01/31/2011, 00.00
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Secularism, globalization and poverty feed crisis in Arab States

by Simone Cantarini
Egypt, the most important of the Arab states in danger of collapsing under the weight of social unrest. Other Arab countries like Jordan, Syria and Yemen face the same fate. Francesco Zannini, an expert on Islam in PISAI explains to AsiaNews the reasons for the riots, inherent in the formation of Arab States and the juxtaposition of the western model of democracy and Islam. For the scholar, the secular nature of the riots is an opportunity for change and also a good opportunity for Egyptian Christians to integrate into society. However, "the absence of alternative to the regimes and spontaneous nature of the protests, could divert tensions from real change and the result of the protests will be seen only in the long term."


Rome (AsiaNews) - The wave of social unrest that started mid-January in Tunisia, has spread to Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Yemen. Since January 25, in Cairo, Alexandria and other Egyptian cities hundreds of thousands of people continue to patrol streets and squares, demanding the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak. The Rais, thirty years in power, shows no sign of giving up and in recent days has promised reforms and a new government, but meanwhile has cut off all internet communications and deployed the army. Since the beginning of the protests around 150 have people died in the clashes. Currently in Amman, Sana'a and other Arab cities, the situation remains under control and there have been no serious clashes.

What is the future of the protests? Will Islamic extremists ride the institutional crisis in Egypt and other countries. Will there be a domino effect elsewhere in the Islamic world? AsiaNews asked Francesco Zannini, an expert on Islam and professor at the Pontifical Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies (PISAI), about the reasons that triggered the riots. According to the scholar, globalization, the economic crisis and emptiness of Islamic fundamentalism have combined to create what appears to be a real crisis of Arab States.

"You can not approach the Arab world, in the same way as the West - says Zannini - democracy in the West was forged in the sixteenth century. Through five centuries of experiments, failures and revolutions it has come to today's democratic forms and the declaration of universal human rights. The Arab world has had to travel this path in less than 50 years. This is a very important factor that explains the crisis of Arab States and the recent riots. "

Zannini identifies the creation of nation states as another factor related to the current crisis of Islamic countries. "It took place in a very fast - he said -  and with a divergence of views between government and governed. The revolutions that led to the independence of the Arab states were conducted by secular leaderships, who then ruled over people still deeply tied to religion". According to the Islamic scholar it is this difference that has created, in the past, a basis for conflict, particularly in cases where the secular government has not been able to keep its promises.

"In Egypt – he continues - the transition from the Turkish rule to democracy was only a formal step. The old feudal masters were replaced by political lords. Now many Islamic countries are governed a series of 'kings' who dominate according to feudal rules typical of the Arab world. " Zannini recalls that "in these countries, elections are only a formality and the circles of power are tied to a single party, or the dominant groups."

The role of the West in supporting regimes

In recent years the role of the Western world has been another factor. Zannini says that the West "entered Islamic countries through economic neo-colonialism and supported the political leaders. Its excessive interference has created an unstable economic and social situation. " "And in this humus – the scholar underlines - Islamic fundamentalism was born."

"The first to latch on to this wave of instability – he adds - were, in fact, the fundamentalists. They have imposed the principles of Islam as a utopian alternative to capitalism and mass socialism, riding the discontent of the population. The extremists have come out against the exploitations of the West, guilty of having contributed to the creation of a non-egalitarian Islamic society and different from that described in the Koran. " According to the scholar, fundamentalism is not able to change anything politically, it only affects the masses, but with some success in Sudan and some Asian countries.  

Zannini stresses that so far "the only one to have obtained some results was Khomeini." "During the regime of the Shah - he says - the Iranian ayatollah drew on popular discontent of a social nature. Who really ousted Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was the intellectual socialist and communist opposition, the first to strongly criticize the regime. Khomeini, thanks to his charisma, was able to take advantage of the socialist ideal amalgamated with the Islamic religion. " According to Zannini the population would not accept the religious ideal without the support of socialism already present and rooted in the intellectual and bourgeois.

Globalization and secularism, the crisis of Islamic fundamentalism

Except for Iran, according Zannini the project of radical Islam to impose at a political level the principles of the Koran as a guide to the rebirth of the Arab countries has been seriously undermined, mainly because of the terrorist drift.

"The idea proposed by Islamic radicals – says the scholar- does not have strong roots in traditional Muslim culture and it is only an ideological and practical attempt to respond to the contemporary world. Unlike the great philosophies such as Marxism, Islamic fundamentalism can not evolve into other forms, because it is tied to a particular situation. Indeed, it has been successful at a social and cultural level, but has failed at the political level, where it has had to adapt to find consensus, changing its rigid nature. " Zannini points out that after the success of Khomeini, the fundamentalist Islamic ideology is now landlocked. "The first element - he says - is the absence of a leader able to embody Islamic values. The second is the excessive extension of its field of action which, in fact, includes most Islamic countries. The third element is a media and cultural globalization. " According to Zannini students and the middle class, while remaining linked to religion, are absorbing the principles of secularism thanks to the Internet and the media, which change their conceptions in an unconscious way. "This - he said - is very important because secular principles, in addition to separate religion and state, get rid of leaders. In Islamic culture these represent traditional spiritual continuity with the prophet that the people must obey. " "In the past – he continues - many political leaders were supported by the mullahs, who through the Koran allowed them to maintain power. Today, secularism, thanks to globalization, has the power to break the aura of leaders invulnerability. "

The political and institutional fragility of Islamic states

The structure of the Muslim nation is unclear from the very beginning. The scholar points out that Muslim countries are born with mixed constitutions which juxtapose parts of sharia and parts of Western law are very different from European constitutions that have been obtained from a slow merger of Christianity with secular philosophies. "The concept of nationhood - he adds - is juxtaposed against the Islamic religion, the sacred concept of the state. The leadership that led to the independence of Arab States has reinterpreted the structure of Islam in a nationalist light. "

The scholar believes that this confusion has led to a series of institutional problems, the relationship between secular and religious elements, management of political and economic power, that has bankrupted both national regimes and fundamentalist forces. Added to these in recent years the economic crisis and the awareness by the population that they are being ruled by corrupt leaderships. Zannini says that all these have combined to give rise to the riots that have broken out in Tunisia and Egypt.

The risk of a domino effect. The future of the revolts

According to the Islamic scholar Muslim countries are like fragile mountains that risk collapsing one after another. "In Tunisia - he says - people did not merely protest, but spread their ideas on websites, facebook and other social networks, affecting the populations of other States, as far as Yemen."

The future of the revolts, however, is uncertain and it is impossible to understand how they will evolve. Zannini says that "at the moment the situation is like an erupting volcano, the problem will come when the ashes settle. Who will be the new leader in Tunisia? In the case of a fall of Mubarack will ElBaradei be able to lead Egypt? "

Despite the uncertainties, this crisis situation, however, could give hope to the Christian world. "In Egypt – he adds - the possible overcoming of hostilities between Muslims and Copts, linked more to cultural than religious reasons, would give Christians the possibility of greater participation in society."

Another scenario is related to the entry into play of Islamic extremists, who have already started profiting from the popular dissent, but according Zannini they are deterred by the erosion of the same fundamentalism, which has reduced its influence on the population. "In times of confusion - he says- there may always be danger and al Qaeda could take advantage of the crisis."

In this scenario, the role of the West has been severely reduced. According to Hussein Majdoub, a Moroccan journalist of the newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi, counting on the Western world has now become a pure “political fantasy. " He stressed that the Islamic world must be able to bring about their own change. "The absence of alternatives to the regimes- claims Zannini - and the overly spontaneous nature of the protests, however, are likely divert attention to change and the result of the revolts will only be seen in the long term."

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