Saturday, June 22, 2013

Clash of Civilizations in the Cradle of Civilization I: Class struggle and "religion" in Turkey, Brazil, and Egypt

Demonstrations in Brazil, somewhat similar ones in Turkey, and those ongoing and planned in Egypt ostensibly have different causes, but under the facade, they all really emanate from class struggle. In the case of Turkey, it is a struggle between the traditional elites, with business and family ties to army generals who ruled the country and controlled the most important corners of its economy ever since the demise of the Ottoman empire, on the one hand, and the new middle class rising from Istanbul and the countryside, and educated in or sympathetic to Islamist-minded Gulen-movement schools. In Brazil, it is also the newly rising middle class, resentful of the power structure built around traditional elites, that is fueling protests.

Egypt is somewhat similar to Turkey, and perhaps more dangerously so, because the class struggle is framed by the rising and lower middle classes in more explicitly religious terms of "applying the Shari`a." (Although decades earlier "Liberation Theology" in Latin America can be viewed similarly). It is a strange mix of the class struggle evident in Turkey, also with religious identity politics involved, and the legitimizing tactics for Al-Saud's control of Arabia under its pact with Al-Al-Shaikh (the heirs of Muhammad ibn Abdul-Wahhab's thought in the 18th century), which was focused on an austere anti-modern definition of Islam and its legal framework (Shari`a). Thus, in Turkey and Egypt alike, many upper middle class, relatively secular people (in Egypt they wouldn't dare call themselves secular - `almani - so they call themselves civil - madani) would protest any claims that they are any less Muslim or any less Islamic, but the difference is that Turkish Islamists -- while employing similar identity politics, and the recent alcohol ban close to mosques notwithstanding -- have not been as aggressive in demanding application of Shari`a, anachronistically defined, as those in Egypt have been.

This makes one wonder if what is happening in Egypt is not just class struggle, but after all the Huntingtonian "clash of civilizations" that most of us had discounted. The clash of civilizations, of course, is not between "Islam and the West" as a simplistic reading of Huntington would imply, but the struggle between modern and anti-modern understandings of Islam. This struggle is evident not only in Egypt, Pakistan, Indonesia, and to lesser extents in Malaysia and Turkey, etc., but also among Muslim communities in the West... So, it is more than just class struggle, it is a struggle for definition of religion and its role in social contracts, polity, and economics.