Three years ago, a young and desperate Tunisian set himself to fire in protest against police tyranny. It was the spark of a civil strife that would spread fast to neighboring countries. The political vibrancy of the protests which took place in many North African and Middle Eastern cities remains baffling even to the most specialized observer. A lot of ink has been spilled already on the implications of these rapid upheavals for the peoples of the region in terms of democratization, economic stability, and the establishment of human rights. The emergence of a new political class, branded as Islamist by some, populist and retrograde by others, through democratic elections described by many international organizations as transparent, has further confounded our understanding of the unfolding political landscape in the Arab World, and the burgeoning forces that will shape its future.
Alas today the stalemate condition to which the cherished process of democratization has been reduced in such countries which saw the first waves of protests is doleful and leaves little hope for real dynamic change. None of the countries which experienced regime change through popular protests (Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen) or through American military intervention (Iraq and Afghanistan) or even those still undergoing costly and destructive war for democratic change have indeed reaped the fruits of their legitimate endeavours.
The challenge to predict the nature, scale and impact of political change in the long run emanates also from the strategic importance of this part of the world for the United States and Western powers in general. Will the current fluid political events undermine or consolidate American presence in the Arab World? Can the Arab political entities and civil organisms provide a democratic alternative to the authoritarian model which they have tried to displace? For the present time, the answer to these questions will be a matter of mere conjecture, and we need perhaps to wait another decade to begin to understand the full ramifications of the Arab Spring. It is tempting to ask, however, to what extent will the images of young Arab male and female protesters chanting liberal slogans supplement that of turbaned and bearded fighters trekking over mountains holding Kalashnikovs and calling for the fall of America. Despite the indulgence with which Western media covered the protests and the rhetoric of praise lavished on youth movements, it is difficult to envision any significant shift in the American popular perception of Arab and Muslim subjects as a source of perpetual threat and even more as agents of radical and absolutist ideologies and archaic traditions.
Indeed, engagement with the cultures and religion of Islam in the American public sphere and even within the world of academia has never been so tense and coarsely politicized as in the last decade. Obviously, this was one of the stressful outcomes of 9/11 attacks and subsequent disasters. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, drone strikes on Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan targeting suspected Jihadi groups, the tightening of security, border and immigration policies, indefinite detention of suspects, the crackdown on radical groups and individuals in consort with foreign intelligence apparatuses, the propagation of such concepts such as the New Middle East and the Axis of Evil — all together formed the core of an aggressive policy to contain the conceived threat of Islam to the ‘liberal values’ of the West.
Within the United States the lingering traumas of 9/11 terrorist incidents and the official discourse of warmongers during the Bush mandates as well as the inflammatory rhetoric of right wing politicians, talk show hosts, and evangelical pastors, caused the popular image of the Arab and Muslim to deteriorate considerably. The stigmas of terrorism and radicalism have been persistently evoked in reference to Islam even when a few discreet and learned voices urged for nuanced and critical understanding of the political imbroglios of the twenty-first century. As a distinguished American historian, Eugene Rogan stated in a recent book, titled the Arabs (2009), “Prospects of the future of the Arab World have never caused more pessimism — at home, in the region, or internationally.” In the words of Samir Kassir, a Lebanese journalist assassinated in 2005 quoted by Rogan “it’s not pleasant being Arab these days” (p .10).
Rogan made this allusion not only to refer to the plight of Arabs ruled by corrupt and tyrannical regimes and subjected to degrading occupation of their lands by American troops, he was also referring to the diminished sense of dignity not to say humiliation felt collectively in the Arab world and among Arab and Muslim immigrants due to a system of vilification and abuse directed against them in Western media and in academic circles. The chauvinism of these discourses of otherness is not new. In 1981 and as a sequel to Orientalism, Edward Said wrote a book titled, Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World to argue that American official and media responses to the Iranian Revolution revealed a sense of arrogance, and lacked critical understanding of the complex nature of Islam and the societies of the Middle East. Said’s book, it has to be said, provides an insightful reading of the present dilemmas just as it did those of Yesterday.
In a slightly different context, Jack Shaheen’s Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People (2001) draws attention to the systematic manufacturing of negative stereotypes of the Arab subject by Hollywood film industry. Far from serving simple artistic functions, these stereotypes have a more serious role to play in shaping public opinion about Arabs and establishing lasting distorted images of their identities.
Since September 2001, media and academic interest in Islam, Arabs, and Middle East politics has developed almost into an obsessive quest judging by the sheer volume of publications, and the highly polemical nature of engagement. One of the lamentable consequences of this massive intellectual babble is the obfuscation of boundaries between the strictly academic and the vulgarly popular terrains. The academic bazaar is flooded with a stream of publications hardly indistinguishable by their sensational titles. Words such as terror, the sword, the crescent, conquest, and Jihad are almost ubiquitous. So is the assertion that Islam presents a perennial threat to Western democracy.
The major lesson drawn from the Arab Spring is that the fundamental goal for Arab populations is not aversion to America or the West as propagated in the media by misinformed politicians and commentators, but a legitimate aspiration for a dignified and decent life ensured by a democratic system. The old indiscriminate charges of fanaticism and intolerance imposed on Muslims have lost their appeal today as youth movements and civil organizations call for civic values shared worldwide. The Arab Spring may have abated, its sweeping force receded, but the universal human claims for freedom and justice are still to be fulfilled.