by DEBANJAN BANERJEE
Ever since the obscure fruit vendor in an obscure Tunisian town set himself on fire, the Arab Spring has been on the minds of intellectuals the world over. The most pressing issue to understand is what is lies ahead for the West Asian and North African region. Following the events in Egypt, Libya and Syria, there stands the considerable task of making some sense of the political forces that have been coined as “Islamists”. Much of the discussion about the situation in the region has sought to understand and forecast how these “Islamists” will try to replace the existing system.
One of the most familiar techniques used by analysts to understand a given situation is to compare the same with a historical event, find similarities and dissimilarities, and come up with solutions. It is therefore reasonable to turn our focus to another very interesting event in the history of the Western civilization, which may have quite a few parallels with the current situation in West Asia and beyond: the Protestant Reformation and the tumultuous events that followed it.
The Protestant reformation was in many ways a revolt against the existing system, which happened to be the Catholic Church and the monarchies to which it was allied. The chain of events began with the invention of the printing press and the subsequent dissemination of education. This gave the ability to a lot of popular and charismatic church leaders of the day to translate the Latin scriptures into their own languages and thus facilitate education and awareness of the scriptures amongst the people of the time, especially those who could afford the time and resources necessary for a good education (i.e., the nobles). This widespread awareness of the scriptures allowed the nobles—as well as the nascent urban artisan and merchant classes—to question the doctrines of Papal infallibility, veneration of Catholic saints and relics and, most significantly, the supposedly divine right of the Church and the Monarch to rule and exploit national resources.
The rise of the Protestants (particularly the Calvinists, some of whom would later go on to be famously referred to as Puritans) tended to provoke a harsh response from the existing system (i.e. the Catholic Church and her affiliated monarchies; for example the Holy Roman Emperor Philip II of Spain). The revolting forces of Protestantism and the Catholic reactions would plunge much of the continental Europe into terrible bloodshed for decades. Violence would only cease with the treaty of Westphalia, when most of the combatants were either worn out or had decided in favor of prioritizing worldly concerns instead of religious dogma by the respective churches.
The current situation in the West Asian region has similarities with the Protestant Reformation. The political economy which had started its course ever since the end of the World War I and the subsequent fall of the Ottoman Empire, has been based upon a group of artificially crafted states that readily share their vital natural resources with the economic hegemonic powers of the day—firstly Britain and France, and then the US and erstwhile USSR (and perhaps China in future). The leaderships in these states have been prepared to buy the allegiance of their restive populations either by drowning their political ambitions in an ocean of enticements, or submerging them in the darkness of oppression and tyranny. The economic hegemonic powers have been largely content to let things continue in these ways as long as the vital tap of cheap national resources was likely to continue. The first challenge to this system came in the early 1950s when the prime minister of Iran, Mohammed Mossadegh, nationalized that country’s oil industry. The subsequent Western intervention and overthrow of Mossadegh would ultimately make the way for a Western-backed tyrant to plunder that country and suppress all opposition forces. Thus we see a clear connection between the political and economic situation between that of the pre-reformation Europe and the pre-Arab Spring political situation.
Another key similarity between the two eras exists. In the case of Europe, it has been the rise of preachers like Luther and Calvin who presented a more or less simplistic solution to what they considered existential problem in their times. They identified (according to the worldview of the time) the Catholic Church as the diabolical root cause behind all the evil of the day and suggested replacing the authority of the Catholic Church with a system supported by a most literal interpretation and implementation of the New Testament. Similarly we can see in West Asia from Iran in 1979 to Libya and Syria in 2011 that political forces who interpret their problems in a simplistic way to the misdeeds of either “the great Satan” or her “local agents” are gaining momentum and popularity.
The baptism of fire to which these nascent movements have been subjected is quite similar in nature to the ones the Protestant movements in Europe found themselves subjected. The persecution of the peaceful protests in Bahrain and the bloody civil conflicts in Syria all attest to that fact. What complicates the picture further is the involvement of the Western powers and their contradictory policies; for example, supporting the rebels in Syria, while at the same time either ignoring them in Bahrain or trying to crush them in places like Mali and Yemen. The question is, can we expect more violent bloodshed followed by peace when all the combatants are fatigued (as it happened in Europe centuries earlier)?
Debanjan Banerjee is from Calcutta, India, where he studies Software Engineering. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org