A Revolution in Suspense
When you speak of the Arab uprising, you oppose what you call the "idealistic" assessment that the movement either came from nowhere or was born out of the spontaneous actions of young people. Why?
Tariq Ramadan: It is quite clear that when George W. Bush spoke about democratisation in the Middle East, he was serious about it. Many American institutions started to train people. For example, Popovic is someone who trained people in Serbia to oppose Milosevic (Srdja Popovic, co-founder of the non-violent Serbian youth protest movement "Otpor!" – ed.). So we have cyber dissidents and people who were trained. The movement was, therefore, supported from the beginning.
When you support a movement which is a mass demonstration, you can't push people to demonstrate; you can't control the outcome. This is exactly what I'm trying to say. I explained this in two chapters of my book The Arab Awakening. Islam and the new Middle East; we can't go as far as to say that it is a conspiracy or an American conspiracy, because it is not. It is a push towards democracy that was needed for many reasons that were not political but economic, and because of the role that China and India played.
In my book, I analyse how much the United States and the countries of Europe had to change their policies in the region in order not to lose the market. So they changed and pushed.
What we are witnessing at the moment is something in between; we don't know yet how it is going to work out. One of the countries where it was quite clear that things did not go as the United States or Europe had hoped is Syria. Initially, they wanted Bashar al-Assad to stay and reform the country from within. But with the courage of the people, their determination and the commitment, we see now that they have no choice but to go for change. So we have to be cautious not to go as far as to think it's a conspiracy. By the same token, we shouldn't be naïve enough to think that it is coming from nowhere.
But still, you won't deny that this is an indigenous movement…?
Ramadan: There is an indigenous aspect. The young people were really in favour of the movement. The point is that the strength of the movement was that it was a movement without leadership. But that was also its weakness. And now we are seeing that it is scattered.
When describing the dynamics of the uprising, you often use the analogy of a chess game rather than using the oft-mentioned metaphor of the domino effect. Who benefits most from the uprisings?
Ramadan: When I say a chess game I mean like a chess game with many players, not a chess game with just two players. There are the societies themselves and the governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Bahrain and Morocco. Then there are the players from the outside: as always, there is the West, such as the United States and the European countries, which have for decades played a very important role. But there are also new players in the region: Latin American and Asian countries, India, Russia and China are playing a very important economic role.
China, for example, has multiplied its economic influence in the region by seven in recent years. Also Turkey's influence in the region is growing. So it's only a question of strategy: who is going to win what. You can see that quite clearly. It's an open secret in Syria why Russia and China are supporting the regime, why the United States and the Europeans are on the other side, and why in between you have this divide between the Shia and the Sunni, who also play a role in the game of chess. So the situation is very complex.
When we look at how developments are perceived from the outside, there is what you might call a fear in the West that Islamists have hijacked the popular movements.
Ramadan: I think this is a very simplistic way of looking at the population. Also, the Islamists are not a monolithic movement. The starting point of the movement was the youth, but among the youth you had the Islamists of the younger generation and they pushed the older generation to get involved in the movement.
Either all of them – or at least the great majority – were Muslims, but there were also Copts in Egypt. But in the end, the religious factor was a normal, natural reference. Then you have the political reference that came afterwards; it wasn't hijacked. The Islamists were part of the opposition; they have credibility. I think that because there was a lack of leadership, the more organised forces on the ground were going to take over.
Now no one knows what is going to happen. You can't judge the people before they have implemented something. So I say, let them try instead of accepting what the dictators say: "rather us than them".
In Turkey, we can see that they are doing much more than many Muslim majority countries with dictators. So it is better to let them try rather than saying that we will go with the dictators.
Until now, you have refused to call what is happening in the Near East and in North Africa either the "Arab Spring" or a "revolution". Instead you prefer to call it an "uprising" or an "awakening"…
Ramadan: That's because I think these are either unfinished revolutions or unachieved revolutions. "Unfinished" means it still might be a success; "unachieved" means that it is a failure. I think we are somewhere in between, even in Tunisia, where you could say the revolution is over. We are still in the middle of the process. So we have to be cautious, critical, aware and committed.
Interview conducted by Ceyda Nurtsch
© Qantara.de 2012
Tariq Ramadan is Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at St Antony's College, Oxford University. His most recent book, The Arab Awakening. Islam and the New Middle East, was published by Penguin Books in 2012.
Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de