Like most people, I guess, I've been following the news from the Middle East over the past two years - the non-violent rebellions in Tunisia and Egypt, the civil wars in Libya and Syria, the protests and bloody repression in Bahrain, Yemen and many other countries, the decades-long conflict in Palestine. I understand what's happening on the surface, but my knowledge is skin deep, because I know so little about the societies in which they are taking place.
Not so Tariq Ramadan. His maternal grandfather was the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and his father a prominent Brotherhood figure who was exiled under President Nasser. He grew up in Switzerland, becoming one of the Western world's leading Islamic scholars. If anyone is qualified to interpret what's going on for Western readers, it's Tariq Ramadan.
Not that he's unbiased. He has at times been persona non grata in the US for his outspoken criticism of American and Israeli policy. He is not necessarily a friend of the European powers despite having lived there all his life. Yet he is also viewed with suspicion in much of the Middle East. Certainly it would be hard to accuse him of not being independent.
The Arab Awakening was written in early 2012, as events were still unfolding in much of the Middle East. Mubarak had fallen but Morsi was still to be elected. Ghaddafi had been killed but the rebellion in Syria was only just beginning to descend into full-scale civil war. Events have moved on since he wrote, and perhaps if he was writing now he would say some different things. (Indeed, you can read some of his more recent thoughts on his blog). Nevertheless, he shines a bright light on some aspects of these stories that lurk in the background of the mainstream Western news coverage.
For a start, he provides an often critical analysis of the role of the US and European powers. He highlights the fact that while the rebellions across the Middle East were spontaneous in their immediate causes, the groundwork for non-violent protest had been laid through training provided to young activitists by the leaders of the 1998 Serbian uprising that removed Slobodan Milosevic. These training sessions, funded by US agencies and non-profits, taught about the principles of non-violent protest and the use of social media to galvanise demonstrators. Armed with these tools, participants became the leaders of the subsequent protest movements.
The US motivation for this training is not always clear. Why train protestors to overthrow regimes like Mubarak's in Egypt or Ben Ali's in Tunisia which protected US interests? Ramadan concludes that the US knew these regimes were shaky as their long-term leaders aged, and wanted to have a hand in the succession. Yet he doesn't leave it there. Why did the US and Europe support the protestors in Egypt and Tunisia, while remaining aloof as protests in Bahrain and the other petro-monarchies were mercilessly crushed? Why did NATO provide military support for the Libyan rebels (led by figures who had only recently defected from the Ghaddafi regime) but stay hands-off in Syria? His conclusion is that, unsurprisingly, US rhetoric promotes freedom and democracy but its actions promote its own economic and strategic interests.
All this is just the prelude to his main question: what kind of societies will emerge from these rebellions? For him, it is not enough for the protestors to have some tools and methods, or for the new political leaders to hammer out new clauses in a constitution. They need to be able to build a political culture and approach which will fit for their own societies - a distinctive Islamic polity for predominantly Islamic societies.
In our mainstream media this question is usually portrayed as a contest between Islamists and secularists, but for Ramadan it is more complex than that. For a start, secularism doesn't mean the same thing in the Middle East and North Africa as it does for us. In European countries and their colonies it meant the seperation of church and state and the removal of church power from government. In the Middle East, starting with Ataturk's Turkey, it meant the subjugation of religion to the State and government supervision of religious teaching. Hence, it became an aspect of oppression.
Nor is Islamism the monolithic demon we perceive it to be. Ramadan points out that there are 30 different schools of legal interpretation in Islam. Commentators in the West and in Israel frequently claim that Islam is inherently violent and extreme. Here is part of Ramadan's reponse.
Early on, two interpretations of religious practice sprang up: that which applied teachings to the letter without taking either context or easing into account and that which considered not only these factors but also the need for flexibility in the social context of the day, not to mention instances of need and/or necessity. The overwhelming majority of scholars and of Muslims around the world (whether Sunni or Shiite, irrespective of legal school) have promoted and followed the path of moderation and flexibility in the practice of their religion.
Hence for Ramadan, Islamism needs to find a way to build on this tradition of moderation. He rejects the path of Osama Bin Laden, who he says was always a marginal political figure in the Middle East, and of the Iranian Islamic Republic which has disappointed the hopes of Islamists by becoming just another corrupt dictatorship and attributing infallibility to certain religious leaders in violation of Islam. If he has a model for Islamic government then the closest visible manifestation of it is Turkey, where Islamic principles are held side by side with democracy, pluralism and engagement with the wider world.
Hence we find him, at the end of the book, advocating policies which address education, empowerment of women, pluralism, respect for minority religions and communities, and engagement with the wider world. He also calls for a deepening of Islamic spirituality beyond mere legalism and repetition of formulae. Western liberalism, he says, is in crisis, unable to solve the pressing problems of our globalised world. It would be a huge mistake for Islamic societies to blindly replicate a model that is failing. By reaching into their own Islamic roots they have the potential to make a unique and positive contribution to solving these problems.
No doubt some of my readers will be unable to hear Ramadan's message. Anything Islamic is automatically suspect. Islam frightens us, and we want to either run or fight. Anyone who criticizes Israel must be silenced or shouted down. Yet if we fail to listen to voices like Ramadan's, we may in the end be forced to listen much harsher, angrier and less thoughtful ones.