Why Are 'Arab Spring' Protests Held On Friday?

In northern Africa and the Middle East, Friday is often a big day for anti-government protests. In Egypt's revolution, many of the biggest protests came after people finished Friday prayers, poured out of the mosques and marched through the streets. Religion writer Reza Aslan talks to Steve Inskeep about the timing of those demonstrations.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We just heard the Friday is often a big day of protest in Syria. And that is common in many countries during this Arab spring.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

In Egypt's revolution, many of the biggest protests came after people finished Friday prayers, poured out of the mosques and marched through the streets.

INSKEEP: Religion writer Reza Aslan has been thinking about the timing of those demonstrations.

Mr. REZA ASLAN (Religion writer): Friday is the Sabbath in the Muslim world. It's the day of communal prayer. It's called Jummah, which literally means the gathering. It's that one prayer of the week where all peoples, men and women, are obligated in so far as they can to actually go to a mosque in order to pray as a community.

Also, for a lot of people, particularly poor people in this part of the world, Friday's the only day that they have off of work.

INSKEEP: And I suppose it is one of the few occasions in certain countries where people are easily allowed to gather in large numbers in one place.

Mr. ASLAN: That's absolutely true. Countries like Syria that has very strict anti-assembly laws, where more than three or four people gathered together at any one time can be arrested, well, it's impossible to do that on a Friday when you have tens of thousands of people gathering for this day of prayer. So it does offer a little bit of protection from the security services.

INSKEEP: So there are these practical reasons. Are there also spiritual reasons and political reasons? By which I mean, do you end up suggesting that God is on your side?

Mr. ASLAN: Well of course, in a sense, what to do by holding these political rallies on Fridays is you kind of sanctify your political agenda. And of course, this is something that the government does as well. So when the government wants to have elections, for instance, the king of Morocco when he had his constitutional referenda just a couple of weeks ago, he did that on a Friday. And for protesters especially, this is very important to co-opt the symbols of Islam, in order to get your message across.

INSKEEP: Are there also risks, though, in trying to associate a protest cause too closely with Islam?

Mr. ASLAN: Well, I think there are certainly risks but those risks primarily reside outside of the Arab and Muslim world. We have a tendency, particularly early here in the United States, that when we hear a politician or a social activist in Egypt, or Bahrain, or in Libya, or where-have-you, speak in religious terms, we immediately labeled them as a theocrat.

If you want to portray your political and economic hopes and aspirations, it's always a good idea to do so in religious terms, because that's how people can understand you, that's how they can rally behind you.

INSKEEP: But what I mean by risk is that there were protesters, particularly in Egypt, who would describe themselves as more secular; in most cases would, of course, have been Muslim; but nevertheless they said they wanted an open, pluralistic society with freedoms that would be recognizable in the West, and have suddenly found themselves pressed against the wall by the likes of the Muslim Brotherhood. There do seem to be dangers here.

Mr. ASLAN: Yes, that's absolutely right, Steve. And there is of course a great spectrum of religo-political views in this region. It shouldn't be seen as just simply secularist on one side and Islamist on the other. And certainly what we're seeing now is a vibrant debate in places like Tunisia and Egypt, about what the role of religion in society should be. But I think the important thing is that at least these conversations are being had.

INSKEEP: I was about to ask is if secularists really should be starting their protests from some other spot than a mosque, because inevitably you're going to lose that argument. But it sounds like you're saying that secularists really have to fight for their vision, their version of Islam; because otherwise they can't win politically at all.

Mr. ASLAN: Absolutely, and also let's just be clear that the line that we draw so clearly here in the West, between so-called religion and secularism, is a lot more fluid in the Arab world. And as a result, even those who may be atheists or completely secularist, nevertheless understand that if they want to make sure that they're moving in a more peaceful, more tolerant, more pluralistic, more liberal and progressive society, then they really have to take the argument to where the people are - and the people are in the mosques.

Reza Aslan is the other of "No God But God: The Origins, Evolution And Future Of Islam."

Thanks very much.

Mr. ASLAN: My pleasure.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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