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Islam at the Crossroads a Decade After 9/11: Democratic Revolutions Rock the Muslim World

It seemed unimaginable in 2001 that an insurgency would engulf Muslim nations less than a decade later, not with a cry for militant political Islam but for personal freedom.

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Political Islam has its very origins in the Cairo-born Muslim Brotherhood. Eight decades old, and in principle nonviolent, it is the forerunner of Al Qaeda and its emulators. One Egyptian, Ayman al-Zawahiri, a physician, was the acknowledged operations chief of the September 11 conspiracy. Another, Mohammed Atta, was the assaults' commander.

In the person of Colonel Gamel Abdel Nasser, its strongman from 1952 to 1970, Egypt forged the authoritarian military-backed model of governance that still prevails in most Muslim nations.

To date, it can also be argued, the youthful insurgents of Tahrir Square have registered the new movement's most notable achievements. Egyptian president and former air force commander Mubarak, Nasser's successor after the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981, was not simply another entrenched military autocrat. For three decades, he was a central player in both Middle Eastern and African geopolitics, ruling over 80 million people -- by far the largest Arab nation, and second only to Saudi Arabia as a Sunni- Islam religious center. It was Washington's generous defense-assistance budget -- second only to that for Israel -- which supplied and bankrolled Mubarak's security forces.

To those who say Muslims have neither the will nor the capacity to modernize their societies or make their own choices, the cry of the movement's legions is "Yes we can!"

The Crossroads

On the surface, youthful demographics would appear to favor the insurgents, amplifying the generational thrust for change with the sheer force of numbers. The population of Egypt -- like almost all Muslim-majority nations -- is very young, with a median age of just 24, roughly half that of Europe.

One of the movement's most charismatic personalities is Asmaa Mahfouz, 26, who led opposition to the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, which took "temporary" control of the government following Mubarak's ouster. Charged with "calling for armed rebellion," Mahfouz now faces prosecution by a military tribunal. Her case has galvanized political dissent across the spectrum from the religious right to the feminist left.

Mahfouz is among a significant cohort of women playing major roles in the insurgency, marking yet another break with the past. The campaign to have her charges dismissed, like the Arab Spring itself, has been organized on Twitter and Facebook.

But beneath the surface of public events, which reflect the cosmopolitan experience of Cairo and Alexandria, lies another country -- a rural backwater, home to 60 percent of the population, that mirrors the larger Islamic world's crippling fatalism.

Egypt's national literacy rate is a meager 66.4 percent. Seven of the 10 least-literate nations on Earth have Muslim majorities. Nearly 80 percent of Egyptians and Pakistanis think adulterous couples should be stoned, thieves should have their hands amputated, and those who leave Islam should be subject to the death penalty.

According to various estimates, from 78-97 percent of Egyptian women have been subjected to genital mutilation in accordance with traditional customs.

In a comprehensive 2010 study of women in 134 countries, issued by the World Economic Forum, 15 of 20 nations with the world's worst gender gaps were Muslim. The study examined employment participation and opportunity, health, educational attainment and political empowerment. No Muslim nation in the Middle East or North Africa placed in the top 100.

It would be premature to bet against the Islamic world's young insurgents, who have demonstrated astonishing courage in their challenge to autocracy and extremism. But it would be naďve to underestimate the challenge of drawing a billion of the barely educated rural poor into a modernist revolution.

Devout religious observation is the norm in towns and villages. Whether the setting is the Nile Delta or Pakistan's agrarian heartland, an army career -- and the autocratic patronage system that is its ladder -- is a time-honored means of escaping dire poverty.

 
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