Whatever Happened to the Arab Uprisings?

Religious freedom explains a great deal.


At 11:30 in the morning of December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a produce vendor in the city of Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, set himself on fire in front of the local government headquarters in order to protest governmental corruption and in so doing provoked a historic wave of demonstrations and uprisings across the entire Arab world.

Did the Arab Uprisings succeed? While they overthrew dictatorships in four countries, they did little to replace them with democracies. Only one country, Tunisia—the one where it all started—now resembles a stable democracy. This wintry result explains much about why the media no longer refers to the uprisings as the "Arab Spring."

In my new book, Islam and Religious Freedom: The Fate of a Universal Human Right in the Muslim World Today, I argue that religious freedom explains a great deal about why the uprisings failed (and succeeded in Tunisia). Admittedly, religion played only a bit part in initially provoking the uprisings. Most Arabs who took to the streets harbored the same sort of frustrations that led Bouazizi to his sad protest: corruption, lack of economic opportunity, unemployment, weariness with dictatorship, and a desire for democracy. Islam, however, entered the stage soon thereafter and critically shaped the course of the drama. Even more so, Muslims' political theologies of religious freedom were crucial to the plot. The importance of religious freedom, I argue, is one of the central lessons of the historic Arab Uprisings.

The Arab Uprisings reinforce the book's central argument regarding the possibility of religious freedom in Islam. From a satellite view, they appear to corroborate skepticism about this possibility. Five years after the protests of early 2011, the preponderance of these predominantly Muslim countries was not more religiously free.

As I argue previously in the book, though, zooming in on the cases reveals a more complex picture. Skeptics of Islam will depict this picture as one of traditional Islamic forces—radical jihadi militant groups, Salafists, and their ideological confreres—obstructing freedom's emergence. The power of Salafists in Egypt, the need of Egypt's first post-uprising president, Mohammad Morsi, to appease their demands, and Morsi's own Islamist signals stoked the fears of proponents of religiously free democracy, and even more so the fears of secularists and of Coptic Christians, that religious repression was in the offing.

In Libya, the refusal of radical Islamist militants and Salafists to join a nascent and fragile democratic government doomed its prospects more than any other factor. In Syria, radical Islamist militants took over the opposition to the Assad government and conquered a substantial portion of the country's territory, where they fomented a religious repression of beheadings and expulsion and fueled a civil war that continues to this day. In Yemen, too, radical Islamic groups, especially Sunni ones, have attacked members of the government, harshly discriminated against Shias, and ruled the territories they control with religious repression. In Bahrain, the Sunni minority government has continued to discriminate sharply against the minority Shias well after the Shias rose up. Without a doubt, bearers of the religiously repressive pattern of denying freedom have exercised strong sway over the direction of the Arab Uprisings.

To leave matters there, though, leaves a great deal unexplained. The secular repressive dictatorships that ruled Arab countries for decades also bear much of the blame for the failure of religiously free democracies to develop. (One of the book's central argument is that secular repressive regimes, rooted in European ideology, are responsible for much of the denial of religious freedom in the Muslim-majority world.) Decades of secular repression in Egypt, Libya, and Syria choked off opportunities for Islamic parties with inclinations toward democracy or religious freedom to gain experience in organizing politically and participating in democratic governance. Many Islamic groups reacted to repression by becoming militant opponents of the political system. Thus, when secular repressive dictatorships fell, Islamic parties were ill-equipped to govern effectively, especially in the face of economic tumult and institutions rotten with corruption. Even in Tunisia, whose post-uprising trajectory was far more positive, the difficulty of facing these burdens rendered the pro-democracy Ennahda Party an electoral loser when it faced its second round at the polls.

Secular repressive forces persisted after the uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Syria, where they both weakened Islamic sectors who sought democracy and religious freedom and contributed to a mutually reinforcing polarization between secular and religiously repressive parties. While the powerful and secularist Egyptian army hung like a Sword of Damocles over Egypt's democratic experiment, the religiously repressive tendencies of President Morsi's government provoked protesters to return to the streets and gave the army the pretext to drop the sword and return the country to a secular repressive dictatorship.

In Libya, forces who carry the prospect of secular repression vie for dominance with Islamist forces who foment religious repression. The secular repressive government in Syria has not been overthrown but continues to fight a civil war in which both this government and its religiously repressive Muslim opponents have muffled moderate Muslim voices who call for democracy and religious harmony. A mutually fortifying opposition between secular repression and religious repression, then, accounts for freedom's failure better than religious repression alone.

The fate of freedom in the Arab Uprisings is made still more complex by the presence of Muslim proponents of religious freedom—that is, people and parties committed both to an Islamic vision for the society and to an expansion of democracy and religious freedom. Tunisia's Ennahda Party is the best example of such a party, one that articulated principles of religious freedom and mostly resisted religiously repressive demands from Islamists. Ennahda is far from perfect in its fidelity to freedom, as is true of Tunisia's Constitution, laws, and democracy. But Ennahda represents a genuine force for religious freedom in the Arab world. In each of the other countries where major uprisings took place, there were also people and factions who stood for religious freedom on Islamic grounds.

The Muslim Brotherhood is more mixed in its support for religious freedom. For a generation now, in Egypt and in other countries, it has voiced its commitment to participating democratically in a political system that it coinhabits with secular parties. This does not mean, however, that the Brotherhood will cease supporting laws that confine the religious behavior of both Muslims and Christians. It favors religious freedom more than the parties on its right flank, but this is a low standard. The Brotherhood's performance in Egypt under Morsi leaves it lacking a track record of advancing freedom while actually in power, although it is difficult to know how much its behavior was due to the need to appease the Islamists with whom it shared governance. On the religious freedom spectrum, the Brotherhood lies between parties like Ennahda and the Justice and Development Party in Turkey (of 2002–2011) on the one hand, and Salafists on the other.

The fate of religious freedom in the Arab world, then, cannot be explained simply as an upshot of Islam or of Islamism. Rather, it results from the interplay among factions holding political theologies of religious freedom, secular repression, and religious repression. Where religious freedom champions were strong enough and could position themselves favorably to the advocates of the other two political theologies, as was the case in Tunisia, religious freedom could be advanced. In most cases, though, partisans of religious freedom did not enjoy such advantages.

The interplay between these factions in turn explains much about the fate of democracy, the aspiration of Mohamed Bouazizi and the other protesters who first took to the Arab streets. Political theologies of religious freedom, of course, are not the only determinant of the success of democracy. A country's level of economic development, the repressive capacities of the state, and other factors obviously will be crucial. Where parties or factions holding a political theology of religious freedom are relatively strong, though, democracy stands a much better chance, and where forces of secular repression and religious repression are relatively strong, democracy will be handicapped. Religion matters, and religious freedom matters.

NEXT: Denaturalizing Natural-Born Citizens

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  1. I would just like to protest against the constant pop-up ads at the bottom of the screen, particularly the ones where you click on the X to close them and instead it just opens up another pop-up screen, as if X is the universal symbol for “Yes, I’d like to hear more about this!” Boo.

    1. ^ Upvoted!

  2. You know, Daniel Philpott, you are a lot like Ilya Somin. He constantly beats his drum of “political ignorance,” in an apparent effort to make a career of it; everything is political ignorance. You are doing the same with religious freedom.

    You realize, of course, that the title of your book is an oxymoron? There is no such thing in Islam as religious freedom, by definition, as we engineers and scientists would say.

    “[in 2013] the Arab Spring?or what was left of it?ended with a massacre. There were only two countries with largely peaceful democratic transitions. One of them was Tunisia; one of them was Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous nation and a bellwether for the region. On August 14, 2013, six weeks after a military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood-led government, over 800 people were killed near Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in Cairo. It was the worst mass killing in modern Egyptian history.”


    The Arab spring made matters in the middle east and northern Africa much worse than before. It was an apparent effort to bolster the Muslim Brotherhood, a reversal of policy on the part of the U.S. Not unlike the reversal of US policy on Vietnam by Truman that led to the immoral and disastrous Vietnam War.

  3. Yes, religious freedom. As long as we ignore multiple acts of violence across the globe, all religiously motivated. I think the better question to ask might be, where are all the voices in the Muslim community denouncing this violence. Name the prominent Islamic clerics speaking out against violence.

    1. Iman Tawhidi. That’s about it that one can say.

      Interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rHjEQA_CwWk

  4. Modern scholarship seems to be surprisingly simple.

    Failure of the Arab Uprising? European colonialism.

    Racism in America? European colonialism.

    Chinese communism? European colonialism.

    Illegal immigration? European colonialism.

    It amazes me that so many problems in the modern world can be laid at the feet of European colonialism. It’s also amazing how nothing happened in the last 200 years that was more important than European colonialism.

    Personally, I would suspect things like WWII, the cold war, rise of fundamentalist Islam, Islamic movements to expel Christians and Jews from Arab states resulting in a loss of religious diversity, despots rising to power and impoverishing their people, and all kinds of other things might have played a role in the lack of religious diversity and tolerance in the Arab Islamic world.

    But I’m not a tenured academic. I thought this was a very complicated problem. Apparently I’m not smart enough to realize that everything can be laid at the feet of European colonialism.

    1. Your issues have some interesting baked in sample bias. Another way to view it: a lot of things causing trouble
      for Europe and America nowadays have a lot to do with imperialist European and American policies of the past.

      But look at issues Japan might care about, and suddenly Japan’s past policies matter a bunch. Weird!

      Also to blame for Islam’s turn towards the insular: Mongols.

      1. If the relatively recent policies of the US can overcome European colonial conditioning, why can’t the relatively young policies of Iran (for example) overcome European colonial conditioning?

        1. The issue isn’t conditioning, though neat slight of hand there.

          The key to being a successful post-British colony is to have your new country be lead by the colonizers not the colonized.

          1. If you are the colonized, of course, have a lower bar. Be glad you have a country unlike the US’s own indigenous peoples 😛

            Isn’t Iran’s problems as much from post-colonial American meddling as anything else?

            1. “unlike the US’s own indigenous peoples”

              Yes, being US citizens is very bad. Better isolated hunter/gather tribes in perpetual warfare like before 1607.

              1. From the point of view of someone living on a reservation? To ask them, probably.

                I can accept having some darkness in my country’s legacy and not fall to pieces over it.

          2. “colonizers not the colonized”

            Singapore says otherwise. India sorta as well.

            1. Dunno so much about India, colonialism’s legacy is still very much there.

              Singapore is a good exception though. I haven’t made a study of that place. Have you any books you might recommend?

              1. Who reads books? Just look at their GDP.

                India’s problems are due to their mass population. And 50 years of Congress Party socialism.

                1. It’s a counterfactual, but I think it’s hard to argue that Britain didn’t screw them up but good both culturally and resource-wise.
                  As did the USSR, as well.

                  I’d wonder how bad their situation would be without their immense population.

                  1. As to Singapore – I want to know the story of how they managed post-colonialism so much better than Africa, Latin America, etc.

                    Size may have something to do with it.

          3. Agreed.

            European colonization lead to an increase in civility and higher standards of living. Those countries that embraced western ideals have been successful at maintaining civilization.

            Those that have rejected western ideals have not been as successful.

            One could, naively, believe that European colonization lead to these problems. Others might call the rejection of European values an intervening factor.

            1. Civilizing those savages, and they’re sill so ungrateful!

        2. “Iran (for example) overcome European colonial conditioning”

          Iran was occupied during WW2 but otherwise never colonized.

      2. The Arab muslim states were sh*tholes under the Ottomans too. European imperialism in the mideast lasted 25 whole years and ended 75 years ago.

        European colonialism in China [other than Hong Kong] ended 100 years ago.

        Time we blame the residents.

        1. The Ottomans were pretty badass for a pretty long time, Bob. Got a good 400 years, a guy named ‘The Magnificent’ and a piece of furniture named after them. We should be so lucky!

          1. Afghans have a dog and a blanket named after them. So twice as good.

            The Arab states were backwaters even under Sulieman.

            Now the Byzantines, they were great.

            1. Man, now I want an American Hound to be our legacy. Not so much the blanket thing.

              The Byzantines are a lot of fun, especially for people who like some passionate legalisti theological debate. I presume you’ve heard of ’12 Byzantine Rulers?’

              Dunno what your metric for backwater is, but from the wiki ‘the success of the Ottoman political and military establishment was compared to the Roman Empire, by the likes of Italian scholar Francesco Sansovino and the French political philosopher Jean Bodin.’

              Ottomans were cosmopolitan and diverse while Europe was insular and squabbling. Their cannons, Janissaries, incredible rug tech…As it should be, it’s all qualitative, but you could do worse as a civilization, IMO.

              1. Arabia, Judea and Samaria, Trans-jordon and Iraq were poor neglected places even under the Ottomans.

                Asia Minor and the Balkans were the source of Ottoman wealth and power.

                Ottomans were the sick man of Europe for 150 years before the end though.

                1. I’d heard 60 years, but yeah empires don’t last forever. Which is why you judge them by their heights, not by their end.

                  1. We primarily judge then for how long they lasted, which is a measure of their lasting cultural impact, and then by their size.

                    1. We primarily judge then for how long they lasted, which is a measure of their lasting cultural impact

                      No it ain’t.

                    2. Dem Parthians.

                      Empire of Japan: minimum 1743 years to date (see above)
                      Byzantine Empire: 874 years (uninterrupted from 330 to 1204)
                      Holy Roman Empire: 844 years (962-1806)
                      Zhou Empire: 790 years (1046?256 BCE)
                      Ethiopian Empire: 666 years (1270-1936)
                      Khmer Empire: 629 years (802?1431)
                      Ottoman Empire: 624 years (1299-1923)
                      Roman Empire: 503 years (27 BCE-476)
                      Parthian Empire: 471 years (247 BCE-224)
                      Han Empire: 422 years (202 BCE-220)

                    3. Yes, it is. Do you have anything of substance to add?

                    4. By your dumb metric, sounds like the Ottomans have us beat.

            2. The Arab states were backwaters

              A right-wing Trump fan from America’s anti-elite, uneducated, can’t-keep-up heartland criticizing the “backwaters?”

        2. BfO: “European colonialism in China [other than Hong Kong] ended 100 years ago.”

          And Hong Kong did spectacularly well being British-oriented (no pun). Now? It’s not so clear.

    2. You realize that:

      1. There can be multiple factors. WAIT – in international affairs there are ALWAYS multiple factors.

      2. Historical events didn’t happen in isolation (i.e. there were events which led up to the event and then there are long-lasting effects which, in-turn, affect other events).

      1. “2. Historical events didn’t happen in isolation (i.e. there were events which led up to the event and then there are long-lasting effects which, in-turn, affect other events).”

        Except for the primum movens, European Colonialism.

        Otherwise, I feel you may have missed the point.

        1. Sure, absolutely nothing happened prior to and leading up to European Colonialism.

          Not Marco Polo
          Not the rise of major industrial capabilities (in Europe) and the need for massive amounts of raw resources and then markets to sell finished products
          Not the rise of major transportation factors (e.g. larger, faster sailing ships, then steel [i.e. COAL burning ships], Suez Canal, then needing foreign SECURE ports)
          Not the rise in major communication factors (e.g. undersea cables, long-distance wireless transmissions)
          Not the rise of geo-political strifes and jealousies (which is why the Germans gained footholds in Africa)

          1. I’ve been saying – the Mongols!

            They wrecked the cosmopolitan great cities of the Middle East, and Islam’s momentum soon shifted from diversity towards insularity.

            Not a sole cause, but surely a cause!


    “Islam in its concrete particulars is too alien and threatening to liberal Westerners for them to acknowledge its existence as it really is. So they keep putting Islam into this or that Western-centric conceptual box in order to make Islam seem familiar and assimilable. But because these non-Islam theories of Islamic extremism are all false or inadequate, new theories, or new variations on old theories, must keep being invented. The never-ending compulsion of Western intellectuals to explain uniquely Islamic beliefs and institutions in non-Islamic terms expresses the very essence of liberalism, which is to deny the existence of human differences that really matter. Listed below are the blog articles I’ve written on this subject.”

    Early Islamic conquests were driven by politics, not Islam.
    [Karen Armstrong adds that Westerners’ projection of their inner violence onto Islam led to Western fantasy that Islam is a violent religion.]

    Modernity produces alienation which leads to radicalism.
    [Fukuyama following Olivier Roy.]

    The cause of jihadism is alienation.
    [And Fukuyama says the cure is a new Western national identity based on ? liberalism.]

    Islamic extremism caused by living in wrong “context.”
    [BBC’s contribution: UK Muslims become suicide bombers because of disorientation resulting from living in a culture different from the one they grew up in.]

    1. Extremism is motivated by the need of young Muslim men to prove their masculinity.
      [? in a consumerist, welfare-state society that undercuts masculinity. A variation on the Olivier Roy thesis by British criminologist Antony Whitehead.]

      Islamic extremism is caused by humiliation and envy.
      [A rare strike-out by Thomas Sowell.]

      The cause of Islamic extremism is sexual frustration.
      [Pierre Rehov: “? kids living all their lives in pure frustration, with no opportunity to experience sex, love, tenderness or even understanding from the opposite sex?. Suicide killers are mostly young men dominated subconsciously by an overwhelming libido?. Since Islam promises 72 virgins in heaven to those frustrated kids, killing others and killing themselves to reach this redemption becomes their only solution.”]

      1. and on and on and on . . . . .

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