In an attempt to understand the anti-Muhammad movie protests that swept the Middle East in September, most commentators have seen the protests as the “end of the Arab Spring.” Yet it is misleading to argue that the reforms sparked by the Arab Spring uprisings would be ground to a standstill by film protesters’ attempt to impose divine limitations on freedom of speech.
There are two significant reasons why the Arab spring uprisings and the anti- Muhammad film protests do not compare. First, the Arab Spring revolutions against authoritarian regimes were motivated by economic and political frustration. Thus, the status of Islam in the public space and of freedom of speech was not addressed. Rather, the Arab Spring uprisings demonstrated that the right to political expression and opposition is overwhelmingly desired.
Second, the right to political expression and freedom of speech are not synonymous. Actually, it is unclear that the latter enjoys the same consensus as the former. Since the demise of authoritarian regimes, it is worth noting that some groups, from media and artists to religious minorities, have been among those catapulting the question of freedom of speech into the public space — and laboring to secure broader freedoms in the post-revolutionary landscape where blasphemy laws inherited from the “ancien regime” are still in place.
In Tunisia, this summer, for example, members of the media claimed the Islamist-led government was infringing on their freedom of speech. Non-governmental organizations weighed in, accusing the state of media manipulation. In September, a group of intellectuals warned that Egypt’s new constitution could curb free expression. The leaders of the Egyptian Writers Union and the Cairo Center for Human Rights were among those who lodged complaints regarding the Islamist composition of the Constituent Assembly created to draft the constitution. Egyptian novelist Bahaa Taher went so far as to suggest that the assembly be dissolved and reappointed to ensure broader representation.
But the struggle has just begun and was by no means ignited by the anti-Muhammad movie.
In fact, nascent Arab democracies face a serious challenge when it comes to such questions since public spaces across Muslim-majority countries are influenced, if not shaped by, Islamic culture. This is not because Islam does not separate religion and politics, as is commonly and incorrectly asserted. It is because, even under secular authoritarian states, Islam was, by law, a tangible marker of the public space.
Indeed, at the time of nation-building in almost all Muslim-majority countries, Islam was clearly acknowledged as the religion of the state and often inscribed into the constitution as the religion of the country. This recognition was not only symbolic: It also translated into the nationalization of Islamic foundations, of clerical establishment and of all mosques, even in very secular regimes like Turkey, despite the fact that the Turkish constitution does not mention Islam. In a similar vein, adoption of elements of sharia law, notably in family codes, has been incorporated in almost all modern legal systems.
As a result, the political development of Muslim nation-states has led to more complex forms of modernization, which did not correlate with the social and political decline of religion. In this regard, modernization in Muslim countries stands in stark opposition to the dominant Western narrative, according to which religious identity of the individual was (at least by law) disconnected from national and political identity.
The consequence is that, in Muslim countries, with the exception of Senegal and Indonesia, national and religious identities are closely intertwined if not synonymous, As a result of this conflation, a moral hierarchy is established in which the national government intervenes in the personal lives of its citizens on topics that range from dress to social relations and even culture. That is why legal protection of freedom of speech has never been granted, even before the Arab Spring in nations such as Egypt and Tunisia.
As post-revolutionary Middle Eastern regimes grapple with more urgent issues like economic growth and job creation, rulers may not yet see free speech as a priority. Ultimately, however, legal protection of free speech will be an important key sign of democratic success.
Jocelyne Cesari is senior research fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University, director of the Islam in the West program at Harvard University and co-director of the SAIS Global Politics and Religion Initiative at Johns Hopkins University.