Sami Zubaida: The "Arab spring" in Historical Perspective

Roundup: Talking About History

Sami Zubaida is emeritus professorof politics and sociology at Birkbeck College, London. He is the author of Beyond Islam: A New Understanding of the Middle East (IB Tauris, 2011)

His earlier books include Islam, the People and the State: Political Ideas and Movements in the Middle East (IB Tauris, 1993); A Taste of Thyme: Culinary Cultures of the Middle East (IB Tauris, 2001); and Law and Power in the Islamic World (IB Tauris, 2005)

The events of the "Arab spring" have elicited a range of comments and explanations in public discourses which serve well to illustrate the theoretical and ideological approaches to middle-east politics in the western media and in academia. After decades of the dominance of religion and ethno-religious nationalisms in the region, the "revolutions" in Tunisia and then Egypt seemed to eschew religion and nationalism in favour of classic political demands of liberty, democracy and economic justice.

Did these manifestations, then, run contrary to ideas of middle-eastern or Islamic exceptionalism: the notion that Islam and "tribalism" are at the base of the politics of the region? Did they show a convergence and not a "clash of civilisations" towards a common universe of discourse and aspiration? In any event, religious and tribal politics were never far away from these events, and soon came to manifest themselves. So, does this show the justice of the idea of middle-east exceptionalism, and the superficiality of the appearance of universalism?..

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