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Lecture on the 2011 uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East

<ofessor Malika Zeghal delivered the 2011 Ian G. Barbour Lecture on May 5 in the Great Hall. In her lecture, entitled “The Power of a New Political Imagination: The 2011 uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East,” Zeghal discussed the recent turmoil in a number of Arab countries and looked back at its origins in the Tunisian revolution.

Zeghal, the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Professor in Contemporary Islamic Thought and Life in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University, has employed her background in political science to better study “religion through the lens of Islam and power.”

In her lecture, Zeghal focused on the first outbreak of protests in Tunisia that preceded the unrest in other countries in the Middle East and North Africa. She called the revolution in Tunisia “the founding moment.”

It all began when Mohamed Bouazizi, a young Tunisian man who couldn’t afford to bribe the police in order to obtain a work permit, set himself on fire in front of a government building in an act of peaceful protest. “His horizons were cut off,” said Zeghal, “Tunisia was like a prison.”

In the wake of his tragic act of rebellion, the country’s college-educated youth rallied and joined with their fellow Tunisians to protest against their oppressive government. The youth brought numbers, but they also brought a powerful new weapon into the fray.

“Facebook became a politically potent tool,” said Zeghal. She talked about how the oppressive governments of these countries had a powerful grip on many facets of their citizens’ lives, but the internet was still a very effective forum for organizing mobilization and spreading evidence of the regimes’ brutality. Zeghal wanted to stress, however, that “it wasn’t Facebook that [brought about] the revolution, it was people.”

Protests began to appear in other countries like Egypt, Libya, and Syria and soon, much of the region had begun to take to the streets. “These are popular revolutions,” said Zeghal. All these countries were marked by “corruption, inequality, and high levels of poverty.”

These revolutions were not initiated with the goal of turning their respective countries into Islamist states, but rather, because “people were asking for work.” Tunisia had a 40% unemployment rate at the time of their revolution, with “unemployment being particularly high among educated youth.”

At present, the Middle East and North Africa are still too unstable to make a definitive statement about what will ultimately come from these revolutions. However, when asked the anticipated question about how Osama Bin Laden’s death related to the revolutions, Zeghal said “[he] was dead politically way before his death.”

She ended her lecture on a hopeful note, saying that “terrorism was used as a threat by the regimes,” not by the peaceful protestors.

Carleton’s Religion Department founded the Ian G. Barbour Lectureship with the intended purpose of “brining religious studies into fruitful conversations.” Barbour is the Winifred & Atherton Bean Professor of Science, Technology & Society, Emeritus.

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