Jasmine and North African Islamism

[This month’s post is being hosted by the Contending Modernities blog, a new project at the University of Notre Dame exploring modernity from Catholic, Muslim and Secular perspectives]

Although everyone by now has traced a narrative arc from Tunisia to the momentous events in Egypt, eyes darted first to Algeria. In the days surrounding the collapse of Tunisian President Ben Ali’s government, many wondered about the stability of the government in Algiers. After all, protests had proliferated throughout the last year as black market prices on basic goods inflated, and general apathy about Algerian President Bouteflika turned to anger. Algeria is next to Tunisia and, in fact, some Algerian political opposition forces are currently attempting to rally around the present moment of political openness—a moment fraught with all the more potential because of the unfolding situation in Egypt…read full entry here

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Ground Zero Mosque Reactions in the Middle East

For this month’s post, I thought it could be interesting to troll through some of the reactions of the Arabic world media to Obama’s iftar speech and the Ground Zero Mosque controversy.

What is most remarkable about such a troll is the lack of much of a reaction to the controversy. National papers in places like Egypt and Algeria have hardly reported on the debate and Arabic news giants like Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya and Asharq Alawsat have either largely ignored the controversy or downplayed its significance for the Islamic world, as Abdul Rahman al-Rashid has pointed out here.

So why hasn’t the Ground Zero Mosque caught the attention of the Islamic world?

The lack of reaction might just be circumstantial, so far. As Jytte Klausen points out in her excellent study of the Danish Cartoons crisis, reactions in the Islamic world to the cartoons took months to develop and required the presence of both activists who promoted such reactions and leaders who missed opportunities to diffuse them.

That said, the lack of reaction also exposes a certain ambivalence in the Arab media about the controversy and towards America itself. On the one hand, the Islamophobia which the reactions to the proposal have revealed confirms rather than challenges many popular characterizations of US society in the Islamic world. On the other hand, that same Islamophobia has not emerged as the dominant actor in this story (yet). Leaders and intellectuals beyond Bloomberg and Obama have defended the proposal on the basis of democratic principles of separation of religion and state and, with their help, the mosque may still be built.

So while the controversy has brought fears about “Muslim” designs towards the US out into the open, it has also revealed a US public struggling to overcome that phobia. Depending on the how that struggle ends, this means that the Ground Zero Mosque might yet prove to help Obama in his attempt to reach out to the Islamic world. Alternatively, it could make such an attempt an even more ephemeral task.

Iran’s Clerics

Saturday’s world-wide, coordinated protests against Iran’s election results, along with President Ahmadinejad’s week of difficulties in presenting a coherent and believable cabinet, have kept the spotlight on the Islamic Republic’s question of legitimacy and what minimal level it needs to keep functioning as such.  So it is interesting to watch the response of the religious clerics in Iran and to try to guage how much power they really have over politics. Rafsanjani, former president, powerful cleric, made big headline waves with his speech on July 17th which seemed to criticize the supreme Ayatollah Khamenei, although Rafsanjani has been working hard this week to signal that he is not putting Khamenei or the Islamic Republic in doubt, just discussing an electoral issue (see aljazeera article). Although he used a Friday prayer sermon to deliver the message it is unclear how much his status as religious leader gives him any bargaining power over the decisions made by Khamenei. It appears that the same question can be posed of the group of 9 highest ranking clerics, of whom, the New York Times reported this week (see article), 3 have openly protested the post-election results and only 1 has actually congratulated the election winner, Ahmadinejad. In the weeks since the final results of the election were posted, it has often been said that real change in Iran will have to come from the inside, and through deft use of the republic’s religious and clerical language. Some clerics are now publically doing just that, but the power which that language and symbolic status bestows upon them to affect change is still to be seen.

Benedict and Obama II

In his exclusive interviews with the Italian Catholic press, Obama highlighted the peace process in the Middle East and dialogue between faith traditions as the two areas which he thought the pope and himself could most fruitfully work together on.  And as others have noted, while the pope gifted Obama with a copy of Dignitatis Personae, Obama seemed to continue to warm the respect of the vatican diplomatic corps towards him. How? By framing his positions on bioethics in a policy of social justice which, he says, has both the intention of reducing abortions and sits as a coherent part of his vision of dialogue with the non-Western world and his proposals for global poverty reduction. The echos this encounter had to Obama’s recent speeches at Notre Dame and Cairo, as well as its syntony with the pope’s new encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, have produced the sort of accolades for Obama by Cardinal Cottier pointed out by Cathleen Kaveny in the Nytimes, diffused some of the tension over bioethics, and given the two a full plate of issues to work on together over the next four years. Let’s hope they’re hungry.