From the shores of the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf, people in many Arab-Muslim countries are demanding that their rulers democratise and that dictators step down. So far, despite some fears, Arab revolutions have led to neither xenophobia nor anti-western demonstrations, nor a significant breakthrough for Islamists.
Tunisia’s ‘Jasmine Revolution’ and the mass protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and throughout Egypt shared demands for the end of dictatorial regimes. The uprisings also raised the implicit challenge of political Islamism. But demonstrators didn’t cite the Sharia or the wish for a theocratic State based on a fundamentalist Islam while defying batons and bullets.
They demanded, and won promises for, what people in other Arab States are also now seeking: a multi-party system, freedom of the press, and the prospect of genuine democratic pluralistic elections.
At these demonstrations, no American or Israeli flag was burned, no anti-western or anti-Jewish slogan uttered. This is a greatly encouraging sign, although there is no guarantee what direction these uprisings will take. And some recent events call for vigilance.
In late 2010, Egypt was the scene of a bloody attack against a Coptic church in Alexandria. Nobody could then have imagined that a few weeks later, massive crowds of Muslims, Christians and agnostics would gather together in the same city to help force Hosni Mubarak from power.
In Tunisia shortly after former President Zine Abeddine Ben Ali’s fall, Father Marek Rybinski, a Poland-born Catholic priest, was murdered on the premises of an inter-denominational school in the Tunis suburban governorate of Manouba, while dozens of Islamist protesters were rallying outside the Great Synagogue of Tunis, and a chapel was burned near Gabes.
In an encouraging response to these events, hundreds of Tunisians demonstrated for a ‘secular Tunisia’, waving placards that read: “We are all Jews, Christians and Muslims.”
It is always by how it treats the ‘other’ that a society is best judged even when minorities are so small that they are virtually invisible. One need not be a Christian to stand up for Egypt’s Copts, Iraq’s Assyro-Chaldeans, and Lebanon’s Maronites.
One need not be a Muslim to stand up for the Arabian Peninsula’s Shias, Iran’s Sunnis, India’s Muslims and Turkey’s Ceylon or Alevis. One need not be a Jew to come to the defence of Syria’s or Iran’s Jews.
But the defence of minorities is, above all, the responsibility of the majorities among whom they live, none of which can enjoy true self-esteem if they despise or mistreat the ‘other’.
New regimes will be judged by how they treat their ethnic and religious minorities. It is by the space allowed for these various minorities to live and flourish in their societies that we will judge the true nature of the Arab Spring.
(René Guitton writes on culture and religion. The views expressed by the author are personal. This is part of the Religion and Public Space series in collaboration with the UN Alliance of Civilisations and its Global Experts project)