Religion Scholar explores Middle East revolution in VGCC presentation

From left, Dr. Anna Bigelow of N.C. State University and VGCC Dean of Business and Applied Technologies Bobby Van Brunt, who chairs the college’s Global Awareness Committee. (VGCC photo)

North Carolina State University professor Dr. Anna Bigelow presented a lecture at Vance-Granville Community College’s Main Campus on April 11, entitled “Religion and the Arab Spring.” Bigelow’s timely presentation, attended by VGCC students, instructors and staff and members of the community, was the sixth installment of an International Speakers Series sponsored by the VGCC Global Awareness Committee in partnership with the University of North Carolina’s World View program.

Bigelow, an Associate Professor of Islamic Studies in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at N.C. State, speaks and writes frequently on religious extremism, religion and conflict, and the role of Islam in the world today. She started her VGCC lecture by reminding the audience that the series of popular uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa called the “Arab Spring” was not a single event, but could be described as entering its second year. “Religion was not one of the initial drivers of the Arab Spring, but it now plays a big role in the later stages of the Arab Spring,” Bigelow said. To provide some context, Bigelow offered attendees a brief description of the great religious diversity that exists in the Middle East, both within and outside Islam. As she explained, Islam includes various Sunni and Shiite groups as well as other off-shoots such as the Alawis, Ibadis, Ahmadis and Druze. There is also diversity within Islamists, those who believe that Islam should have a prominent place in national politics or that the law of the land must be based on Islamic tradition. In addition, the Middle East contains Jews, mostly in Israel but historically in many other countries, and a variety of Christian denominations.

Bigelow focused her talk on three countries. She started with Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began in December 2010 and January 2011. Tunisians, Bigelow said, are ambivalent about the role of Islam in the state, but the Arab Spring has provided new opportunities for religious political parties, which had been oppressed under the old dictatorship. The professor turned next to Egypt, where the revolution “captured the imagination of the world,” as she put it. “One of the most interesting features of the revolution was that it brought Muslim and non-Muslim groups together in a very moving way,” Bigelow said. “It’s been disheartening since the revolution to see several instances of religious violence, primarily against the Coptic Christians.” Bigelow added that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party has risen to political prominence, while secularists and Christians have not been well-organized. Finally, Bigelow discussed Syria, which she said “used to be known for religious harmony, but now, the sectarian tensions are deepening.” Bigelow said that the most important thing to take away from her lecture was that “You can’t paint this entire diverse, complex region with a single brush.”