There is an undeniable movement across the Islamic world. Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, the Gaza Strip, Iran, Jordan, Yemen, Algeria, and so on, have seen protests, revolutions, and governmental change. The revolts are spontaneous, from the ground up, and massive. Yet have they really done anything? As much as I would like to comment on their successes and failures, it really is too soon to say much about their various outcomes. Tunisia does seem to be headed in a relatively positive direction, though it is balanced on the edge of a knife. Egypt may well be worse off than before the protests – unless the new military dictatorship gives up its power in September (I believe my “pessimism” is in this case something more like “realism”). Anyone who asserts far reaching predictions about the future of the region is headed into dangerous territory. I certainly am not qualified to predict the future of the Middle East. However, I can shed some light on the recent wave of revolution which has shook the Islamic world in the past year. The light shines from the past, from Europe in 1848 to be specific, and the parallels between the revolutions of that year and those of 2011 are striking.
Surely increased literacy and improved information technologies have spawned more revolutions against injustice than anything else. Give the people knowledge and the ability to spread it, and they will want to exert their new found power. It is no surprise that most of the protestors across the Islamic world are literate – and many are students. They come from the middle and working classes, and they want to unlock the economic potential they posses. Likewise, in the 1840's, as the spread of liberal ideas (like democracy and economic freedom) infected the masses, the literate middle and working class members of many countries began to squirm under the heel of oppression. And as is always the case, the combustion of these new ideals was set off in the cities across Europe where there was the critical mass needed to unleash the discontent of the people against the ruling classes. Look to Cairo and Tehran for a modern day example of how explosive a city can become once its people are enraged. What did the protestors of 1848 want? Suffrage, economic freedom, and basic political freedoms (1). Sound familiar?
The most famous revolution of 1848 is the French Revolution, so lets ponder that one in particular. But before we do, it should be noted that similar revolts happened in the same year in Germany, Denmark, Hapsburg (which no longer exists – a caution to those in power perhaps?), Hungry, Ireland, etc. The various Christian nations of Europe were finding autocracy to be an sure way to fuel revolution, and today's various Islamic nations are finding out a similar truth. In France we find both great hope and abysmal reality. Today France is a democracy wherein the values sought after in the 1848 revolutions are strong. The eventual victory of the French Revolution, however, was not certain as of 1848.
As in today's revolts across the Islamic world, the French Revolution was spurred by increasing literacy, and by increased access to information. For the past decades the literacy rate in the Islamic world has increased dramatically, and as a result has empowered the masses to access information which is out of the control of the ruling powers (2). France's revolution was fueled by pamphlets and daily newspapers, imagine if Marx had Facebook. The actual revolution in France only lasted several months. In February the protestors gathered in Paris and established barricades which they used to stop the military (you might as well call it Cairo), and they managed to oust the King. But the following government established by the revolutionaries was unable to stand the test of history. While they enacted a series of liberal reforms, they were eventually dismantled by Emperor Napoleon the Third, who established the Second Empire in December 1848. If we were observing the French Revolution as contemporaries, we may well have said that it failed.
But indeed, in the long term, the ideals of the French Revolution won out over the ideals of empire. Perhaps this is because economic freedom, literacy, better information technology, increased social mobility, etc, are the bearers of prosperity? As proof, look at the world's most successful nations today, and you will also be looking at the world's most liberal and democratic. Or, if you don't like that explanation, the success of the ideals of the French Revolution may be as simple as the mass of people who believe in them. Maybe freedom is just so seductive that empires cannot obscure it indefinitely. Whatever the reason, Europe became increasingly liberal and free in the years since 1848, and empire and autocracy became increasingly rare and untenable.
So as the Islamic world finds itself ablaze with the audacious desire for freedom, it should find solace in the example of Europe. In 1848 Europe looked just as hostile to liberal ideals as does the Islamic world in 2011. But give it a few years, and a few well attended riots, and if the trend of history is accurate, the Islamic world will likewise progress - non zero sum logic will out. Regardless of the failures or successes of the revolts of 2011, it does not seem too outlandish to proclaim that empire and autocracy will soon be as untenable in the Islamic world as they are today in Europe (the “Christian” world). And if “a few years” is too much to ask, remember that our information technology is light years ahead of what it was in 1848. If it took decades to strengthen the ideals of the revolution in France, it isn't too unrealistic to look for real change in a matter of years in the Islamic world. Yes, there will be setbacks – perhaps even as obstinate as Napoleon the Third, but the trend is unstoppable.
There is an undeniable movement in the Islamic world. Those in power should be afraid of the masses who want them ousted. Be it a matter of decades or a matter of months, the masses of people who want freedom will be heard. The dictators and fake liberal politicians in the Islamic world would be wise to either join the revolution, or they, like countless dictators before them, will certainly be dragged into the streets.