Article written by DPDF 2008 Muslim Modernities Research Director Charles Kurzman.
If this special issue on Middle East protest had been published two years ago, it probably would have focused more on accounting for the failure of opposition movements than accountting for their successes. Since the “Arab Spring” emerged in the winter of 2011, however, observers have rushed to explain mass revolts in the region. This introduction to the special issue reviews some of the explanations offered for these extraordinary events, and finds that the factors that are frequently cited in these explanations do not map comfortably onto the sites of greatest protest in the region. The essay then suggests an alternative approach, one that looks past causation in an attempt to understand the lived experience of the uprisings. The goal is to examine how actors changed as they perceived the possibility of protest, how they made meaning of their lives through the act of protesting, or not protesting, during moments of exceptional confusion and stress. This approach focuses on the twists of history that confound social scientific explanation. One twist that is highlighted in this essay and throughout the special issue is the sudden prominence of bravery—the ineffable but potentially influential desire to engage in risky protest. Bravery is not a causal variable but a disposition that may appear and disappear with the vagaries of the moment, altering the micro-flow of events and making a noticeable, if tiny, difference in the course of mass protests.