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Beyond Resurgent ‘Islamists’ and Enlightened ‘Secularists’

Critiquing Caricatures of Religion in the Arab Uprisings

Andrew M. Wender

This article analyzes emblematic media, policymaking, and scholarly discourses depicting religion within states and societies affected by the Arab uprisings. By early 2011, supposed expert assessments emanating from outside the Middle East, as well as some voices within the region, postulated that the uprisings were about citizens’ worldly strivings, rather than clerics’ claims to transcendent truth—only to shift, subsequently, to plaintive assertions that ‘Islamists’ were now emerging from hiding to ‘hijack’ the ‘Arab Spring’ from ‘secular’ activists. The article deconstructs the oppositional pair ‘Islamist/secularist’, and related identifiers like ‘fanatic’ and ‘terrorist’, to investigate the reductionist construction of Islam, and binary conceptions of religion and secularity, that are thereby intimated. Ultimately, it is asked whether the uprisings might pose a signal opportunity for questioning the constrained horizons, and lost possibilities for human freedom, fulfillment, and connection with the sacred, of discourses that objectify and delimit religious experience.