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January 2012

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Interpreting the Arab Spring
by Olivier Roy, European University Institute
Text: http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/Files/events/2011/1213_raymond_aron/20111213_arab_spring.pdf
Reviewed by Norvell B. DeAtkine

Famed scholar of Islamic studies, Olivier Roy, who painted a bleak outlook for the governance of political Islam in his widely acclaimed book The Failure of Political Islam, foresees a much more positive future for the results of the “Arab Spring.” In a speech given at the Brookings Institution he posits the consequences of the Arab Spring as “irreversible.” While observing that what happened is a revolution, he acknowledges that the revolutionaries were not put in power but rather an old, more conservative and traditional leadership. He also admits the gains of the Islamists in the political realm.

Here the reader has to understand that in Roy’s definition, political Islam and Islamism are not interchangeable, a distinction many other scholars do not make. Roy goes further in stating that Islamism can be reconciled with democracy. He sees this as a result of “deep” social, cultural, and religious changes taking place in the Middle East. Islamists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, must recast their ideology in terms of the “centrality” rather than the absolutes of Islam, which he redefines as Islam being a reference and a source of Islamic identity rather than imposing rigid strictures governing life styles.

Returning to the point that the Arab Spring is irreversible, Roy provides three reasons: first, the new generation is much less patriarchal; second, the traditional Arab political culture has collapsed; and third, a society need not become secular to become democratic. He opines that the Islamists accept women’s rights (separate but equal as he terms it), democratic rule, and a more modernistic view of moral values.

In reviewing Roy’s prognosis it is well to keep in mind that in the 60’s there was a dissimilar but equally rosy view of the trends in the Arab world. Then it was a generation of westernized army officers and an elite armed with socialist ideology that was to bring the Arab world out of the wilderness.bluestar

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