Monday, May 9, 2011

Revolt and martyrdom (EN)

Notwithstanding the attempts (sometimes rather pathetic, like this one) to make sense of the momentous developments in the Arab world, the events there (as I argued before) remain largely incomprehensible for many Westerners.

Among others, it is mind-boggling how the protests can continue for weeks in places like Syria or Yemen, in the face of atrocious repression by desperate governments clinging to power.

I would argue that any serious effort to understand what motivates such resilience of protests should look at the cultural and especially religious background of the Arab societies, which makes so many of their youth ready for martyrdom to a degree nowhere to be seen in our time anywhere in the (post-)Christian West. The Tunisian revolt was actually sparked by such a self-inflicted act of martyrdom.

Once the barrier of fear has been broken, the fact - reinforced with fresh examples on a weekly basis - is that Muslim youth in Arab countries are far more willing to sacrifice their lives for a cause, and this willingness is nurtured and sustained in time for a lot longer than one can even imagine nowadays in Western societies. And religion plays a huge role in this: Arab revolts are re-ignited every Friday by the prayer in mosques, they follow a ritualistic pattern as much as a political one.

One consequence of this fact is that in face of such uprisings, current regimes cannot survive just through police repression and a few targeted killings. Victims of repression instantly become martyrs that generate more followers. Thus the killing escalates and, in clinging to power, regimes are soon resorting to sending in the army and undertaking killing of their own citizens on a very large scale. This is what is presently going on in Syria, starting to happen in Yemen, happened in Bahrain; and would have happened in Lybia were it not for the Western intervention that put a halt to the Gaddafi's re-conquering of the territory. And were the revolts were eventually successful, in Tunisia and Egypt, it was to a great extent because the Army (or a significant part of it) refused to slaughter civilians to preserve the regime. By contrast, in Syria and Libya there are documented incidents of soldiers executed by their superiors for refusing to shoot on protesters. 
In fact, so far the option of the armed forces to back the regime against the people has been the key determining factor of regime survival across the region.

Another consequence is that the more these repressed revolts last, the more people are martyred and the more prominent role Islam is bound to play if and when the current regimes eventually fall. The West should understand that, as this pattern of repression and martyrdom takes hold, religion becomes the main fuel of continued popular resistance. With each protester killed, the expectations or hopes to eventually see liberal secularists riding the wave of the revolutions to power become increasingly unrealistic.
Thus, in some ways the West's reluctance to support the Arab uprisings for fear of easing the way of Islamists to power, is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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