A demonstrator in Tahrir Square holds up a copy of the Koran (photo: AP)
Religion in the Arab Spring

The Martyrs of the Revolution

When they attempt to grasp the role of religion in the Arab uprisings, non-Muslim observers often fail because of their tendency to see things in black and white: if religion does not show itself to be a protagonist, then the movement must be secular. In actual fact, the mingling of religious and political motives is much more subtle than that. Charlotte Wiedemann reports

In bygone days, during the Sugar Festival celebrated at the end of Ramadan, Islamic rulers would build palaces of sweets that the people could tear up and eat. Today, this seems like a metaphor, and indeed it was intended as one at the time: any hint of rebellion would be smothered in the sugar. During the fast, there is an acute sense of justice in Muslim societies. In the authoritarian Arab states, Ramadan became a month small freedoms as a precautionary measure. In television series produced specially for the fast, rebels of the past and legend would, as substitutes, fight for decency and dignity; the censors would be lenient with political sketches. Syria in particular excelled at granting these small freedoms and its subjects reciprocated the favour by not making any demands. All this seems very distant now.

This August has been a Ramadan of revolution, with religious vibrations giving speed to the political events in Yemen, Syria, Libya, Tunisia and Egypt with chronically uncertain outcomes. The ruling Council of Armed Forces in Egypt has launched the main trial against Mubarak. Was the spectacular opening sequence of a bedridden man in a cage just a ploy? Sugar for the people, so to speak? In Libya, the third trial against Ben Ali has begun in absentia while he – like Yemen's Adi Abdullah Saleh – recovers in the land of the Prophet.

Justice then. Only one example is necessary to illustrate the excessiveness of previous injustice: the Egyptian National Audit Office estimates that 13 billion dollars of losses incurred by the state could be recouped. The money disappeared into shady land deals involving the building of luxury complexes on agricultural land. One Saudi bought a piece of land for a fraction of the price a young Egyptian who wanted to settle there would have had to pay. This structural injustice has already triggered thousands of lawsuits. It is still too early to assess them.

Mubarak: From despot to murderer

Ramadan in Cairo (photo: dapd)
The Ramadan of revolution: according to Charlotte Wiedemann, the "vibrations" of revolution are accelerating political events in Yemen, Syria, Libya, Tunisia and Egypt

​​The fact that it is taking a long time to process the lawsuits is not surprising; most are being handled by judiciary officials who were part of the "old regime". The Western media, which before had nothing much to say about the regime, now take pleasure in lamenting with the youths on Tahrir Square the slow punishment of injustice. However, what is really noteworthy is how fast and vehemently the legal reappraisal of the past has been demanded and by whom – not only by the agents of change but also by broad sections of the population. Elsewhere – from Latin America to Africa, from post-Franco Spain to the Balkans – it has taken years, if not decades for such demands to be voiced.

The public debate about the tempo of the legal reappraisal and the examination of the past is focusing on the victims of the revolution. Street battles were needed before police officers were suspended. Of course, this subject is catchier than complicated structural injustice but this alone does not explain why the martyrs and their families have been given so much attention. Even the lawsuit brought against Mubarak accuses him of being complicit in the "deliberate murder" of 846 martyrs and the attempted murder of thousands of others who were injured – as if the three decades of his rule had been compressed into 18 days of revolution. The call for Mubarak to be hanged only came after the "Battle of the Camel", during which the regime set groups of thugs and criminals on the demonstrators. Before Mubarak was a bad leader; now he was a murderer.

Martyrs of the revolution

Shahid, the Arabic word for martyr, also means witness, as it does in Greek. At the core of Islam is the belief that one is witness to the oneness of God. Ashadu – "I bear witness" – is part of every call to prayer, and some go as far as to say that every Muslim who dies believing is a martyr. Anyone who is killed as part of the revolution bears witness to it and its goals, with survivors having a collective duty towards the martyrs to continue the revolution.

Poster with a photo montage of a man tying the hangman's noose around Mubarak's neck (photo: dpa)
According to Wiedemann, the noose has become a popular figure in those North African countries that have experienced uprisings this year; in Cairo, taxi drivers even hang mini gallows with effigies of the former interior minister from their rear-view mirrors

​​This is how expressions of political will and popular Islam merge with the adoration of martyrs. In Tunisia, the mother of a martyr stuck a picture of her murdered son into my décolletage and rubbed the photo over my skin so that I too would be blessed by his martyrdom and would go to heaven.

When they attempt to grasp the role of religion in the Arab uprisings, non-Muslim observers often fail because of their own tendency to see things in black and white: if religion does not show itself to be a protagonist, then the movement must be secular. In actual fact, the mingling of religious and political motives is much more subtle than this, and religious orientations have a subliminal influence on political forms of expression. This is the only way to explain the pre-eminent role of the martyrs' families.

According to classical Islamic legal doctrine, criminal prosecution and the execution of a sentence are dependent on the will of the victim or his closest relatives. When the families of those who were killed in the revolution now clamour for the crimes to be swiftly punished, they insist on their guaranteed religious right to demand retribution, and according to secular Egyptian law, this means execution. A large number of Egyptians support this call. Those who remind others that the Koran also calls for perpetrators to be forgiven are quickly accused of supporting Mubarak.

The arrest warrant issued for Gaddafi by the International Criminal Court is of a very different nature. Here too, however, the responsibility seems to have been condensed incredibly into five days of "crimes against humanity" in February. Was Gaddafi more humane when he, in collusion with the West, let African immigrants in containers die of thirst in the scorching heat? The African Union has called on its members not to enforce the arrest warrant because it says the court generally discriminates when it indicts. Without doubt, it never indicts people from powerful states. Egypt, where the demand for justice on the streets is now so strong, has never acknowledged the Hague's jurisdiction. Most Egyptians find it absurd that the criminals should be punished by foreigners in an institution dominated by the West.

Mini gallows hanging from rear-view mirrors

Image taken from the televised trial of the former Egyptian minister of the interior, Habib Al-Adly (photo: dapd)
"Is Islam being used to tell people what to think and believe? Or is it actually empowering them to decide for themselves?" asks author and journalist Charlotte Wiedemann

​​In Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, the noose has become a popular motif on walls and banners. In Cairo, taxi drivers have taken to hanging "mini gallows" complete with a dangling effigy of former Interior Minister al-Adly from their rear-view mirrors. On Tahrir Square it is de rigueur to call for Mubarak's execution. It is as if he should be completely finished with. His name has been erased or scratched off thousands of signs; some don't even want him buried on Egyptian soil and others want him removed from the film archives. As if Mubarak never existed; as if every memory of him could be deleted and at the same time the secret shame of having tolerated his rule for so long. Whether from the fields of psychology, politics or religion, not everybody wants his physical liquidation, but they all want a to send out a message, a message that will be heard far beyond Egypt's borders, namely that even those at the top will receive their rightful punishment. It should serve as a lesson to the whole region. Those who have an understanding of politics say the trial has to be fair, that this is important for Egypt.

So what will happen this Ramadan? Did Saudi Arabia really, as so many suspect, peg its financial aid to one condition, namely that the Council of Armed Forces prevent Mubarak's execution and, if possible, even his sentencing? If need be with by poisoning his food? In their own country, the Saudis are not reticent when it comes to executions. Just recently, a 54-year-old Indonesian "maid" was beheaded because, after being tortured, humiliated and robbed of her passport, she cracked and stabbed her tormentor to death with a kitchen knife.

For the Saudis, publicly executing an immigrant who has rebelled against her fate is a lesson and just as logical as preventing another lesson from being taught, namely that of the execution of an Arab autocrat. Is Islam being used to tell people what to think and believe? Or is it actually empowering them to decide for themselves? This is also a subject for reflection this Ramadan. And every Muslim can make up his/her own mind. They say the gates of heaven are wide open during Ramadan and those of hell are closed. No need then for the trial against Mubarak to be over too fast.

Charlotte Wiedemann

© Le Monde diplomatique 2011, Berlin, 12 August 2011

Charlotte Wiedemann is a journalist and author. Her most recent book, 'Ihr wisst nichts über uns!' Meine Reisen durch einen unbekannten Islam ("You know nothing about us". My travels through an unknown Islam), was published by Herder in 2008.

Translated from the German by Anne Thomas

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de

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