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Islam and the Arab Revolutions

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There is a verse in the Holy Quran that captures what is happening in the Arab world today.

"Truly, God does not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves." (13:11).

That verse was often cited by ordinary Muslims, scholars and apathetic youth before the revolutions; now it takes on a different meaning, as people all over the Arab world are demanding more rights and changing their societies.

During the secular, Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, protestors, hipsters, trendsetters, and individuals, filled the streets and TV screens, but that didn't deter protestors from praying in Tahrir or many others from shouting Islamic slogans as rallying cries, and in some cases calling for more religion in their societies. In the Arab world, religion and politics are intertwined. Take for example, The Muslim Brotherhood, which is the most organized opposition movement in Egypt, with influential branches in Tunisia, Libya and Syria. Their campaign to convince the west (and Egyptian voters) that they reject violence, support women and believe in democracy may make many Muslims and non-Muslims nervous, but it also might just signify a change in the Islamic philosophy of so-called extremist groups.

In Benghazi and throughout Libya, revolutionaries passionately cling to Islam as just and Gaddafi as unjust as they countered his phrase "Allah, Gaddafi, and Libya" with "Allah, His Messenger and Libya". Many Libyan refugees I speak with called Gaddafi's army "blind", referring to Quranic verse, "Whoever is blind in this life, he will be blind in the hereafter; straying further away from the path" (17:72).

In Syria and Bahrain "Allahu Akbar" or God is Great is used by Muslim protestors who believe God is greater than the crimes of their government. On Twitter and Facebook, young people profess their belief in Islam alongside their belief in democracy, and frequently post verses from the Holy Quran that reference injustice, oppression and patience.

There is a big difference between the terms Islamic and Islamist, which revolutionary youth are not, but their unhappiness and frustration is directly related to their desire for better treatment and dignity, which Islam preaches. Youth in the Arab revolutions demanded society stop pretending that the status quo is acceptable; the implications that has on religion cannot be overlooked.

At a discussion on sexual harassment in Cairo, women often brought up Islam, arguing that if Arab men followed it right, they wouldn't be groped in the street and Egyptian police would think before taking free passes to insult a woman's dignity-something not encouraged by Islam. During protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square, women arrested by the Egyptian police were forced to undergo 'virginity tests.' According to Amnesty International, the women were "beaten, given electric shocks, subjected to strip searches while being photographed by male soldiers, then forced to submit to 'virginity checks' and threatened with prostitution charges."

In Libya, Syria, and Bahrain dictator's men ignore all aspects of Islam's emphasis on modesty, human dignity and and respect for women, as women are humiliated and raped and forced to flee to preserve their dignity.

In Yemen, niqab-clad women led protests and called for reform, squashing the male-dominated discourse. In Saudi Arabia, women speak of Islam to support their right to drive, even as the government misuses its authority to crack down on women drivers. Others in The Kingdom cite Islamic teachings of obeying a ruler to counter the revolution and calls to topple the king. "The best Jihad is speaking the truth to an unjust ruler," may be appropriately used to discourage people from taking up arms even as it completely ignores the government's crimes.

Islam will not find a balance in the changing Arab society, or with the modern democratic world, until Muslims take responsibility of their own lives. This is what the uprisings are about. The millions of youth protesting want control over their own life. And old autocrats addicted to power refuse to give it.

Islam (and religion in general) has always been manipulated by those seeking power, but the Arab Revolutions suggest that Muslims' perceptions of Islam are changing not only the power-struggle but the fundamental discourse- something we cannot continue to overlook.

Young Arabs, the ones that started the upheaval, the ones protesting in the streets, and the ones beginning to rebuild and actively engage in the affairs of their country, cannot accept the Islam that's been forced upon them by despotic regimes. They are more connected to Muslims in democratic societies around the world, who enjoy individual freedom, even as they choose to practice their faith collectively. Arab youth are simply more in tune with the rest of the world, and this connection -- the constant flow of information and ideas -- will directly influence the way Islam is understood in post-revolution societies.

In "Hill Diaries," my essay in the critically acclaimed anthology "I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim," I write about the dichotomy between religion and politics in Washington and its effect on individual identity. In the Arab world, the same dichotomy exists, and young Muslims, whether they realize it or not, are impacting the lives of Muslims and the understanding of Islam, in their societies and around the world.