No religious dimension?

February 1, 2011

In an interview with Oxford professor Michael Willis
about Tunisia, Radio Free Europe correspondent Hossein Aryan noted that "there
has not been a religious dimension to the unrest" in the Middle East. This is
quickly becoming the conventional wisdom.

The media report that protests throughout the Arab world are
"remarkably secular," "nonideological" and "free of sectarian influence." It's
time to get our terms straight. What people mean when they say "no religious
dimension" is that religious conflict
is not playing a role in the events. 
"Religious," in media language, is shorthand for "religious extremism."

Yet several of these photos of the protests in Egypt show
protestors praying together, which suggests that there may well be religious
dimensions to the drama. The more interesting--and accurate--question is not
"why is religion taking a back seat?" but "what are the religious dimensions to
these political protests?" If conventional wisdoms of all kinds are being
challenged by the events in Egypt, let's allow the idea that "religion" means
extremism and violence to be another idea that falls.