The past year has seen waves of revolution and change in the Arab world. As power vacuums emerge in states affected by the political upheaval, some in the West warn that some sectors of society, such as faith-based political parties previously suppressed by autocratic rulers, pose a threat. This week, we speak to the CIGI Chair in Religion and Politics in Global Context Paul Freston to gain more insight on the role of religion in the Arab Spring.

CIGI:  The Arab Spring, a movement prompted by corruption, political disenchantment and economic inequality, occurred in a region coloured by religious diversity. How much influence has religion had in this movement?

Paul Freston: The Arab spring caught most, if not all, observers by surprise. There is great religious diversity in the region, much more than is often recognized, so it is difficult to generalize, but one could say that religion has had a lesser role than might have been anticipated. It’s been there, but largely helping rather than leading, and even sometimes racing to keep up. It appeared in Tahrir Square with the public prayers. We also saw unusual scenes of confraternization between Christian and Muslim demonstrators in Cairo.

In the case of Bahrain, the sectarian divide has been central, with a rebellion by a Shia majority against a minority Sunni monarchy, which was eventually crushed with the help of the Saudi army. In Libya, we saw some attempts by the Gaddafi regime to conjure up the spectre of a country split into Islamist emirates if the rebels were allowed to prevail. More recently, religion has come more into the foreground because of the elections in Tunisia, where an Islamist party won a plurality of seats, and the forthcoming elections in Egypt, where the party linked to the Muslim Brotherhood is favoured. There is a potentially important religious element in all this, but it was less central initially than one might have expected.

In the long run, of course, it is entirely normal that when profoundly religious countries start to democratize, there will be considerable religious activity in the burgeoning political life. It is also entirely normal for religious parties to arise. And there is no evidence, globally speaking, that religious parties per se are less democratic than secular ones in the same context.

CIGI: What role do you see religion having in Arab Spring politics moving forward and will religious parties pose a threat to democracy?

Freston: Historically, not in the Middle East but globally, we’ve faced the possibility of electoral victory by political parties that are merely using democracy to come to power and then shut down the democratic process. This fear surfaced in relation to communist parties in democratic countries. Another parallel is early fears over Catholic-inspired parties, in the period before the Catholic Church officially came to embrace democracy. This fear turned out to be unfounded, as Catholic parties won elections in several countries and did govern democratically.

So what can we say about these Muslim parties? In the Arab world, the closest they have ever come to power was in Algeria 20 years ago, when they were prevented by a military coup that had considerable Western support, which then led to a bloody civil war. Strong arguments can be made that the best thing to do is to honour the rules of the democratic game and believe peoples’ statements of commitment to it. Engagement in the democratic game tends to domesticate political actors and obliges them to act more responsibly, thereby taking away the messianic characteristics they often appear to have for part of the population.

Historically speaking, theocratic regimes have come to power by non-democratic means and, just like militantly atheistic regimes, have shown themselves to be unsustainable in the long run. But in democratic contexts, religiously inspired parties are no more of a danger to democracy than their secular counterparts. The religious parties in the Middle East’s new democracies are not the only ones that have yet to prove their democratic credentials. In the case of religious parties like Ennahda in Tunisia or Freedom and Justice in Egypt, they have been making positive noises in terms of their intentions to respect democratic processes and work with other forces. Of course, there is always the suspicion they are merely speaking tactically, but you can’t really have a functioning democracy if you’re going to exclude important actors purely on the basis of suspicions.

CIGI: Experiences in the former Yugoslavia and Iraq show how religious rivalries can lead to sectarian violence that tears countries apart. In light of the recent violence against Egypt’s Christian Copts, is  sectarian violence a possibility in recently liberated countries?

Freston: Religious rivalry is at the root of the crisis in Bahrain, but it is also a potentially serious problem in Egypt and presumably in Syria if the regime fell. Tunisia’s degree of urbanization, relative lack of religious and tribal rivalries and generally higher levels of education are advantages. Religious diversity is not so important in Libya, which will, however, be troubled by tribal rivalries. However, it is dangerously awash with arms and some militias are linked to Islamists. Egypt faces the challenge of having a large Christian minority, and it is often suspected that (as happened in Indonesia after the downfall of Suharto) elements connected to the old regime might be deliberately inciting radical Salafis to attack the Copts, in order to have an excuse for maintaining authoritarian control. In the long run, the question of how you can have a democracy without something close to what the modern West considers to be religious freedom is going to be problematic. But the latter may be harder for many people to accept. Denying real religious freedom (to minority Muslim groups, and to sizeable non-Muslim minorities) will put the brakes on the Arab Spring, especially in the key countries Egypt and Syria.

CIGI: The annual Islamic pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, the Hajj, occurred earlier this month. Do you think that such a gathering, where ordinary Muslims from Saudi Arabia will be rubbing shoulders with Muslims from politically turbulent countries such as Tunisia, could prompt the spread of revolution?

Freston: In Saudi Arabia itself, I’m not so sure. The signs seem to be that the regime is in pretty good control. I think any effects of the Hajj would be more likely between people from other countries. The Hajj is a fairly unique global institution in that respect, and it has functioned historically to transform perceptions. But nowadays there are virtual gatherings going on all the time, which we know have been influential in the actual revolts. So that relativizes the uniqueness of the Hajj as a moment of interaction.

There is a potentially important religious element in all this, but it was less central initially than one might have expected.
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