Mirage of ‘change’

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The people of Middle East and North Africa are in a rebellious mood. Their anger has already overthrown the rulers of Tunisia and Egypt. The surviving regimes are tottering. Gaddafi is battling out a civil war in Libya. There have been massive protests against the Yemini leader. Violent demonstrations have been reported in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Syria. There are speculations that this rebellious wave may spread to the Muslim populations in south and south-east Asia. The causes attributed to this popular upsurge seem quite genuine: alarming rates of unemployment among the youth; lack of freedom of expression; oppressive nature of regimes; and failure on the part of the incumbent rulers to fulfill the expectations of their peoples.
There can be no defence of these hereditary and autocratic regimes; however, the most important question that is being ignored is that if these rulers fall as a result of the turmoil, who will replace them? What is the use of removing a ‘bad’ ruler if there is no ‘good’ replacement? What is the point of sacrificing blood when there will be no real change in spite of the regime change? The examples of Tunisia and Egypt are in front of us. Several weeks have passed since the rulers in these countries were forced to quit but has anything really changed there? The ones who have replaced them are almost unknown entities with no credentials whatsoever as popular leaders with any known program or philosophy as to how differently they will rule from their ‘hated’ predecessors? Isn’t it ironic that while the world wildly supports the demonstrators against the incumbent autocrats, it does not even know, who, the leaders among these tens of thousands of protesters are, that will occupy the helm of affairs to translate the popular aspirations into some form of reality? This situation clearly shows that there is a crisis of leadership in the Arab world. In fact, this malaise afflicts the entire Muslim world.
Let’s try to understand the gravity of this crisis of leadership. A few years back, Akbar S Ahmed, a leading authority on contemporary Islam, with the support of the American University, Brookings Institution and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life conducted a survey in four countries of the Middle East and North Africa (Qatar, Jordan, Turkey and Syria), two of South Asia (Pakistan and India) and two of the Far East (Indonesia and Malaysia), visiting universities, madrassahs, mosques and cultural centres to understand what the Muslims thought about themselves and the world at large. I’ll just restrict to some of the findings of that survey that are related to the choice of leaders available as role models to the Muslims. These choices may not fully hold good, today, yet these do reflect the thinking of the people.
While Muslims generally harp that they all belong to the ‘ummah’, they have failed to develop a consensus as to who can be their undisputed role model leader. In fact, their preferences of leadership models are region-specific, which, at times, run counter to one another. For some Muslims, the role models are Maulana Yousef Qaradawi, Maulana Maududi and Hassan Al Banna while for others political figures such as Ahmadinejad, Yasser Arafat, Hasan Nasrallah and Khomeini are the role models. Still for others, the role models to be followed are Sami Yusuf (an Iranian British singer and songwriter), Yusuf Islam, Amr Khaled and Hamza Yusuf (an American convert to Islam). The most important figure that enjoyed the support of 45 to 60% of the Arab world was Amr Khaled (an Egyptian television preacher).
A country-wise analysis will crystallise this dilemma further. In Syria, Amr Khaled was most popular followed by scholars and religious figures such as Ahmed Kuftaro (the former Grand mufti of Syria) and the preacher Muhammad Habash. In Jordan, over 60% supported Amr Khaled followed by scholarly Tariq Al Sweidan. Interestingly, Hezbollah’s leader Hasan Nasrallah enjoyed more support in Jordan than the Jordanian ruler King Abdullah II. For Qataris, the top role models were the religious figures of Yousef Qaradawi and Amr Khaled. These were followed by other religious personalities such as Tariq Sweidan, Sheikh Al Sudais (the Imam of the Grand Mosque) and Hasan Nasrallah. In Turkey, 45% supported Fethullah Gulen followed by Said Nursi. The most liked figure in Indonesia was Abdullah Gymanster(a televangelist). In Malaysia, the top choice was Mahathir Mohammad (35%) followed by Yousef Qaradawi (25%).
The response in Pakistan was also quite divided with 25% supporting Mahathir Mohammad followed by Yasser Arafat and Ahmadinejad (14% each) and Abdul Sattar Edhi (10%). Another figure that was looked upon as a role model in every country surveyed was Osama bin Laden enjoying highest support in Indonesia (25%). The survey also revealed a general feeling of apathy and disenchantment with the present crop of Muslim leaders because 30% respondents in Turkey and 16% in Pakistan clearly stated that they did not have a contemporary role model.
What can be inferred from such a scenario? At best, the Muslim world is divided; at worst, it has no leader that enjoys the consensus of ‘ummah’. Even after a passage of fourteen centuries, the ‘ummah’ has failed to learn a simple lesson: united we stand; divided we fall. On top of it, the figures that comparatively enjoy more support than the others are either preachers or religious scholars and there is no statesman or politician, who can lead the 1.5 billion Muslims.
Moreover, quite a few role models are no more in this world and the ones living have neither figured prominently in the Arab protests nor have they staked their claim in the ongoing power struggle. Being popular role models means nothing unless they translate their popularity into political power backed by some political organisation with a well thought-out plan of action. Till that happens, the prospects for the Arab ‘revolutions’ remain rather bleak. This popular wave will either degenerate into anarchy and chaos or will simply be hijacked by the surrogates of the dethroned rulers as has happened in Tunisia and Egypt, and the whole idea of ‘change’ will remain a mirage in the political deserts of Mideast, at least, in the foreseeable future.

The writer is an academic and journalist. He can be reached at [email protected]