Religious fundamentalisms in the city: reflections on the Arab Spring.

AuthorSayyad, Nezar Al

Around the world, we are witnessing new forms of organization, grassroots mobilization, activism and popular uprisings, all seeking democratic change and social justice. These events evoke both optimism and pessimism about our abilities to predict the future of cities in today's Global South. Confronted by a growing landscape of poverty, rising inequality in the global economy and acute socio-spatial polarization, we must ask what accounts for these new patterns. Does the reasoning apply equally to cities worldwide or does it exist only within the context of specific urban geographies? Perhaps the most recent and dramatic transformation within the global urban landscape is the Arab Spring. As people in various parts of the Arab world embark on their quest for self-governance, there is no telling where this great experiment will lead. Based on current indications, religion will play a decisive role in shaping the futures of these nations, and particularly their cities. Our aim in this article is to explore the urban processes by which religious movements transform into fundamentalist ones, and how that process may reshape cities.

No one could have imagined that when Mohamed Bouazizi set himself ablaze, humiliated by constant harassment from the Tunisian police for selling goods without a permit, it would spark a revolution overthrowing Tunisia's President Ben Ali in a matter of weeks. No one, not even regional experts, could have predicted that the uprising in Tunisia would spread to Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain and Syria in a span of three months.

As of March 2012, governments have been overthrown in four countries. Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia in January 2011 following the protests in Sidi Bouzid and across the country. In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak resigned that February after eighteen days of massive protests in Tahrir Square, ending his thirty years of unchallenged rule since the assassination of Anwar el-Sadat. The Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi was overthrown in August 2011 and killed in October after the forces of the National Transitional Council took control of his hometown of Sirte. Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh transferred power to his deputy in February 2012 after an uncontested election. (1) The largest, most organized demonstrations within the movement often occurred on what many Arabs have called a "Day of Rage," typically held on Fridays after noon prayers. The will of protesters was marked by incredible resilience and determination, inspiring demonstrators not only in the Middle East, but around the world. Cities like Alexandria, Sana'a, Cairo, Benghazi and Tripoli played decisive roles in these events. Indeed, it is appropriate to describe the Arab uprisings as urban revolutions. The following question remains: What kinds of cities will emerge as a result of these political changes?

The Arab Spring has given rise to a unique form of religious polity that has carved the Arab city into different orders of citizenship. Throughout this article we will explore the urban processes by which religious movements transform into fundamentalist ones, employing tactics of control that reshape the life and form of cities. We begin with a discussion of how the Arab Spring has inaugurated religious regimes of urban rule and urban regimes of religious rule, reinforcing the preexisting relationship between religion and urbanism. (2) We then discuss the traditional, long-standing relationship between religion and urbanism and how modernity disrupts this. We also examine the territorial character of fundamentalism as well as the larger discourse on the city, citizenship and religiosity. We conclude with definitions of "the fundamentalist city."


The protest movements of the Arab Spring appeared to be largely secular in nature. In Tunisia and Egypt, Islamist groups joined at later stages. Once new electoral procedures were established, however, Islamist parties benefited most, winning many of the elections that followed the popular uprisings in the region. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the most organized Islamist movement in the country, is known for its political savvy, resilience and discipline. It won the largest bloc in Egypt's first parliamentary elections since Mubarak's resignation. Egypt's more conservative Salafi party, Hizb al-Nour (Party of Light), took second place with almost one quarter of the votes.

There are differing opinions as to why Islamists gained immense popularity in Egypt's democratic elections, but a commonly accepted reason is their longstanding presence in the lives of many urban communities. (3) For many years, the Muslim Brotherhood provided education and health services to the poor and disadvantaged, paid small stipends to widows and ran micro-credit programs. (4) Salafis are now also engaged in urban life, distributing food for religious feasts and offering classes in Koran recitation. They have even gained access to the media through several Saudi-funded twenty-four-hour satellite channels. (5)

The events in Egypt seem to be part of a broader regional trend--namely, the rise of Islamists, who are increasingly dominating the political scene. In Tunisia the previously outlawed Islamic party, Ennahda, won more than 40 percent of votes in November's constitutional assembly elections. According to the New York Times, "its supporters sing religious songs at rallies, its speakers quote freely from the Koran and its leaders often talk about protecting the right to practice Islam after decades of pressure from Tunisia's secular dictators." (6) Often referred to as "God's party," Ennahda supporters attest that they seek an improvement in the moral character of Tunisians by "imposing restrictions on alcohol and profanity or blasphemy in popular culture, and even on what women are allowed to wear." (7)

Similarly successful, the Justice and Development Party, an Islamic party in Morocco, took the largest share of votes in parliamentary elections in November 2011. Its leader, Abdelilah Benkirane, was recently appointed prime minister by King Mohammed VI. The party in Morocco models itself after Turkey's governing Justice and Development Party, which combines religion and modern politics. The party greatly appeals to Morocco's poor because it focuses on economic and social issues. Mustafa Ramid, a party leader in Morocco, said that "the Islamicization of Morocco will be achieved only by re-establishing justice, and religious freedom." (8) Indeed, what we are witnessing in the Middle East today are new political movements espousing fundamentalist religious ideologies. No doubt religion will play a critical role in shaping the future of these nations, particularly their cities.

This process is not unique to the Arab region. Throughout the world, communities are reestablishing, redefining and reinvigorating religion and religious practices. Christianity, Judaism...

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