Three decades after Iran’s upheaval established Islamic clerical rule for the first time in 14 centuries, a quieter and more profound revolution is transforming the Muslim world. Dalia Ziada is a part of it.
When Ziada was 8, her mother told her to don a white party dress for a surprise celebration. It turned out to be a painful circumcision. But Ziada decided to fight back. The young Egyptian spent years arguing with her father and uncles against the genital mutilation of her sister and cousins, a campaign she eventually developed into a wider movement. She now champions everything from freedom of speech to women’s rights and political prisoners. To promote civil disobedience, Ziada last year translated into Arabic a comic-book history about Martin Luther King Jr. and distributed 2,000 copies from Morocco to Yemen. Now 26, Ziada organized Cairo’s first human-rights film festival in November. The censorship board did not approve the films, so Ziada doorstopped its chairman at the elevator and rode up with him to plead her case. When the theater was suspiciously closed at the last minute, she rented a tourist boat on the Nile for opening night–waiting until it was offshore and beyond the arm of the law to start the movie. Ziada shies away from little, including the grisly intimate details of her life. But she also wears a veil, a sign that her religious faith remains undimmed. “My ultimate interest,” she wrote in her first blog entry, “is to please Allah with all I am doing in my own life.” That sentiment is echoed around the Muslim world. In many of the scores of countries that are predominantly Muslim, the latest generation of activists is redefining society in novel ways. This new soft revolution is distinct from three earlier waves of change–the Islamic revival of the 1970s, the rise of extremism in the 1980s and the growth of Muslim political parties in the 1990s. Today’s revolution is more vibrantly Islamic than ever. Yet it is also decidedly antijihadist and ambivalent about Islamist political parties. Culturally, it is deeply conservative, but its goal is to adapt to the 21st century. Politically, it rejects secularism and Westernization but craves changes compatible with modern global trends. The soft revolution is more about groping for identity and direction than expressing piety. The new revolutionaries are synthesizing Koranic values with the ways of life spawned by the Internet, satellite television and Facebook. For them, Islam, you might say, is the path to change rather than the goal itself. “It’s a nonviolent revolution trying to mix modernity and religion,” Ziada says, honking as she makes her way through Cairo’s horrendous traffic for a meeting of one of the rights groups she works with. The new Muslim activists, who take on diverse causes from one country to another, have emerged in reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks and all that has happened since. Navtej Dhillon, director of the Brookings Institution’s Middle East Youth Initiative, says, “There’s a generation between the ages of 15 and 35 driving this soft revolution–like the baby boomers in the U.S.–who are defined by a common experience. It should have been a generation outward looking in a positive way, with more education, access to technology and aspirations for economic mobility.” Instead, he says, “it’s become hostage to post-9/11 politics.” Disillusioned with extremists who can destroy but who fail to construct alternatives that improve daily life, members of the post-9/11 generation are increasingly relying on Islamic values rather than on a religion-based ideology to advance their aims. And importantly, the soft revolution has generated a new self-confidence among Muslims and a sense that the answers to their problems lie within their own faith and community rather than in the outside world. The revolution is about reform in a conservative package. See pictures of the Hajj going high-tech.
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