic demands on the agenda. Thus, by late 2010, an invigorated new public with a novel political vision and means of achieving it had emerged; ready to lead the current revolts.

It remains to be seen whether the post-Islamist vision can be sustained after the revolutionary fervor subsides. There is certainly the possibility of a renewed fundamentalism. Already in Egypt, Salafists who opposed the revolution are regrouping in the mosques and on the street with a message that democracy is haram (forbidden). Salafis may be able to galvanize some support by capitalizing on moral and religious issues. One thing is clear, however: democrats, whether faithful or secular, have a heavy task before them. They must work to bring democratic values from the rule books to mobilize the ordinary people. If Salafis can do grass-roots work, so should democratic forces.

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  • ASEF BAYAT is Professor of Sociology and Middle East Studies at the University of Illinois. He is the author, most recently, of Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East.
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