Thought For The Day - Clifford Longley

One of the striking things about the grass-roots uprisings across the Arab world is their demand for what you might call "Western" values - democracy and human rights. As a result many of us are hastily having to rearrange our prejudices.

Until now, the nightmare scenario that worried Western foreign ministries involved a growing trend towards anti-Western Muslim fundamentalism. They would have dismissed the possibility of a wave of ideas more usually associated with the European Enlightenment, asking "Isn't Islam anti-democratic in principle?"

Well, a little bit of ignorance goes a long way. What Muslims have said to me over the years is that their faith doesn't make them downtrodden. On the contrary, it can feel extraordinarily empowering and liberating. It has no formal hierarchy, no priesthood, and it therefore imparts a strong sense of equality among the brethren - and many Muslim women say this, too.

Hence we need to understand that the demonstrators who have challenged authority from Syria to Tunisia, Libya to Bahrain, are acting out of their religious convictions. But just not in the way we had imagined. Nobody is plucking their strings. They believe the rights they are demanding are the rights Allah himself granted them.

An analogy would be with an even greater religious convulsion of the last half century, in the Roman Catholic Church. In 1950, say, in many parts of the world the Catholic Church would have looked like an enemy of human rights and democracy. It was in bed with all sorts of dreadful military dictators. Quite unexpectedly, this changed. The dictators found the Church rug pulled out from under them. Catholics started demanding human rights.

Half a century later, virtually all such countries are democracies. Who'd have thought it? To say this was because of the Second Vatican Council, which took place half way through the 1960s, is only half true. The Council reflected a change of mood at the grass roots that was already happening. It's as if millions had thrown open their windows and yelled "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" just as in the 1976 Hollywood film Network. And that is exactly the voice we've been hearing on the Arab street these last few weeks. The Spirit bloweth where it listeth, as it says in the Gospel.

Could we be witnessing the start of an Islamic Enlightenment? So far it lacks any discernible shape or structure, though that was also true of the European Enlightenment in the 18th century. That was nothing short of a change of consciousness, a transformation of what it feels like to be a human being. That must, sooner or later, have political consequences. God works in mysterious ways - which includes, to quote the Virgin Mary who is highly revered in Islam, "pulling down the mighty from their thrones".

Release date: 05 Apr 2011

3 minutes

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