A few words can sometimes capture the feelings of a whole
nation. “Blood, sweat, and tears…” –
words that enshrined the thoughts of many people in Britain at terrifying moment. But when those words
were thrown out into the public arena they enabled a whole people to join in a unity
of feeling, a collective sense of who they were and what they faced together. A few words transformed
the disparate feelings of many individuals into the conviction of a
nation: as a people they must, and they would, stand
together despite the obvious cost.
The process by which private sensibilities are brought
together into a common conviction is a kind of imaginative miracle. It is worth asking how
it works. Inner depths of feeling are evoked
by a particular poignant phrase – this a wonder worth examining closely.
phrase that works powerfully in one setting may not work in another. To
understand the difference requires explication: the history of all the fears and resentments
and outrages that have piled up through the years becomes a reservoir of buried sentiments that can be awakened by a single event, a single
utterance, a song.
Tonight Rita and I went to see a film about a simple
musician, a gifted balladeer, whose brilliance was missed in his own country
but discovered by a whole nation elsewhere. The simple ballads of loneliness, grief,
despair produced by an unknown individual galvanized the strong feelings of thousands of young people elsewhere. His aching outrage at a broken world gave expression to feelings that they shared and enabled them to experience together their common frustration, for their world also was grievous. Carefully chosen chords
and phrases objectified the feelings of thousands — but in a different world.
Anyone who wants to see how an objective form – music – can be
made to stand for the feelings of a whole nation must see “The search for ‘Sugar
The dilemmas of what should happen next in the Arab world have been stated one way by an Iranian opponent of the Iranian government, Ibrahim Yazdi, and another way in an article by the Arab social critic Mahan Abedin [“Arab Spring confounds Iran’s opposition,” Asian Times
, Nov 10, 2011]. According to Yazdi a danger exists that the successful movements against repressive regimes in the Arab world could now be replaced by equally repressive systems. He seems to blame the unfamiliarity of Muslims with all that is entailed in democracy. Yazdi says:
“Despite struggling for fundamental rights, freedom and self-determination, we Muslims from any nationality lack sufficient experience with democracy. We struggle and overthrow dictators but we don’t remove tyranny as a mode of governance and a way of life.”
Yazdi of course has seen it happen, for he had been part of the Iranian uprising against the Shah in 1978-1979, and he experienced the takeover by Ruhullah Khomeini and those with him who, once in power, set about to remove [essentially to exterminate] those who could not share their Islamist vision for the country. Yazdi survived but has been alienated for years, the position from which he now warns the Tunisians: Their movement could end up being different from what they had originally been calling for. He has good reason, then, to fear that these successful movements in Tunisia [and also Egypt] could be replaced by a system as repressive as the old; a similar warning was once made by Foucault about revolutionary movements generally.
Abedin is unimpressed by Yazdi’s warning, seeing in it a Iranian condescending attitude. But Abedin seems even to push Yazdi’s point further, for he thinks that Islam and the democracy that the Arab Spring movements have demanded may be intrinsically incompatible. Of the newly elected Tunisian Islamist party, al-Nahda (Renaissance), he says that
“… these movements have yet to successfully grapple with their ideological dilemma. The essence of their ideology commits them to the creation of a pan-Islamic state, if not a fully-fledged caliphate. It also commits them to introducing the Islamic sharia as the basis of legislation and the general ordering of state and society. While these goals are not necessarily inimical to democracy, they are not harmonious with it either. The Muslim Brotherhood and its many offshoots can legitimately claim to be democratic in spirit once they have resolved this ideological contradiction.
This is an old question. Most Muslims I know see no reason why Islam cannot be built into a constituted democracy; that was the project Pakistan set out to accomplish in 1947. We continue to watch and hope that the new regimes being established in Tunisia and Egypt will indeed establish the kind of democracy that they will cherish and be eager to protect from all forms of social oppression, a necessary feature of democracy if it is to be successfully practiced.
[Click on the title for a link to the original article by Abedin.]
Dr. Robert Canfield Professor of Anthropology, Washington University in St. Louis