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I saw the way to realize all my dreams. I would found a religion; I saw myself marching on the road to Asia, mounted on an elephant with a turban on my head, and in my hand a new Koran, which I would have composed to suit my own wishes. In my enterprises I would have combined the experiences of the two worlds, exploiting the domains of all history for my own profit. ... The time I spent in Egypt was the most beautiful of my life, for it was the most ideal.
--Napoleon Bonaparte (1)
What has been widely dubbed the "Arab Spring" or "Arab revolutions" is, in many respects, a misappellation. The protests and, in some cases, revolts that began in Tunisia in December 2010 and swept through much of the Middle East and North Africa would be more accurately described as postcolonial, national revolts against the regimes of the largely Arab nationalist revolutions or, more accurately, the military coup d'etats of the 1950s and 1960s that brought these republican regimes into power. To begin to understand the nature of the recent protests, we need to examine three major events or shifts in the history of the Middle East and North Africa. First is Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798--the backdrop to much of the region's modern history--which ushered in modernity to what would, in time, become the territorial nation of Egypt and, more broadly, to the Muslim world. The second is the "Arab liberal age," or "Arab renaissance" (al-nahda, which the Tunisian Islamist party and movement took as its name), namely, the vibrant intellectual period of (Arab) Muslim thought about the challenges posed and opportunities offered by Western modernity; particularly in the socio-political, constitutional, and economic realms, extending from 1798 to 1939. This assimilation of Western thought and of the rethinking of Muslim tradition laid the intellectual foundation for much of the modern Middle East and North Africa, without which the recent protests and revolutions--and more importantly their demands for ending autocratic rule and for democratic, representative government--may not have been possible. And the third is the postcolonial context of nationalism and nation states in the Middle East and North Africa. The political discourse--or, more accurately, the grievances and demands of the protesters--has, in terms of language and political goals, markedly shifted away from the various strands of pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism that dominated much of the region's history in the second half of the twentieth century to a nationally--namely, Tunisian, Egyptian, etc.--based agenda with clearly defined, and in their eyes achievable, goals. After discussing these historical phases, I will outline three current political models in the Middle East that indicate possible future trajectories for political Islam today.
Napoleon's Invasion of Egypt and the Introduction of Modernity
General Bonaparte's invasion of Egypt in 1798, then under the suzerainty of the Circassian Mamluks under the Ottoman Empire (r. 1299-1923), (2) is, in many respects, the watershed, or rupture, between the later Islamic middle ages and modernity. (3) This event ushered in Western-style modernity to the (Arab) Muslim world. While the invasion of Egypt was largely about expanding French economic and trade interests, through the Red Sea to India, against those of the British Empire, Napoleon, in his Proclamation to all the people of Egypt," states that theirs is a "nation" which, until his arrival, has been subjugated by the political machinations of the Circassian Mamluks who, through their "greed," have brought the "country" to ruin. He, Napoleon, is their liberator and Muslim (0 prophet of modernity:
But God Almighty is merciful, just and wise. From now on, with his help, no citizen of Egypt (ahali Misr) shall despair of being appointed to high position or of attaining lofty rank. Egyptian men of learning, or virtue, and of reason shall regulate the affairs of their own country, and in this way the whole nation (umma) will progress, as it did in former times. ... Therefore, O shaykhs, judges, imams, merchants and notables of the country, inform your people that the French are equally faithful Muslims, as is proved by the fact that they have already invaded mighty Rome, where they laid waste the Papal See that has always incited Christians to wage war on Islam. (4)
He was, if a Muslim, a member of the larger Islamic world or polity (umma), generally being free to move among its various geographies and lands that Muslim empires have territorially, throughout their rise and fall, dominated, and, in general, if a Christian, a Jew, or a member of an Islamically recognized religion or of the "People of the Book," he was, in exchange for a poll-tax, given "protected" status (dhimma), exempting him from military service. This status, however, deemed him to be a second class "citizen," unequal, at least according to Islamic legal theory (but not always practice), in terms of his rights and full privileges, with a Muslim. (5)
The proclamation also describes the French Republic as founded on "the principles of liberty and equality." This notion of equality and liberty, or civil rights, shared by all citizens, irrespective of their religious or ethnic affiliation, appeared to many Muslim clerics and judges to upset the natural, God-ordained order of their society. The notion that social equality and the rights of a "national citizen" are solely based on a shared geography, archeology, (6) language, and history, proved to be a major issue that Western modernity posed not only to Islamic jurisprudence but also to Islamic social and political history, as it had developed until this point.
The Arab Liberal Age: Assimilating Modernity
Muslim clerics and intellectuals of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries struggled to make sense of the concept of nationalism. An early example is that of the Egyptian cleric Rifa'a Rafi' al-Tahtawi (1801-1873), (7) who, between 1826 and 1831, led a student mission to Paris, during which he became proficient in French, and later went on to establish the School of Foreign Languages, which produced hundreds of translations of works in a myriad of fields--including the writings of philosophers associated with the French Revolution, namely, Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, and Condiac. (8) In trying to convey the idea of (Egyptian) nationalism, al-Tahtawi …