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Studies 15 November, 2011

Religiosity among the youth: a phenomenon independent of the ideological establishment


هاني عواد

باحث في المركز العربي للأبحاث ودراسة السياسات، ومدير تحرير دورية عمران. عمل سابقًا مساعدًا أكاديميًّا في جامعة بيرزيت، التي نال منها شهادة الماجستير في الدراسات العربيّة المعاصرة. حاصل على شهادة الدكتوراه في التنمية الدولية من جامعة أكسفورد في بريطانيا. تتركز اهتماماته البحثية على الحركات الاحتجاجية، والسوسيولوجيا التاريخية، وسوسيولوجيا المكان، وسياسات الريف، والسوسيولوجيا الحضرية والنظرية السياسية. صدر له كتاب عن الشبكة العربية للأبحاث والنشر بعنوان "تحولات مفهوم القومية العربية: من المادي إلى المتخيل".

This study analyzes a new type of religiosity that has appeared in force in the streets and public squares during the Arab revolts: youth religiosity. My approach relies on an understanding of religion as a cultural system in an attempt to analyze, from a socio-cultural perspective, the relationships linking the modes of production of religiosity to the conditions of the social structure in the context of segmentary Arab societies.

My argument is based on a the following hypothesis: the evolution and dissemination of new means of communication have led to the emergence of a new public space that, while being virtual, has broken the master-disciple hierarchy upon which activist Islam had built its educational regime. As a result, the Arab masses gained access to multiple sources of Islamic political knowledge, along with the ability to choose among them what they see fit, or to adopt an idea, or a group of ideas, without the need to enroll in the educational regime of the ideological establishment.

Thus, the spread of the effects of globalization among the middle and popular classes has led to the creation of a virtual public space that has allowed religion - as a cultural system - to escape the stranglehold of the traditional social institutions. Instead, religion has become the domain of an individualistic/youth phenomenon, which has deconstructed it into multiple values and employed them in order to reclaim its social and legal needs.

Religion as a cultural system

Most intellectual and social thought has focused on the critiquing of religion, a practice that has come at the expense of religiosity, and conflated the two phenomena with each other - ignoring the fact that the latter expresses cultural behaviors that are more closely linked to symbols than to a coherent cultural system. As a result, the approaches of Arab intellectuals often have equated religion with ideology, and therefore resulted in theses that vacillate between the perspectives of "religion as the opium of the people" and "religion as the recreation of the society of the Pious Predecessors".

Instead, this study tends to regard the religious phenomenon as somewhat more fluid than just confined to another social institution; I view the religious phenomenon as being part of the public sphere. The specificity of the Arab case is that secular and leftist elites have abandoned the idea of assimilating the Arab and Islamic legacy, verging towards scientism, which has facilitated for activist Islam the task of filling this void and spreading in popular culture. The excessive verging on scientism, and the failure to read matters such as emotions and the imaginary from a scientific perspective, led to the separation of ideology from praxis and the alienation of the intellectual from the social classes, verging on elitism.

Activist Islam and the plurality of public spheres  

This paper draws the inspiration for its understanding of the phenomenon of Islamic activism from Azmi Bishara's theory on the Arabic language. In the Arab case, Bishara argues, "the Arabic language remained as a national language that did not derive from another (like French from Latin), and the local Arabic dialects also did not evolve into independent languages. Therefore, the sacred language also became a national language", which resulted - in the modern age - in the emergence of currents of activist Islam combining nation and religion, building their thought and imagery in the context of a single religious nation since the material for the imagery is suitable and available due to its organic link with the Arabic Quran.

The Arab authoritarian state constrained the public space through "emergency laws" and security institutions, which led the non-aligned elites to seek alternative spaces for political praxis. With Arab society developing in the absence of a central state that takes upon itself the writing of the national narrative and manages the public sphere rather than constraining it, multiple models of education emerged to fill the void, contributing to the rise of political Islam as an important actor with a unique outlook on the world, i.e. in imagining the state, society, and the outside world - which led to confrontations that eroded the structure of Arab society for decades.

The strategy of the Arab ruling elite did not allow one side to triumph over the other. Instead, their policies helped cement the barriers between different public spheres, especially with the Islamists feeling threatened by deceptive infiltration tactics relying simultaneously on the leverage of funding and coercion policies, which further complicated the general scene and contributed to a hardening of the dichotomies between the "them" and the "us" within a single societal space. This led the current of activist Islam to adopt a form of "politics of presence", which saw it compete over different public arenas, including the waging of elections for unions, local councils, and universities. This development later helped the Arab ruling elite to use the "Islamist boogeyman" against the West, presenting Western governments with a choice between these same elites' remaining in power, and their replacement by Islamist movements.

With Arab societies entering the last quarter of the 20th century, the influence of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and Arab governments vacillating between the forging of implicit alliances with Islamists and the tightening of the security noose around their movements, the public space of activist Islam strengthened and took hold. Mosques and other social institutions - such as clubs, charitable associations, and unions in universities and the traditional social class - became tools of ideological production, weaving a political imaginary of the state and its relationship with society, and painting the individual personality of the Muslim, one that does not completely overlap with the other ideals produced by other means of social imagination in other spheres.

Youth religiosity: a phenomenon independent of the ideological establishment

However, a new development took place in the last two decades that was rarely noted by researchers, and which contributed to the reshaping of the phenomenon of religiosity in Arab societies. The spread of the Internet and Arab satellite channels among the popular classes led to the basic Islamic political concepts' losing their direct link to the ideological establishment in its traditional form. This empowered a wide section of the youth, permitting them to employ these concepts without the fear of being linked to traditional political or social organizations - and in a manner more efficient than that of the activist Islam of old.

This was made clear in the use of the symbolism of Fridays and the rituals of communal prayer in public squares as a catalyst for the mobilization of masses and the maintenance of revolutionary momentum. This produced a novel situation combining the authenticity of Arab-Islamic culture with the modernity of legal values that belong, by all accounts, to the cultural space of Enlightenment.

Activist Islam, which relied in its educational model on a hierarchical institutional relationship, could not keep up with the evolution of these new means of imagination, simply because these innovations led to the acceleration of the rate of debate and interaction, which circumvented the slowness and the bureaucracy of the ideological establishment. This new sphere expanded the realm of Islamic political knowledge and exposed its existing contradictions to the educated public.

In the midst of these shifts and changes taking place in the Arab region, I expect activist Islam to undergo changes in its internal structure in a manner leading to its gradual adoption of similar models, albeit more moderate and more attached to the idea of the "homeland" and an inclusive Arab identity. Such a metamorphosis would spare activist Islam the loss of a broad public whose features have begun to emerge in the past two decades. This public has been undermining the legitimacy which activist Islam derived from Islamic culture, as it belongs to political projects aimed at pursuing the achievements of political modernity.

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