Few scholars have the knowledge and ability to give readers as great an insight into Muslim society and culture as Tariq Ramadan, and "Islam and the Arab Awakening" is perhaps the most insightful book this far on the current wave of unrest in the Muslim world. Approaching this book I was reminded of the somewhat apocryphal statement attributed to Zhou Enlai when asked about the French Revolution. His response, "It's too soon to tell." That would be a fitting leitmotif for Ramadan, as it is too soon to tell where the Arab Spring or Jasmine Revolution are going, as it is still unfolding and will likely differ depending on the country and the responses to how it unfolds. Ramadan debunks a number of preconceived notions about the Muslim world, society, and culture, and those insights are desperately needed to better understand what is occurring. There is no monolithic Muslim world, society, and culture; it is as diverse, divided, and diffuse as any other culture. And as one of the foremost scholars, thinkers, and philosophers in the Muslim world Ramadan has unique insights he shares with readers. Ramadan is the grandson of one of the founders of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and related to other leading lights in the reformist movement. To most Westerner's that may seem frightening, but the Muslim Brotherhood is not as extreme as the Salafist or Wahhabi sects who wish a return to strict Sharia laws. Ramadan gives some insight into the various Islamic sects, the philosophies, and current influence in the present-day Muslim world that help readers understand the fissures and fractures that exist and how they are playing out. Granted, it doesn't make for easy reading for the uninitiated yet it points to the complications and difficulties that exist in the Muslim world. In the immediate post Caliphate, World War II, and de-colonization eras what emerged was the proto-typical totalitarian dictatorship model, which brooked no dissent, crushed opposition regardless of how much blood was spilled, and demanded loyalty from all subjects regardless of what divisions existed out fear. Most survived by playing minorities off other minorities, a method that worked well until the lid was suddenly lifted off the pot as happened in Afghanistan in 2002, Iraq in 2003, and with the Arab Spring in 2011. The result is roiling tensions that can no longer be controlled by an iron-fisted dictator and which spill over into the public sphere with bloody consequences.
Ramadan approaches what is unfolding with a clear critical eye. The changes that are occurring are neither inherently good nor bad, they are simply change. It is what occurs with this change and how it unfolds that will help change the Muslim world either for good or for bad. As a longtime critic of undemocratic totalitarian regimes he was labeled an enemy of the state and censored throughout the Muslim world. The use of electronic media by the elites has clearly opened new venues for thought, dialog, and mobilization in ways there were previously unimagined in heavily censored societies. But as Ramadan points out it is merely a tool is not only used by reformists and progressives but by Salafists and Wahhabists alike. The public space and forums have no been opened for engagement and dialog for all Muslims which is encouraging and a bit frightening. We are entering a new phase of Muslim culture and there is no way to predict how it will unfold and what paths it may take, and much of it may depend on individual cultures in each region. Much of this region was never allowed self-determination, to figure out what there place was, who they are, and who they should be. Boundaries of countries were arbitrarily drawn by European powers with little regard to the indigenous peoples and their relationship with each other. Their identities aren't so much to an arbitrary country, but are more clan based, ethnicity based, culturally based, religion based, and so on. We need to rethink the Muslim world in its entirety and be flexible as what it constitutes is clearly changing. Like Christianity there are profound nuances and differences in the Muslim world that aren't always easily understood or explained. "Islam and the Arab Awaking" takes readers towards a greater and fuller understanding.