Americans seem unsure about how to view the Arab Spring. Whereas a clear majority sympathized with the protests in Egypt, the public is deeply divided on the dynamics in Libya. As the Obama administration works to explain the goals and strategy of the coalition intervention in the North African country, there may be something else making some Americans uneasy: the perceived role of religion in the Middle East's uprising.
So how should we interpret rows of Libyan rebels praying or loud unison chants of "God is Greater" in Syria? The simple answer is that faith has animated the fight for freedom around the world, including in our own civil rights struggle, and Arabs are no different.
Spirituality is the region's dominant social currency. According to Gallup research, more than 90 percent of Arabs say religion is an important part of their daily lives. In any society where people are seeking to mobilize their community toward action, they tap into their collective social and psychological capital for strength. In the Middle East, many consider the values of their faith to be their society's greatest asset and the key to its progress.
Moreover, Islam contains rich resources for liberation philosophy. Its most central theological principle is that of God's absolute oneness, meaning that only He is worthy of unquestioning obedience and submission, and only He should be truly feared. This focus on God's glory minimizes the supposed supremacy of tyrants, making them seem miniscule and powerless. When protesters declare "God is greater," they are saying that the Devine dominates the dictator.
In what seems like an exact description of peaceful protest, the Prophet taught, "the greatest jihad is speaking a word of truth to a tyrant."
Religious themes can also give people a common and hopeful narrative even when circumstances seem dim. In the midst of their uncertainty, Egyptian revolutionaries often likened their struggle against Hosni Mubarak to that of Moses against Pharaoh and his army.
Aside from powerful imagery, prayer provides people with a reminder that the skirmishes we are witnessing are on a much larger stage than we can see. A woman who protested in Tahrir Square told me about the collective devastation the group felt when Mubarak was expected to announce his resignation but instead declared his intention to hang on to power. She said that after his speech someone on a loudspeaker called for the hundreds of thousands standing in the square to pray for deliverance. It came the next day.
Faith in this higher power can mitigate the conflict caused by ego and recognition seeking that often undermine well-intended reform movements. I am told that upon hearing the news that Mubarak had resigned, many who had stood in Tahrir for weeks, braving the threat of arrest, torture or death, spontaneously and joyfully announced, "God alone defeated the regime."
Whatever the future holds for the many and diverse movements for change unfolding across the Middle East, one thing is fairly certain: Sacred reason will continue to inspire many to seek their secular rights. Those who love freedom would do well to recognize liberation's many forms.