Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Religious Fundamentalisms in the City: Reflections on the Arab Spring

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Religious Fundamentalisms in the City: Reflections on the Arab Spring

Article excerpt

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. …

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