The Bou-Azizi Effect, the failure of Islamist Mobilization, and Global Dialogue

Hassan I. Mneimneh, IjthadReason, 1/24/2011

The Bou-Azizi effect, still unfolding, points unequivocally to the failure of Islamist mass mobilization as the sole means of catalyzing popular discontent. It also underlines the reality of the power of universal values as a basis for mobilization and communication. Culture, religion, and politics are important overlays. Underneath them, however, resides decency and longing for justice and good. It is on the basis of this shared foundation that intra- and inter-cultural dialogue would be fruitful.

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Subject: Islam/West

More by: Hassan I. Mneimneh

The momentous events witnessed by Tunisia, and which led to the collapse of the 23 years-old authoritarian regime of Zine el-Abidine Bin Ali, are evidently the culmination of a long build-up of grievances, notably economic and political, in a society plagued by lack of opportunity for the emerging generation and a stranglehold on the benefits from national development by the entourage of the ruler. Vocal opposition was consistently punished, human rights were often bypassed, with the major Western powers acquiescing to local repression by the regime, in recognition of its role as a foe to global radicalism. Such alignment of forces ought to have been of benefit to international Jihadist formations. In some respects, that was indeed the case. Tunisia, for long the venue of a project of secularization, driven from the top down but with considerable resonance in urban, educated, and middle class settings, was subjected, together with the rest of the Muslim world to a multi-pronged radicalization effort. In the recruitment of individuals, traveling at their own expense to remote locations, notably Iraq, to meet their homicidal death in suicide bombings, this effort yielded considerable success. In the overall cultural radicalization that established a reconfigured version of Islam as the nominal frame of reference for politics, society, and culture, this effort secured some serious inroads in Tunisian society and culture. However, at the primarily important middle level of effective mass mobilization of Tunisians, little gains can be claimed.

The credit for the thwarting of Islamist mass mobilization was assumed to reside in the authoritarian character of the state. In the multiple theaters combat between authoritarianism and Islamism, Tunisia seemed to be one venue where the former held a distinct advantage over the latter.

Had such assessment been valid, however, the Bin Ali regime wouldn't have collapsed in a mere three weeks of leaderless riots. Furthermore, three weeks of riots would not have been possible in the first place if the security forces were really in a tight grip control. Instead, a trigger event generated disturbances, which in turn cascaded into a full fledged revolt, and the collapse of the regime.

This sequence of events is myth shattering. On the one hand it proves incontrovertibly that authoritarianism is incapable of holding back a determined mass movement. On the other, it demonstrates that even when Islamism is effectively the only fully articulated discourse of protest, mass mobilization is not constrained by it.

In the Tunisian example, Islamist propositions have been offered for decades as a vehicle for the expression of public discontent. Yet, where local and global stars of Islamism have failed, Mohamed Bou-Azizi, a young college graduate with an IT degree who had had to resort for sustenance to selling vegetable on a cart, has succeeded not only in igniting a revolution that swept the regime away, but one the echoes of which are still heard across the Arab world.

The action that lifted Bou-Azizi from mundane anonymity to becoming a symbol for protest is self-immolation. The scholastic Islamic tradition, through its written corpus, and in the voices of its modern experts, is unanimous in its rejection of such action. Bou-Azizi himself, while stemming from a conservative family, makes no reference in the blog posting immediately preceding his action to any religious element. The posting, if indeed proven to be his, highlights his despair and regrets to cause pain to his mother. Bou-Azizi does not seem to have had any political motive. Instead, he was a young man who felt deprived of opportunity, denied the modest means he was able to secure, and further abused by the security forces, a policewoman having reportedly slapped him after confiscating his vegetable cart. His attempts at seeking redress, by reaching out to the local governor, were dismissed and no audience was granted. By immolating himself, Mohamed Bou-Azizi may have sought to demonstrate that he remains, despite all, master of his own self.

This is, at least, how many have received the significance of his action, in Tunisia and well beyond. Many in his homeland saw in Bou-Azizi's act a reminder that they too remain masters of themselves. In front of their determination, the purported master of Tunisia, with his entourage, guards, and international backing, had to flee.

The power of Bou-Azizi's final act is in its universal content. In the current analytical paradigms, promoted by both Islamists and many of their detractors, the frame of reference of Muslim societies is claimed to be Islam, not the contested and often maligned notion of universal values. Yet, it was this notion, as the message of Mohamed Bou-Azizi, communicated to his countrymen and women, and to the rest of the world, with not one single word, and not the unending volumes of jurisprudence and theology, that moved and mobilized a nation and beyond as never before.

The Bou-Azizi effect, still unfolding, points unequivocally to the failure of Islamist mass mobilization as the sole means of catalyzing popular discontent. It also underlines the reality of the power of universal values as a basis for mobilization and communication. Culture, religion, and politics are important overlays. Underneath them, however, resides decency and longing for justice and good. It is on the basis of this shared foundation that intra- and inter-cultural dialogue would be fruitful.

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