Initially taking no part in the street demonstrations, Islamic institutions and organizations have been closely involved in the post-Arab Spring phase. Changes at the political level have also had an impact on the religious discourse, which has nevertheless failed to respond to the demands voiced during the uprisings

This article was published in Oasis 31. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 10:04:56

Initially taking no part in the 2010-2011 street demonstrations, Islamic institutions and organizations have been closely involved in the turbulent post-Arab Spring phase. Changes at the political level and the explosion of jihadist violence in the Middle East have also led to transformations in religious discourse, which has nevertheless not fully reckoned with the personalist demands voiced during the uprisings.


“Allah has nothing to do with it”: commenting on the 2010-2011 revolutions, Emmanuel Todd summed up their secular nature in these words.[1] Indeed, according to the French demographer, the Arab Spring was the political manifestation of deeper social transformations (particularly in the family structure) occurring independently of the Islamic identity of the countries swept by the protests. This reading was justified by the very slogans being chanted in the streets, with their emphasis on universal values such as justice, freedom and human dignity and it was subsequently confirmed by investigations seeking to sketch a profile of the demonstrators.[2]


The Return of Islam


Initially absent from the great mobilization, Islam quickly returned to the fore in the post-revolutionary transitions. In Egypt, al-Azhar university-mosque initially discouraged participation in the protests in the name of political stability but then intervened in the public debate with a series of declarations regarding the changes under way, advocating a “modern, democratic, constitutional nation state” and proposing itself as a “lighthouse” as regards relations between politics and religion.[3] In the meantime, while the Muslim Brothers were emerging, along with the military, as the only force capable of leading the post-revolutionary phase by virtue of their organization and discipline, some streets began to reverberate with catchwords of the Islamist imaginary. During the campaign for the presidential elections in 2012, the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide compared the movement’s candidate, Mohammed Morsi, to Abū Bakr, the Islamic umma’s first caliph. Morsi adopted this reference and, once elected, quoted a passage from his illustrious “predecessor’s” inauguration speech almost to the letter as he addressed the nation as its new president.[4]


In Tunisia, too, it was the Islamists of Ennahda who, after years of underground existence, took hold of the transition’s reins. Preparing to head the government after their victory at the Constituent Assembly elections in 2011, the party’s secretary Hamadi Jebali declared that the country was about to embark upon its “sixth rightly guided Caliphate,”[5] thereby entering his own name on the roll of the (few) exemplary Islamic rulers.


Religion was also mobilized outside democratic procedures, both against regimes in office and in their support. In Syria, after Bashar al-Asad’s brutal crackdown on the uprisings, it was primarily jihadist organizations that contested the president’s power. In Bahrain, where the Shi‘ite majority rose up against the Sunni ruler, the Gulf monarchies intervened forcibly to quell the revolt, and at the same time tasked their religious establishment both with fighting the “conspiracies” orchestrated by Teheran and reminding the population of the religious duty to obey the established authority.


In Tunisia and Egypt, the rise of the Islamists had the effect of producing an exhausting kulturkampf over national and state identity, thereby sideling the socio-economic problems that had sparked the uprisings.[6] In particular, the Islamist parties sought to give constitutional recognition to the religion’s re-acquired centrality after years of a more or less secular authoritarianism. In Cairo, it was the Constitutional Court, bulwark of a modernist interpretation of Islam, that thwarted the Muslim Brothers’ plans even before the army intervened. In Tunisia, civil society mobilized to prevent any questioning of the country’s progressive achievements, particularly regarding women’s rights and education. After a two-year period during which, mutatis mutandis, the Arab Springs appeared to have followed the same course as the Iranian revolution of 1979 (which was secular before becoming Islamic), the year 2013 marked a turning point. In Egypt, riding the wave of an impressive popular mobilization, a coup d’état ousted President Morsi, putting an end to the disappointing experiment with Islamist governance. In Tunisia, Ennahda watched the events in Egypt with concern and ceded power after a crisis marked by political assassinations and institutional paralysis.


At this point, the underground fault lines that had been running through the Middle East since 2011 became an open rift. On one side were the regimes, headed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which saw the pro-democracy unrest and the Islamist projects, above all, as an existential threat; on the other were countries such as Qatar and Turkey that, conversely, supported the Islamist model of democracy out of an ideological affinity and in order to sharpen their geopolitical outreach. In addition to all the normal weapons in the political armoury, the two camps also challenged each other through a vast network of religious institutions. Qatar could rely on the International Union of Muslim Scholars, founded and chaired until 2018 by Yūsuf al-Qaradāwī, the ideologue of reference for the Islamist galaxy. The UAE and Abu Dhabi, in particular, inspired the creation of a series of organizations such as the Muslim Council of Elders and the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies that, in opposition to the Islamist model, promote tolerance, inter-religious dialogue and political stability.


The year 2014 marked another watershed. On 29 June, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), emboldened by the chaos into which the Syro-Iraqi region had been plunged, conquered additional territory and announced the restoration of the Islamic Caliphate, whilst changing its name to Islamic State in order to express its by now universal ambition. Unlike the Islamist parties that had governed in Tunisia and Egypt, ISIS had no interest whatsoever in reconciling Islamic governance with the procedures of modern democracy. Faithful to Islamism’s most radical roots, they asserted that sovereignty belongs to God alone and that the only task of humankind is to apply sharia’s unchanging rules without making any concessions. The rise of the jihadist organization was traumatic for the Muslim world, which suffered a devastating wave of terrorist violence internally and at the same time found itself answerable for the atrocities committed in the name of Islam. And it was a terrible blow for the Arab Springs: after arousing widespread enthusiasm, they ended up in the dock for having opened the Middle East Pandora’s box. In addition, the demands that had inspired them—which had already been obscured by the post-revolutionary debates on the relationship between religion and politics—definitively gave way to security concerns. The counter-revolutionary reaction and the jihadist surge set in motion a change both in the religious and the politico-religious discourse.


The Institutional Religious Discourse Evolves


During the period immediately following Mubarak’s fall, al-Azhar tried to set itself up as the interpreter of society’s demands. It then sided with the Egyptian military in the conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood and devoted itself to fighting the jihadist ideology through publications, conferences and the social media. The watchwords during this new phase were “reform” and “renewal,” imposed by President al-Sisi and the more liberal sections of the Egyptian intelligentsia as they denounced what they saw as a discursive continuity between the theologico-legal heritage defended by al-Azhar and the jihadist ideology’s sources.[7] The mosque’s most senior figures (starting with the Grand Imam, Ahmad al-Tayyeb) adopted these words but gave them a particular nuance: true reform is not a break with the past, as proposed by some of the intellectuals critical, primarily, of the legal heritage and the hadīth corpus; quite the opposite, it is the promotion of tradition. Indeed, the latter, contrary to the modernist thinkers’ assertions, not only does not contain the jihadist poison but would actually constitute its antidote. The Moroccan institutions and those promoted by the UAE moved along the same lines, aiming at an updated version of traditional Islam.


If certain elements of tradition are considered untouchable (e.g. family law, particularly inheritance law), there are, on the other hand, some areas that can be subjected to review. This is particularly the case with political and social relationships, with a legitimation of equal citizenship within the modern nation state as an alternative to the Caliphal model re-exhumed by radical Islamism, based on a potentially pan-Islamic government and discrimination between Muslims and non-Muslims. The conferences, documents and declarations on this theme have multiplied in recent years and there has been a particular emphasis on, precisely, the category of citizenship, which also found a place in the Abu Dhabi Document on Human Fraternity signed by al-Azhar’s Grand Imam and Pope Francis.


In this respect, it is interesting to note two aspects. In the first place, reflection on equal belonging to the same political body for Muslims and non-Muslims is not new but it paradoxically draws on the strand of Islamist thought that has sought to break free from the most uncompromising concepts of an Islamic state since the 1980s.[8] In the second place, one cannot fail to notice that citizenship is also the category that encapsulates the full gamut of the demands emerging during the revolutions in 2011.[9] The sense in which the word has been used by official religious institutions, however, differs quite markedly from this highly civic acceptation: indeed, they stress the duty of non-discrimination on religious ground but turns a blind eye to rulers’ violation of fundamental rights. Thus al-Azhar insists on the equal dignity of Christians and Muslims, asserting that no one should feel themselves to be a minority in the country of their citizenship, and at the same time invites people not to destabilize the nation through protests and anti-government demonstrations.[10]


In any case, the criterion according to which certain areas such as, precisely, citizenship or forms of government can be updated whereas others (not only inheritance but also religious freedom) are declared unchangeable has not been totally clarified yet.


The Islamist Parties’ Stalemate


The case of the Islamist parties is different, tested as they have been both by their experience of government and by the rise of Islamic State, the very name of which encapsulates the objective they have militated for right from the start. From this point of view, the most interesting path has been taken by the Tunisian party Ennhada, which has operated in a political context quite unique in the Arab world. Whilst the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has been forced underground once again and the Moroccan Islamists of the Justice and Development ruling party have been neutralized by the constraints imposed by the monarchy, Ennahda has been able to operate in an institutional environment defined solely by the rules that the party itself contributed to establishing in the 2014 Constitution.


The most significant aspect of the journey accomplished by the Tunisian party (prepared for by lengthy theoretical reflection on the part of its historic leader, Rached Ghannouchi) has been its full acceptance of political pluralism and consequent renunciation of the idea of establishing an Islamic state. This transition culminated in the conference held in May 2016, during which Ennhada formalized its shift towards a party specializing in political activity (rather than a movement devoted to religious preaching) and its passage from “political Islam” to “Muslim democracy.”[11] The outcome of this decision remains chequered. Indeed, Ennahda’s choices have spared Tunisia the Egyptian scenario but they have also contributed to paralysing the country’s political life. Indeed, after symbolizing dissent to the existing regime for decades, the (ex-)Islamist party has invested a good deal of its action and rhetoric in building consensus between the various Tunisian political factions at all costs, fostering a culture of permanent compromise that has crippled the state’s ability to respond to its citizens’ demands.[12]


A Theological Task


Greeted with enthusiasm (particularly in the West) for their secular nature, the 2011 uprisings soon had to reckon with the religious factor. In this sense, “Allah does have much to do with it,” one can reply to Todd. In societies in which Islam retains a strong public significance, this was neither an unexpected development nor a form of undue interference. It did, however, raise a question about the kind of change the Arab world continues to need. If the experience of the last ten years has demonstrated that Islam has to be included in any attempt at political and social reform, it is also true that no Islamic institution or organization has tried to get to the bottom of the issues that the Arab Springs allowed to surface. Indeed, behind the revolutions one finds a demand for rights stemming—with varying degrees of consciousness—from a personalist anthropology. Thinking about how and to what extent this anthropology can be accepted and valued also at the theological level remains a task still to be tackled.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

[1] Emmanuel Todd, Allah n’y est pour rien. Paris : Arrêt sur images, 2011.
[2] See the article by Eugenio Dacrema in this issue.
[3] See, in particular, the “Statement About the Future of Egypt,” published in June 2011. The text is available in English at /en/statement-about-future-egypt
[5] Malika Zeghal, “The New Political Languages of Tunisia: the “Sixth Caliphate” or the “Second Republic”?”, On Islam and Politics, 16 November 2011,
[6] Hamit Bozarslan, Révolution et état de violence. Moyen-Orient 2011-2015. Paris : CNRS Éditions, 2015, pp. 9198.
[7] As regards the Egyptian debate, see Michele Brignone, “In Search of a Reformer for Islam,” Oasis, no. 21 (2015), pp. 75–82.
[8] Usaama al-Azami, “‘Abdullāh bin Bayyah and the Arab Revolutions: Counter-revolutionary Neo-traditionalism’s Ideological Struggle against Islamism,” The Muslim World, vol. 109, no. 3 (2019), pp. 343–361.
[9] In this respect, see Roel Meijer and Nils Butenschøn (eds.), The Crisis of Citizenship in the Arab World. Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2017.
[10] This occurred, for example, on the occasion of the protests sparked in Egypt in September 2020, which al-Azhar invited people to stay away from. See the statement entitled “Al-Azhar invites the Egyptian people to end the attempts at destabilization,”
[11] See Andrew F. March, The Caliphate of Men. Popular Sovereignty in Modern Islamic Thought. Cambridge (MA)-London: The Belknap Press–Harvard University Press, 2019, pp. 205228.
[12] Hamza Meddeb, “Ennahda’s Uneasy Exit From Political Islam,” Carnegie Middle East Center, “Series on Political Islam,” September 2019,


To cite this article

Printed version:
Michele Brignone, “Thinking Islam after Tahrir Square”, Oasis, year 16, no. 31, pp. 103-108.

Online version:
Michele Brignone, “Thinking Islam after Tahrir Square”, Oasis [online], published on December 2020, URL: /en/thinking-islam-after-tahrir-square