It's always been a dangerous fallacy to believe that the main boosters of Islamic fundamentalism are the Muslim poor. Now, movements in impoverished parts of Cairo, Tehran and elsewhere are demanding more from their rulers than pious rhetoric
If you take an evening stroll around the southern fringes of Tehran, where the mountains plunge into the desert and the apartment blocks descend into haphazard neighbourhoods of self-built structures, you may be surprised to hear a rhythmic chant echoing from the blackened rooftops.
Allahu akbar, allahu akbar, the voices chant in unison: God is great, God is great. You might think that this is a cry of pious loyalty in the heart of the world's only Islamic theocracy. After all, these are very poor people, migrant families and casual labourers, surely the lifeblood of the Islamic revolution.
But watch what happens. The chants draw motorcycle-bound members of the Basij, the zealous paramilitary volunteer branch of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's Revolutionary Guards. Several times this year, they've managed to catch, beat, imprison and kill South Tehranis for doing this. They're expecting another round of the chanting a week Monday.
Through a 30-year linguistic alchemy, the praising of God's name has been transformed into a popular cry of disenchantment with the revolutionary government. In wealthier North Tehran, students took to the streets and yelled it after last spring's contested elections. The protests still flare up occasionally, and probably will again on Dec. 7, national student day. This week, the regime arrested scores of people in a pre-emptive strike
But the more furtive protests that have spread across the rooftops of Tehran's poorer districts and Iran's regional cities seem to terrify the regime even more, to judge by its recent responses - such as the stationing of Basij units and clerical authorities inside 6,000 primary schools, mainly in these neighbourhoods.
While these non-violent protests don't have the power to unseat the government, they do dethrone one of the world's most closely held myths.
This myth holds that the slum-dwelling poor of the Middle East are the natural constituents of Islamic regimes - the most religious, the most loyal and the most likely to believe in Koranic authority. As people who live in pre-modern squalor, they're thought the most likely to embrace a pre-modern ideology of theocratic rule. Many of the Islamic parties themselves have taken these migrants for granted as their base.
As a result, for example, Canada and the United States support the authoritarian regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, believing the slums of Cairo would quickly fill any leadership vacuum with another Islamic revolution.
Those who spend their time among the poor of the Middle East know that this simply isn't true.
Political Islam is a middle-class movement and always has been. It has struggled, from the moment of Iran's 1979 revolution, to get the poor onside. It has promised them material and economic benefits, but usually has held their attention only briefly and provisionally. In Iran, the poor of South Tehran were holding anti-ayatollah street protests as early as 1985.
Perhaps the most experienced observer of the poor in Middle Eastern cities is Asef Bayat, a former Iranian villager. He's now a professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands, but he has spent much of the past 20 years living in Tehran and Cairo, studying the marginal poor.
His 1997 study Street Politics: Poor People's Movements in Iran unveiled a world of protest erupting in South Tehran and other poor migrant centres; it anticipated the rise of the reformist Iranian government of the late 1990s.
He has just published Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East, a look at grassroots politics in the parts of Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey and Iran that are usually ignored by the media.
His key argument is that political Islam has no natural base among the Muslim poor: They have spent the past decade moving to a "post-Islamist" politics that rejects a role for religion in government and law.
"It really is a myth, held even among people in Egypt and Iran, that there is this ecology of poverty, one that generates anomie and therefore a propensity to embrace any kind of ideology and violence and extremism," Mr. Bayat told me recently as he was preparing to leave for Egypt again. "Or that the poor have a greater propensity towards this kind of religious politics.
"Well, they are, of course, religious people," he said, "but my understanding of them is that they are pretty pragmatic people. And the issues of daily life, employment and economic issues, rights and housing - these things are what is important for these people."
Two years ago, I spent a few days myself in the very far south of Tehran, where the most recent people to arrive from rural areas and regional cities had built dusty communities. Any image of a pre-modern, deeply observant and subservient culture of poverty was exploded by what I saw.
These people were indeed religious believers, and older women wore the black head-covering chador in greater numbers than downtown. But the younger women were just as likely as their wealthy urban sisters to wear the legal-minimum, bright-red "bad hijab" scarf hat that leaves most of the hair exposed.
The simple two-storey houses were studded with satellite dishes (now possessed by 40 per cent of Iranian households) tuned to the liberalizing messages of Al Jazeera and CNN. People spoke to me openly of their dislike for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and more discreetly about deeper unhappiness with the regime, which they felt had deprived them of work and trade opportunities by wasting its time on spiritual matters.
They talked about protests they had participated in - against bus fares or for housing development. They knew about and understood the democratic, reformist movements of the previous decade. They weren't liberal democrats by any means, but neither were they interested in theocratic rule.
When the so-called Green Wave swept across Iran this spring, the poor of South Tehran stayed comparatively on the sidelines. Their quiet protests - directed at bread-and-butter issues, but punctuated by allahu akbar chants - were not enough to spawn a revolution. But they showed that disdain for the regime was not confined to the wealthy.
At the same time, the slum dwellers of Cairo staged their own surprising revolt. For one day in April, Cairo stayed home - everyone, including street vendors, shutting down Egypt's entire economy for a day. Yet the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement that is often presumed to be the heir to Egypt's leadership, had no involvement. In fact, it opposed the protests, but was largely ignored.
The idea had spread, instead, by text message and Internet. Inside the Cairo slum of Imbaba, word reached every house to stay home for the day, and nobody moved.
A strong role was played by Kifaya, also known as the Egyptian Movement for Change, a pro-democracy group that was active earlier in the decade among the middle classes but had faded, only to reappear this year with this new grassroots following. It might be a movement of religious people, but it is certainly not a religious movement.
Eight weeks later, Lebanon went to the polls and rejected the Islamist coalition led by Hezbollah, instead giving a plurality to the parties of the Cedar Revolution, who have recently negotiated a coalition government. Despite Hezbollah's popular attacks on Israel and its expensive, Iranian-funded social-welfare projects in the slums, it failed to win the solid support of the poor, who divided their vote.
This anti-authoritarian shift seems to be the uniting trend in the Middle East. The bellwether example is probably Turkey, where the Justice and Development Party has held power since 2003. Its members tend to be more religious than the country's secular elite, but also tend to be more concerned with democracy, equality among ethnic groups and free trade with Europe.
"We are an Islamic political party in the same way that the Christian Democrats of Germany, Angela Merkel's party, are Christians," cabinet minister Egemen Bagis told me once. Six years have borne this out: There has been no sign of an Islamist inclination.
"They are religious people, there is no doubt about that, in Iran or Turkey or Indonesia," Mr. Bayat said. "They feel that religion is important, and they want to be pious, but that's different from actually defining politics and the state through the lens of religion. They don't want to do that."
Studies in Turkey and Iran reveal that public support for religion in political life has dropped continuously since the 1990s, even as "Muslim" has become a popular badge of personal identity. Religion is seen more and more as a private matter.
Given the terrible inequalities in this resource-rich region, the heavy-handed governments and the economic mismanagement, it is entirely likely that the slums of the Middle East will erupt.
But it is no longer so easy to say, after the stirrings we've seen this year, that this would be bad news.