The Mosque of Cordoba is one of the most evocative and simplest constructions in the world. It was built when Islam was a young and fresh religion, and at the leading edge of its times. Its array of columns reverberate against each other like standing mirrors reflecting infinity. Each column is unique and many, like Islam itself, borrowed from previous civilizations: they are pillars of Roman engineering and design. Islam brought openness and light to a world that was truly dark, revealing itself as a new burst of the never-ending human quest for “tawhid” (unity), and launching a civilization that would spawn new cultures and genius for millions.
It was the Arabs of the desert that created Islam, and then carried it on their light steeds to a stretch spanning from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gobi Desert. Today, it is the Arabs who have most dramatically shaken the planet with their revolutions against oppression and corruption. No matter the outcome, they have upended their world, rejecting stability in favour of change, and playing into a global current of disruption against failing economic systems and vanishing social contracts. From Moscow to San Francisco, citizens are gathering “Tahrir-like” to express their discontent with the current political and economic structures.
It has been a long time since the Arabs were heralds of anything. Since the period of the Mosque of Cordoba, the Ottomans, Europeans, and the torments of the ill-fated 20th century have all veiled the Arab ‘genius’. For centuries, they were a people long stifled, living in the “dream palace” of the past (1), with a memory of fleeting glory. The invention of a global religion is not something one forgets easily. Today, Arabs may have finally begun to light the embers of a new era.
A Second Chance?
The Arab Awakening appears to be a second chance to reinvent their past success and, more importantly, join the remainder of the globe, not as a museum of memories, but as a living culture that contributes to new global orders by growing, erring and creating like all others.
What are the chances of this happening?
In conversations with others, the tone ranges from the dismissive cynicism of the Lebanese, to the extravagant pessimism of Americans, to the buoyant enthusiasm of Egyptians themselves: those who experienced the revolutions directly.
At first glance, the Arab revolutions did appear glorious. In Egypt and Tunisia, they were populist, peaceful, and, most surprisingly of all, rapid. Libya, Syria and Yemen changed all that. The level of violence increased exponentially. Khadafi died a tellingly brutal death, while Assad refuses one through the brutal death of others. The blood and violence is projected across the globe on Youtube and Al Jazeera, churning stomachs; optimism in January fades into terror for the coming years. The well-rehearsed scripts of the past seem to make a stale and vengeful comeback: are the Arabs doomed for chaos or the backwards-looking rule of political Islam? Doubts and regrets rise about the wisdom of overthrowing stable, if fossilized, regimes without a plan for the future.
Worse, in both East and West, conspiracy theories run amok, insistent that the changes are engineered by Western powers in yet another effort to destabilize and engulf the east. After all, observe the role of NATO in Libya, the oil grab, and the demise of an anti-Israel Syria. “None of it can be a coincidence”, say some – it is all planned. Ironically, many well-meaning and progressive Westerners rush to align themselves with very traditional and brutal Arab authorities to support their anti-Western diatribe. In Israel, the fears are deeper and deadlier, “the Middle East is finished”, decried an Israeli usually known for arch-realism and sobriety. Between the rising Islamists and the Iranian bomb, it does indeed appear that Israel has a problem.
Except for terrified and traumatized Algeria, the whole of North Africa is today the democratic turf of the Muslim Brothers. Who would have believed that one year ago? And who among the experts predicted it?
The Challenge for Political Islam
Yet, in conversations with Muslim Brothers from across the Arab world, one does not sense triumphalism so much as a giddy trepidation. “Are we up to the task?”, hints the body language. “How will we manage the respected Moroccan monarchy, the ardent Tunisian left, and the vested Egyptian army, and above all, provide for millions?” The answers will not come easily, and, in the meantime, the Brothers will ironically find themselves dependent upon a Western institution for their legitimacy: the ballot box.
Every Brother I have spoken with claims the need for moderation, and a readiness to compromise with others. However, behind these words is the stern confidence that their society is both Islamic and Muslim, and that, over time, their discourse will win out over borrowed foreign values (even if that one foreign value, the ballot box, is useful for the moment). They are betting on the cultural memories and the social fabric of their nations being in their permanent favour.
Looking Back to Look Forward
In the seventh and eighth centuries, Islam successfully spread, and constructed the Mosque of Cordoba, because it put forward a more useful and integrative paradigm for running a society than either dying Persia or hollow Byzantium could muster.
The reality is that today’s wave of change will also only succeed if it presents effective ideas to manage current challenges. Indeed, these ideas will have to be as new as Islam once was. That order came into the world as a stunningly fresh and novel response to managing our problems. It came from the Arabs, but it was universal in intention; the Mosque of Cordoba shimmers as a mirror of this universal order.
Islam did not only unify the Arabs for a time, it provided a life of relative tolerance with the possibility of progress for a broad swath of highly diverse humanity, ranging from Kurds to Turks to Berbers.
Whatever arises today will also have to do more than imitate the past. “Good government requires a profound understanding of complex relationships in human affairs”. (2) These relations include the management of climate change, resource depletion, ethnic and religious diversity, fair income distribution, and economies and technologies that are globalized mostly in the pursuit of profits and consumption. Many criticize the Muslim Brotherhood for their attempt at introducing a moral dimension to societal management. However, even without agreeing to the imposition of Islamist values, the apposite situation, a market-driven and consumer free-for-all bereft of neighbourly consideration, is hardly a desirable end-state.
Political Islam today will likely rely still on formulas from a distant past, and insist on certainty where there is none: they underestimate how groundbreaking Islam once was, how creative and revolutionary it was in its own time – and how crucial that was for success.
The Spirit of Today’s Revolution
Amidst the rapid rise of the Brothers, and the continuing resistance of tyrants and militaries, we have all forgotten the revolutionaries who started the whole process one year ago. What of these youth and their spirit? They had demanded again and again that authorities get out of their way so they could run their own lives; they insisted on their empowerment and independence.
The reality is they were young secularists as much as young Muslim Brothers, the grocer as much as the journalist, the young woman as much as Mohammad El Baradei. There was talk then in Egypt of new kinds of participative democracy, and of Copts protecting mosques. For its part, the Syrian opposition is attempting, at least on paper, to reflect fairly the pluralistic mix in their country. Has all that vanished, now a vague memory overtaken by chaos, disorganization and intolerance? The political winners may well be for the time being the Muslim Brothers, but will that human insistence on autonomy and legitimacy, dissipate so easily?
Once upon a time in Europe, the printing press was invented and books published. Naturally, these books were at first about religion, representing the ethos and culture of the time. People learned how to read in order to read about Christianity. They become literate, and, lo and behold, they slowly developed the readiness to read on other matters, beyond religion. That, in turn, led to a spectrum of new knowledge beyond narrow dogma, including the very liberalism that we worship today, and the demise of the old religious paradigm.
The same pattern may be repeating itself today with the Internet. Search the web, and you will not only find what you are seeking, but also a world beyond any singular authority’s control. One begins to see and perceive how personal and cultural views are situated in a plurality, an almost infinite diversity of opinion in which one’s own views are but only a small part.
This mentality exists in the new generation of Arabs, no matter their political inclination. As it was the printing press that triggered the evolution of the West – in fits and starts, and with much violence now conveniently forgotten – so, it may also be for the Middle East. The Internet may lead to new knowledge and tolerance, with much less ideology. Over time, the spirit of empowerment and self-reliance that the revolutions embodied, and that the Internet nourishes, may go beyond toppling governments to upend cultural taboos as well.
The Choice Ahead
Time is against the region. Demographics, a lack of basic resources, global competition, a persistent disorganization and lack of trust are not harbingers of success. But, the fact is that the Islamists, the military, businessmen and liberals will all have the same political and socio-economic challenge. This will not go away, nor be resolved by slogans. If the Arabs persist, and work hard, slowly but surely, they will invent the right answers. If they run to past dreams, by definition that will be a new sleep, and the 21st century version of the Mosque of Cordoba, that may be neither a mosque nor in Cordoba, will simply not be built.
The Arabs should not be damned to inevitable failure by outside observers, but only they can ensure that they do indeed succeed. They have already shown that the basic cultural software, the most important tools of all, exists among the young, and the persistent revolutionaries: the pursuit of freedom from the shackles of others, the need and demand for autonomy, and independence of mind.
 Reference to The Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation’s Odyssey, by Fouad Ajami. Vintage Publishing. 1999.
 Godhead: The Brain’s Big Bang, by Joe Griffin & Ivan Tyrrell, HG Publishing. 2011. Pg. 122
John Bell is Director of the Middle East programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid. He is also a writer and analyst of Middle East affairs.
Nuria Ayarra provided the photos for this piece.