A demonstrator in Yemen (photo: AP)
Review of Michael Lüders' book on the Arab Spring

How the Arab Revolution Is Changing the World

In his book about the Arab Spring, the well-known Middle East expert and journalist Michael Lüders criticises the West's one-dimensional view of the historic events that have shaken the Arab world over the past year. Sebastian Sons read the book

He has become one of the faces of the Arab Spring in Germany. In recent months, Michael Lüders – scholar of Islam, novelist and former Middle East correspondent for the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit – has succeeded, through his incisive, nuanced and carefully differentiating appearances in the media, in giving the general public a better understanding of the dramatic events in the Middle East. His objective was to explain what is happening and render it comprehensible without resorting to generalization.

Now he has collated his observations in his latest book, Tage des Zorns. Die arabische Revolution verändert die Welt (Days of Rage: The Arab Revolution Is Changing the World).

In this work, Lüders takes on the task of guiding us through the whole of the Arab world. He paints a picture of this world in the process of transformation, from the beginnings of the revolution in the transition countries Tunisia and Egypt, through the struggle for liberation in Libya, to the "counter-revolutionary" monarchies of the Gulf such as Saudi Arabia. It is an Arab world whose inflexible regimes are, for the first time in history, being challenged by the societies they govern.

Cover of Michael Lüders' book (image: C.H. Beck)
Refreshingly undogmatic: according to Michael Lüders, the Arab Spring has "exposed supposed truths as stereotypes and constructed certainties as clichés," writes Sebastian Sons

​​Over the course of the book's fifteen chapters, Lüders devotes his attention to the initial sparks that fuelled the beginnings of the Arab Spring, describes the various protagonists, outlines possible future scenarios and points out internal societal fault-lines and political risks. For the most part, he succeeds in projecting the right mixture of hope for the future and realistic scepticism.

A post-independence time capsule

Despite gaining their independence after the period of colonial rule, Lüders writes that Arab societies were living in a "time capsule" and that the Arab Spring now indicates the peoples' determination to liberate themselves from this vicious circle of mental stagnation and lack of any economic perspective.

Lüders sees in this process the transition from a provincial, feudal society to an urbanized, industrial one. This observation is nothing new, but Lüders does not claim to be reinventing the wheel. He instead seeks to foster our understanding of different views, traumata, self-perceptions and the Arabs' attempt to liberate themselves from decades of social paralysis.

Lüders writes that in many places, the people's desire to comprehend themselves as a nation, as a mature people, was palpable and that in this, the role of Islam was merely a subordinate one: "For the Facebook generation, Islam is not so much an ideology, or even, in some instances, part of everyday religious life; it is more of a lifestyle."

This being the case, he concludes that the heyday of Islamist ideologies has passed. With this interpretation, Lüders counteracts the "spectre of Islamism", so widespread in the West, in a refreshingly undogmatic way. His verdict on the West's dealings with the Arab world is damning: "The Arab revolution has been wrongly formatted. It can't be read by the prevailing 'mental hard drive'; it doesn't correspond to the perceptions and certainties of the majority."

According to Lüders, the Arab Spring has exposed supposed truths as stereotypes and constructed certainties as clichés. The West, he says, started wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to export democracy – without success. Now the Arab world is showing that it is capable of getting rid of its unpopular rulers by itself.

The West, Lüders continues, took these authoritarian regimes for granted and accepted them, because it felt that that Arabs needed a firm hand in government. The Western view was, he says, defined by Islamophobic beliefs such as this, which he condemns as a dangerous cliché.

Between consolidation and counter-revolution

Michael Lüders (photo: picture alliance/dpa)
Michael Lüders "seeks to foster our understanding of different views, traumata, self-perceptions and the Arabs' attempt to liberate themselves from decades of social paralysis," writes Sebastian Sons

​​Lüders sees the Arab world as being deeply divided. The rich monarchies of the Gulf urged consolidation of the situation and portrayed themselves as "counter-revolutionaries". However, he cites as an alternative example the Gulf emirate of Qatar, which created the most important "agent of modernization" when it founded the Arab satellite broadcaster Al-Jazeera in 1996.

Qatar is regarded as a mediator in inter-Arab conflicts: it maintains good relationships with the West, its Arab neighbours and even with Iran. However, Lüders has doubts as to whether this means the emirate can be considered to be a modernizing country, or even a charismatic force for reform. After all, criticism of the Emir is still forbidden in Qatar, and there have been scarcely any moves towards democratization.

Lüders' book does not offer a new perspective on the Arab Spring, but this is not his intention. In concise, journalistic prose, he helps to familiarize the reader with a region in upheaval, highlights opportunities and risks and attempts to mediate some understanding of the collective Arab political consciousness.

His prognoses are terse, but plausible. Even if some of them should prove to be premature or even incorrect, Lüders has dared to analyze a dynamic process that is still in flux. His book makes for a fascinating and illuminating read.

Sebastian Sons

© Qantara.de 2011

Lüders, Michael, Tage des Zorns. Die arabische Revolution verändert die Welt (Days of Rage: The Arab Revolution Is Changing the World), C.H. Beck Verlag, Munich 2011.

Translated from the German by Charlotte Collins

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de

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