Wednesday, 23 September 2015

The Fallacy of “Middle East Exceptionalism"

Dr. Mojtaba Mahdavi
September 21, 2015
Five years after the popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, the region remains in a deep and profound crisis. The rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the breakout of proxy war in Yemen and Syria, the chaos and collapse of the Libyan polity, the failure of Islamists in power and the subsequent return of a military regime in Egypt, and the survival of autocratic regimes in Saudi Arabia and other Arab monarchies have largely contributed to the revival of an old and naive cliché about the Middle East.

This cliché suggests the violent culture of the Middle East exceptionally resists democratic ideals and institutions. We often hear this line of argument, known as the “Middle East Exceptionalism,” in the media. However, this is a very simplistic reading of the current events in the region. Here is the counterargument:

In 2010-11, millions of ordinary people – men and women, young and old, religious and secular, Muslims and non-Muslims – came to the streets of the region and demanded Hurriyya (freedom), ‘Adāla ijtimā‘iyya (social justice), and Karāmā (dignity). They wanted to overthrow the dominant regimes. Their slogans were indicative of a quest for democracy and social justice. There was no demand for Islamic state; there was no indication of the “clash of civilizations” between the West and the Middle East. There was nothing exceptional to the Middle Eastern culture and values.

However, ordinary people in the region and their quest for democracy and social justice are caught between a rock and a hard place: between extremism in the name of jihad and foreign intervention (regional states and global powers) in the name of humanitarian intervention; between acting terror (by al-Qaeda, ISIS and the like) and orchestrating the “Global War on Terror” (by global and regional states). The people and their civil rights movements are victims of local extremists, regional proxy wars and global politics of domination. Let us not blame the victims!
The popular uprisings of 2010-11 created a historical momentum and remarkable memories of revolt and resistance for the ordinary people. For this generation, these revolutions are unfinished projects. Many Middle East and North African societies and cultures have gone through profound social changes and structural transformations in the past few decades. The old order is dying and the new one is emerging. Keeping the status quo is no longer possible. The genie is out of the bottle and more progressive changes have yet to come.

Change, however, is not easy. Freedom is not free; it is costly. The current crisis does not indicate a popular consent; dominant politics most often do not represent the public opinion. People are not silent; they are silenced. Nonetheless, there is a constant and “quiet encroachment” (Bayat 2013) of a young and restless generation to achieve the goals of the 2010-11 revolutions. The contemporary social movements in the region are open-ended and unfinished projects.
Italian Philosopher Antonio Gramsci (1971) has reminded us we need to overcome the “pessimism of the intellect” by the “optimism of the will.”

Come and join us on a three-day international conference entitled The Unfinished Project ofthe Arab Spring: Why “Middle East Exceptionalism” is Still Wrong (Universityof Alberta, Sept. 25-27, 2015). Meet and listen to the scholars of Middle East and Islamic Studies: Tariq Ali, John Esposito, Amina Wadud, Karima Bennoune, Juan Cole, Bessma Momani and many more.

Mojtaba Mahdavi is the ECMC Chair in Islamic Studies and Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Alberta. His recent books include Towards the Dignity of Difference? Neither End of History nor Clash of Civilizations (co-editor, Ashgate Publishing 2012); Under the Shadow of Khomeinism: Problems and Prospects for Democracy in Post-revolutionary Iran (forthcoming); and Towards a Progressive Post-Islamism: Neo-Shariati Discourse in Postrevolutionary Iran (co-editor, in progress). He was the guest editor of Sociology of Islam on “Contemporary Social Movements in the Middle East and Beyond” (2014). See more at:


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