Alexander: Western thinkers ignore key points of Arab Spring

Sociologists Jeffrey Alexander and Nilüfer Göle, and Mohsen Marzouk (first, second and third from left) member of the Tunisian Higher Commission for the Implementation of the Revolution's Objectives, Political Reform and Democratic Transition in Tunisia, debated risks and opportunities involved in the Arab Spring. (Photo: Today's Zaman)

May 22, 2012, Tuesday/ 13:58:00

A professor of sociology from Yale University has said that Western observers too often ignore some important dimensions of the Arab Spring, especially the discourse of civil society.

“We are too caught up in whether something is Islamic or not. We are ignoring some important dimensions of the Arab Spring. There is a discourse of civil society, a discourse of democracy. Because it is Islamic, we tend to see it as different,” said Jeffrey Alexander, the Lillian Chavenson Saden professor of sociology at Yale University and co-director of the Center for Cultural Sociology (CCS).

Alexander, who spoke on Monday at the İstanbul Seminars 2012, May 19-24, organized by Reset-Dialogues on Civilizations at Bilgi University, said Western observers need to pay attention to the language in the public sphere in the countries of the Arab Spring.

“It is particularly important because it connects with previous revolutions in the West,” he said. “It is an unhistorical way of understanding if we base everything on Islam.”

According to Alexander, whose latest book is “Performative Revolution in Egypt: An Essay in Cultural Power,” Western thinkers are way too monolithic in their understanding.

Speaking on the same panel with Alexander was sociologist Nilüfer Göle.

“The Arab Spring changed self-perception in many countries,” she said, adding that she knew some French people who told her that they were ashamed to be French citizens and that they would rather be Tunisians.

“We try to highlight whether they are going to be democratic or good enough but there are already imaginaries of democracy spreading all over the world from the Arab Spring,” she said.

Göle, a professor of sociology at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris, also brought the Turkish question into the debate relating to the Arab Spring. According to Göle, when there is the question of whether or not democracy and Islam are compatible, Turkey comes into the picture.

“In the last 10 years, Turkey has been very present in the Arab world,” she said. “Turkey is secular, has a good army, there is a middle class, so all of those make transition possible.”

Göle said Turkey's choices in the foreign policy area -- like its distance from the American invasion of Iraq and its pro-Palestinian stance -- gave it more visibility not only in the Western world but also among Arabs.

In addition, the Arab Spring makes Turkey more conscious of its problems relating to human rights and freedom of expression, she said.

“Turkey needs to be up to it. There is a self-correcting issue for Turkey's democracy in relation to the Arab Spring.”

Göle also questioned whether or not Turkey can be a model for the countries which are going through the Arab Spring.

“We need to understand for whom and why Turkey is seen as a model,” she said.

For another speaker, Mohsen Marzouk, secretary-general of the Arab Democracy Foundation (ADF) in Doha and a member of the Tunisian Higher Commission for the Implementation of the Revolution's Objectives, Political Reform and Democratic Transition in Tunisia, Turkey could be a model.

“I wish Turkey was a model for our Islamists,” he said and added that the Muslim Brotherhood played no role in the Tunisian revolution and that most protesters were secular.

“The problem is not about Islam and democracy but about Islamists and democracy,” he said. “We don't have guarantees for democracy in Tunisia.”

After overthrowing their dictator in January 2011, Tunisians elected an assembly in October of last year to write a new constitution and manage the affairs of the country. A moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, won the first elections of the Arab Spring and formed a coalition with two leftist parties.

Ennahda won more than 40 percent of the parliamentary seats. Its leader, Rashid al-Ghannushi, hailed Turkey before the elections as a “model” for Tunisians. He said Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) was a successful synthesis of Islam and modernity and that the AK Party was a very successful example of a modern Muslim government.

Göle added that it is not yet clear how the AK Party will evolve.

“What do we call the AKP? A conservative party? A moderate Islamic party? It is not clear yet. It's a work in transition,” she said. “The AKP says it is not a party of identity but of ‘hizmet' [service].”

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