Suddenly, to be an Arab has become a good thing. People all over the Arab world feel a sense of pride in shaking off decades of cowed passivity under dictatorships that ruled with no deference to popular wishes. And it has become respectable in the West as well. Egypt is now thought of as an exciting and progressive place; its people’s expressions of solidarity are welcomed by demonstrators in Madison, Wisconsin; and its bright young activists are seen as models for a new kind of twenty-first-century mobilization. Events in the Arab world are being covered by the Western media more extensively than ever before and are being talked about positively in a fashion that is unprecedented. Before, when anything Muslim or Middle Eastern or Arab was reported on, it was almost always with a heavy negative connotation. Now, during this Arab spring, this has ceased to be the case. An area that was a byword for political stagnation is witnessing a rapid transformation that has caught the attention of the world.
Three things should be said about this sea change in perceptions about Arabs, Muslims and Middle Easterners. The first is that it shows how superficial, and how false, were most Western media images of this region. Virtually all we heard about were the ubiquitous terrorists, the omnipresent bearded radicals and their veiled companions trying to impose Sharia and the corrupt, brutal despots who were the only option for control of such undesirables. In US government-speak, faithfully repeated by the mainstream media, most of that corruption and brutality was airbrushed out through the use of mendacious terms like “moderates” (i.e., those who do and say what we want). That locution, and the one used to denigrate the people of the region, “the Arab street,” should now be permanently retired.
The second feature of this shift in perceptions is that it is very fragile. Even if all the Arab despots are overthrown, there is an enormous investment in the “us versus them” view of the region. This includes not only entire bureaucratic empires engaged in fighting the “war on terror,” not only the industries that supply this war and the battalions of contractors and consultants so generously rewarded for their services in it; it also includes a large ideological archipelago of faux expertise, with vast shoals of “terrorologists” deeply committed to propagating this caricature of the Middle East. These talking heads who pass for experts have ceaselessly affirmed that terrorists and Islamists are the only thing to look for or see. They are the ones who systematically taught Americans not to see the real Arab world: the unions, those with a commitment to the rule of law, the tech-savvy young people, the feminists, the artists and intellectuals, those with a reasonable knowledge of Western culture and values, the ordinary people who simply want decent opportunities and a voice in how they are governed. The “experts” taught us instead that this was a fanatical people, a people without dignity, a people that deserved its terrible American-supported rulers. Those with power and influence who hold these borderline-racist views are not going to change them quickly, if at all: for proof, one needs only a brief exposure to the sewer that is Fox News.
Third, things could easily and very quickly change for the worse in the Arab world, and that could rapidly erode these tender new perceptions. Nothing has yet been resolved in any Arab country, not even in Tunisia or Egypt, where the despots are gone but a real transformation has barely begun. This is true even though both countries possess many of the prerequisites for a constitutional government, a mature democracy, economic progress and social justice—like a strong civil society, a history of labor organization, many highly educated people and some strong institutions. And despite the bravery of those who have been beaten, tear-gassed and shot while demanding change, even less has been transformed in other Arab countries. All of it could turn sour, whether through civil war in Libya or Yemen, paralysis in Tunisia and Egypt, or endless fruitless contestation with those in power in Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco, Oman, Iraq and elsewhere.
As people in the West learn more about this crucially important part of the world, there are a few more truths that should be transmitted. One is that this is not a region that is uniquely unsuited to democracy, or has no constitutional traditions or has always suffered under autocratic rulers. The Middle East has certainly suffered recently under a string of appalling regimes. But this is also a region where debates over how to limit the power of rulers led to sustained constitutional effervescence in Tunisia and Egypt in the late 1870s and to the establishment of a Constitution in the Ottoman Empire in 1876. At that time the empire included not only today’s Turkey but most of the eastern Arab world, including Syria and Iraq. Later, in 1906, Iran established a constitutional regime. Later still, in the interwar period and afterward, the semi-independent and independent countries of the region were mainly governed by constitutional regimes. These were flawed experiments that faced massive obstacles in the form of entrenched interests, the autocratic proclivities of rulers, and massive illiteracy and poverty. Still, the failures to establish sustained constitutional and parliamentary regimes were not due solely to those factors. These governments were systematically undermined by the imperialist great powers, whose ambitions and interests were often obstructed by parliaments, nascent public opinion and a press that insisted on national sovereignty and a fair share of their own resources. From the European powers’ undermining of the Iranian and Ottoman constitutional governments in the first decades of the twentieth century, to America’s interference in Lebanon and Syria and overthrow of the Iranian government in the 1950s, the pattern was continually repeated. The Western powers not only gave little or no support to democratic rule in the Middle East; they often actively undermined it, preferring to deal with pliable autocrats who did their bidding. In other words, the pattern of Western support for easily manipulated dictatorial regimes is by no means a new one.
Much has been said in recent weeks about the potential of applying the “Turkish model” to the Arab world. In fact, Turkey and the Arab states came to their understanding of modernity—and with it of constitutions, democracy, and human, civil and political rights—through a shared late Ottoman past. This era, from the 1860s until 1918, shaped the understanding of these concepts for their peoples, although both Turkish and Arab nationalists have fiercely denied any Ottoman impact on their modern nation-states. Today Turkey does provide a model of how to reconcile a powerful military establishment with democracy, and a secular system with a religious orientation among much of the populace. It also serves as a model of economic success, of a workable cultural synthesis between East and West, and of how to exert influence on the world stage. In all these respects, it is perceived as a more attractive model than what is widely seen in the Arab world as a failed alternative: the thirty-two-year-old Iranian theocratic system.
The Arab states have a long way to go to undo the terrible legacy of repression and stagnation and move toward democracy, the rule of law, social justice and dignity, which have been the universal demands of their peoples during this Arab spring. The term “dignity” involves a dual demand: first, for the dignity of the individual in the face of rulers who treat their subjects as without rights and beneath contempt. But there is also a demand for the collective dignity of proud states like Egypt, and of the Arabs as a people. This was the demand that nationalist leaders rode to power starting in the 1950s, as they targeted colonialism and neocolonialism. After that generation’s failures, they were replaced by dictators who provided the “stability” so prized by the West—stability purchased at the price of the dignity of the individual and the collective. It is this humiliation, by repressive rulers and vis-à-vis the outside world, that demonstrators from Rabat to Manama seek to eliminate. So far they have focused almost entirely on the root causes of their problems, which are largely internal. There has been little or no emphasis on foreign policy, no visible anti-Western feeling and limited mention of Israel or Palestine.
There is great peril in ignoring this demand for collective dignity, whether it relates to the patronizing way the United States has long treated the region or the casual dismissal of the beliefs of most Arabs that justice has not been and is not being done to the Palestinians. If the people of the Arab world are fortunate in achieving democratic transitions, and can begin to confront the many deep problems their societies face, it is vital that a new Arab world, born of a struggle for freedom, social justice and dignity, be treated with the respect it deserves, and that for the first time in decades it is beginning to earn.