I wonder what the demonstrations in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, and Albania mean to the Islamist leaders — Osama Bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri, especially. These demonstrations have an appearance of spontaneity that the Islamist demonstrations in various places never had. In those demonstrations the core among the activists were the students of religious figures — this was the element that could be counted on to help the movement. But here we have demonstrations that appear to arise from a broad sense of distress among the abused populations of these countries, and they are animated by ideals very different from the call to return to a strict practice of Islam. In fact, the Islamists never generated such broad based expressions of public outrage, even though admittedly they did represent the frustrations of many. These populations have suffered for so long under repressive regimes that any expression of public outrage was accepted and in many cases, supported by the public. But there is good reason to suppose that even then it was not religious concerns that motivated the popularity of Osama Bin Laden and other radical Islamists. It was instead an authentic quest for relief, for recognition as human beings by rulerships that could not bear to be questioned.
Lawrence Wright says in the Looming Tower [p 49] that in the 1980s the the Egyptian Islamists believed that the assassination of Sadat and other key officials would unleash “a popular uprising against secular authority all over the country.” It never happened. And it was this disappointment that led the Islamist theorists to decide that the Egyptian people, and indeed Muslims everywhere, were so infused with the decadent values of the West that they were hopelessly delusioned. Only extreme measures could save the Muslim world from its decay into the moral depravity of the West.
What must they be thinking now? A popular uprising now taking place, and not only in Egypt but also in Tunisia, Yemen, Jordan and elsewhere. But the moral animus of these demonstrations is not Islam but the demand for democracy. The secular — that is, the non-religious — ideals that drive these movements are too evident to be ignored.
The Islamist movement is not dead, but other ideals are being promoted and it looks like they have more authenticity and power to represent the public frustration than many of us expected. I surmise that the Islamists are astonished.
The continuing question is, how will these movements be harnessed into structural changes of the sort that so many crave? The Iranian Revolution was as authentic a public movement as has ever happened — rich, poor, educated, illiterate, all were opposed to the Shah — but as the new regime took form it became evident that the movement had been co-opted by a ruthless element [not all] of the clergy. Let us hope and pray for something better in these cases.