Thursday, March 19, 2009

A Quiet Revolution Grows in the Muslim World

March 19, 2009
By Robin Wright
Three decades after Iran's upheaval established Islamic clerical rule for the first time in 14 centuries, a quieter and more profound revolution is transforming the Muslim world. Dalia Ziada is a part of it.

When Ziada was 8, her mother told her to don a white party dress for a surprise celebration. It turned out to be a painful circumcision. But Ziada decided to fight back. The young Egyptian spent years arguing with her father and uncles against the genital mutilation of her sister and cousins, a campaign she eventually developed into a wider movement. She now champions everything from freedom of speech to women's rights and political prisoners. To promote civil disobedience, Ziada last year translated into Arabic a comic-book history about Martin Luther King Jr. and distributed 2,000 copies from Morocco to Yemen. (See pictures of Islam's revolution.)

Now 26, Ziada organized Cairo's first human-rights film festival in November. The censorship board did not approve the films, so Ziada doorstopped its chairman at the elevator and rode up with him to plead her case. When the theater was suspiciously closed at the last minute, she rented a tourist boat on the Nile for opening night--waiting until it was offshore and beyond the arm of the law to start the movie.

Ziada shies away from little, including the grisly intimate details of her life. But she also wears a veil, a sign that her religious faith remains undimmed. "My ultimate interest," she wrote in her first blog entry, "is to please Allah with all I am doing in my own life."

That sentiment is echoed around the Muslim world. In many of the scores of countries that are predominantly Muslim, the latest generation of activists is redefining society in novel ways. This new soft revolution is distinct from three earlier waves of change--the Islamic revival of the 1970s, the rise of extremism in the 1980s and the growth of Muslim political parties in the 1990s.

Today's revolution is more vibrantly Islamic than ever. Yet it is also decidedly antijihadist and ambivalent about Islamist political parties. Culturally, it is deeply conservative, but its goal is to adapt to the 21st century. Politically, it rejects secularism and Westernization but craves changes compatible with modern global trends. The soft revolution is more about groping for identity and direction than expressing piety. The new revolutionaries are synthesizing Koranic values with the ways of life spawned by the Internet, satellite television and Facebook. For them, Islam, you might say, is the path to change rather than the goal itself. "It's a nonviolent revolution trying to mix modernity and religion," Ziada says, honking as she makes her way through Cairo's horrendous traffic for a meeting of one of the rights groups she works with.

The new Muslim activists, who take on diverse causes from one country to another, have emerged in reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks and all that has happened since. Navtej Dhillon, director of the Brookings Institution's Middle East Youth Initiative, says, "There's a generation between the ages of 15 and 35 driving this soft revolution--like the baby boomers in the U.S.--who are defined by a common experience. It should have been a generation outward looking in a positive way, with more education, access to technology and aspirations for economic mobility." Instead, he says, "it's become hostage to post-9/11 politics."
Disillusioned with extremists who can destroy but who fail to construct alternatives that improve daily life, members of the post-9/11 generation are increasingly relying on Islamic values rather than on a religion-based ideology to advance their aims. And importantly, the soft revolution has generated a new self-confidence among Muslims and a sense that the answers to their problems lie within their own faith and community rather than in the outside world. The revolution is about reform in a conservative package.
Text-Messaging The Koran
The soft revolution is made concrete in hundreds of new schools from Turkey to Pakistan. Its themes echo in Palestinian hip-hop, Egyptian Facebook pages and the flurry of Koranic verses text-messaged between students. It is reflected in Bosnian streets honoring Muslim heroes and central Asian girls named after the holy city of Medina. Its role models are portrayed by action figures, each with one of the 99 attributes of God, in Kuwaiti comic books.
It has even changed slang. Young Egyptians often now answer the telephone by saying "Salaam alaikum"--"Peace be upon you"--instead of "Hello." Many add the tagline "bi izn Allah"--"if God permits"--when discussing everything from the weather to politics. "They think they're getting a bonus with God," muses Ziada.

Even in Saudi Arabia, the most rigid Muslim state, the soft revolution is transforming public discourse. Consider Ahmad al-Shugairi, who worked in his family business until a friend recruited him in 2002 for a television program called Yallah Shabab (Hey, Young People). Al-Shugairi ended up as the host. Although he never had formal religious training, al-Shugairi quickly became one of the most popular TV preachers, broadcast by satellite to an audience across the Middle East and watched on YouTube. "The show explained that you could be a good Muslim and yet enjoy life," says Kaswara al-Khatib, a former producer of Yallah Shabab. "It used to be that you could be either devout or liberal, with no middle ground. The focus had been only on God's punishment. We focused on God's mercy."

In 2005, al-Shugairi began a TV series called Thoughts during the holy month of Ramadan, focusing on the practical problems of contemporary Muslim life, from cleanliness to charity. Sometimes clad in jeans and at other times a white Saudi robe and headdress, he often speaks informally from a couch. "I'm not reinventing the wheel or the faith," al-Shugairi explains in Jidda's Andalus Café, which he opened for the young. "But there is a need for someone to talk common sense."
Al-Shugairi's own life mirrors the experimentation and evolution of many young Muslims. In the 1990s, he says, he bounced from "extreme pleasure" as a college student in California to "extreme belief." The shock of Sept. 11, an attack whose perpetrators were mostly Saudi, steered him to the middle.

Traditional clerics deride al-Shugairi, 35, and other televangelists for preaching "easy Islam," "yuppie Islam," even "Western Islam." But his message actually reflects a deepening conservatism in the Islamic world, even as activists use contemporary examples and modern technology to make their case. One of al-Shugairi's programs on happiness focused on Elvis Presley, a man with fame, talent and fortune but who died young. Life without deep spirituality, al-Shugairi preaches, is empty.

The soft revolution's voices are widening the Islamic political spectrum. Mostafa Nagar, 28, an Egyptian dentist, runs a blog called Waves in the Sea of Change, which is part of an Internet-based call for a renaissance in Islamic thinking. Yet Nagar belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest Islamist movement in the Middle East. His blog launched a wave of challenges from within the Brotherhood to its proposed manifesto, which limits the political rights of women and Christians. Nagar called for dividing the religious and political wings of the movement, a nod to the separation of mosque and state, and pressed the party to run technocrats rather than clerics for positions of party leadership and public office.

When Nagar and his colleagues were urged to leave the Brotherhood, they decided to stay. "As a public party," he says, "its decisions are relevant to the destiny of all Egyptians, so their thoughts should be open to all people." And indeed, his blog--and other criticism from the movement's youth wing--has caused the manifesto to be put on ice.

The flap underscores an emerging political trend. Since 9/11, polls have consistently shown that most Muslims do not want either an Iranian-style theocracy or a Western-style democracy. They want a blend, with clerics playing an advisory role in societies, not ruling them. As a consequence, Islamist parties are now under intense scrutiny. "Islamists, far from winning sweeping victories, are struggling to maintain even the modest gains they made earlier," says a recent survey by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In Iraq's recent elections, for example, secular parties solidly trumped the religious parties that had fared well four years ago.

Rethinking Tradition
Politics is not the only focus of the soft revolution. Its most fundamental impact, indeed, may be on the faith itself. In the shadows of Kocatepe Mosque in Ankara, Turkey, a team of 80 Turkish scholars has been meeting for the past three years to ponder Muslim traditions dating back 14 centuries. Known as the hadith, the traditions are based on the actions and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad and dictate behavior on everything from the conduct of war to personal hygiene.
Later this year, the Turkish scholars are expected to publish six volumes that reject thousands of Islam's most controversial practices, from stoning adulterers to honor killings. Some hadith, the scholars contend, are unsubstantiated; others were just invented to manipulate society.
"There is one tradition which says ladies are religiously and rationally not complete and of lesser mind," says Ismail Hakki Unal of Ankara University's divinity school, a member of the commission. "We think this does not conform with the soul of the Koran. And when we look at the Prophet's behavior toward ladies, we don't think those insulting messages belong to him." Another hadith insists that women be obedient to their husbands if they are to enter paradise. "Again, this is incompatible with the Prophet," Unal says. "We think these are sentences put forth by men who were trying to impose their power over the ladies."

The Hadith Project is only one of many such investigations into Islam's role in the 21st century. This is perhaps the most intellectually active period for the faith since the height of Islamic scholarship in the Middle Ages. "There is more self-confidence in the Islamic world about dealing with reason, constitutionalism, science and other big issues that define modern society," says Ibrahim Kalin of the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research in Ankara. "The West is no longer the only worldview to look up to. There are other ways of sharing the world and negotiating your place in it."

Crucially, this latest wave of Islamic thought is not led only by men. Eman el-Marsafy is challenging one of the strictest male domains in the Muslim world--the mosque. For 14 centuries, women have largely been relegated to small side rooms for prayer and excluded from leadership. But el-Marsafy is one of hundreds of professional women who are memorizing the Koran and is even teaching at Cairo's al-Sadiq Mosque. "We're taking Islam to the new world," el-Marsafy says. "We can do everything everyone else does. We want to move forward too."

The young are in the vanguard. A graduate in business administration and a former banker, el-Marsafy donned the hijab when she was 26, despite fierce objections from her parents. (Her father was an Egyptian diplomat, her mother a society figure.) But last year, el-Marsafy's mother, now in her 60s, began wearing the veil too. That is a common story. Forty years ago, Islamic dress was rare in Egypt. Today, more than 80% of women are estimated to wear the hijab, and many put it on only after their daughters did.

Piety alone is not the explanation for the change in dress. "The veil is the mask of Egyptian woman in a power struggle against the dictatorship of men," says Nabil Abdel Fattah of Cairo's al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies and author of The Politics of Religion. "The veil gives women more power in a man's world." Ziada, the human-rights activist, says the hijab--her headscarves are in pinks, pastels, floral prints and plaids, not drab black--provides protective cover and legitimacy for her campaigns.

Waiting for ObamaThe ferment in the Muslim world has a range of implications for President Barack Obama's outreach to Islam. Gallup polls in Islamic societies show that large majorities both reject militants and have serious reservations about the West. "They're saying, 'There's a plague on both your houses,'" says Richard Burkholder Jr., director of Gallup's international polls. Many young Muslims are angry at the outside world's support of corrupt and autocratic regimes despite pledges to push for democracy after 9/11.
"Most of the young feel the West betrayed its promises," says Dhillon, of the Brookings Institution. Muslims fume that a few perpetrators of violence have led the outside world to suspect a whole generation of supporting terrorism. "The only source of identity they have is being attacked," Dhillon says. The post-9/11 generation has been further shaped by wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza, all of which Washington played a direct or indirect role in.

Although he is the first U.S. President to have lived in the Muslim world and to have Muslim relatives and a Muslim middle name, Obama is likely to face skepticism even among those who welcomed his election. In an open letter on the day of his Inauguration, the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference appealed for a "new partnership" with the Obama Administration. "Throughout the globe, Muslims hunger for a new era of peace, concordance and tranquility," wrote Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, secretary-general of the conference. He then pointedly added, "We firmly believe that America, with your guidance, can help foster that peace, though real peace can only be shared--never imposed."
That is the key. Gallup polls show that by huge margins, Muslims reject the notion that the U.S. genuinely wants to help them. The new Administration, with a fresh eye on the world, wants to bolster the position of the U.S. But "Obama will have a narrow window to act," says Burkholder, "because the U.S. has failed so often in the past."

Ask Naif al-Mutawa, a clinical psychologist from Kuwait. Al-Mutawa is the publisher of The 99, glossy comic books popular from Morocco to Indonesia, with 99 male and female superheroes, each imbued with godly qualities such as mercy, wisdom and tolerance. In a recent article for the Chicago Tribune, Obama's hometown paper, al-Mutawa recounted a conversation with his father about his newborn son. Al-Mutawa's grandfather had recently died, and he expected his father to ask him to keep the name in the family. Instead, his father suggested the child be named after Obama. "I was stunned," al-Mutawa wrote. "Instead of asking me to hold on to the past, my conservative Arab Muslim father was asking me to make a bet on the future."

But al-Mutawa opted against it. "I want to see results, not just hope, before naming my children after a leader," he wrote. Such pragmatism is typical of the Muslim world's soft revolutionaries. They believe that their own governments, the Islamist extremists and the outside world alike have all failed to provide a satisfying narrative that synthesizes Islam and modernity. So they are taking on the task themselves. The soft revolution's combination of conservative symbols, like Islamic dress, with contemporary practices, like blogging, may confuse outsiders. But there are few social movements in the world today that are more important to understand.

Wright's most recent book is Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East