On December 17, 2010, in a poor Tunisian provincial city, a 26-year-old street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire in protest of government harassment and humiliation. What happened next was as unexpected as it was explosive. Riots broke out and spread to other Tunisian cities, and in a matter of weeks, amidst massive daily demonstrations, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who had held office for 23 years, was eased out by the military and fled into exile. News of the protests, carried by Al Jazeera and other online and offline media, quickly inspired others and demonstrations erupted across Arab North Africa and the Middle East. The region has been in turmoil ever since, bringing, variously, regime change, civil war, violent repression, and humanitarian crisis.
The ongoing “Arab Spring” has been swept along by a broad cross-section of ordi- nary citizens, especially youth. It has been essentially leaderless, largely circumvent- ing the established political and Islamist parties. There has been some involvement of religious groups—al-Nahda in Tunisia, for example, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria—but the key mobilizing forces have been elsewhere. Grievances, as well as calls for dignity, respect, and reform, have made no appeal to Islam.1 In no Arab country have the recent revolts been waged on behalf of establishing an Islamic Sharia state; the demand is for democracy. Yet the question of Islamism and political Islam more generally is never far from any discussion. That is certainly true for all the works referenced here. After decades of dictatorial rule, Islamists are often the only well-organized groups outside the state apparatus and military, and the role they play in what comes next in the Arab world is a subject of considerable concern and debate.