There’s been a ton of punditry about what the Tunisia and Egypt revolutions mean for America, and you can bet there’ll be several tons more. But I suspect its biggest effect is yet to register, and that is psychological. Because these two revolutions – achieved through determinedly non-violent action – constitute a radical, positive challenge to the politically manipulated atmosphere of fear and paranoia about Islam. In fact, as New York Times columnist Roger Cohen put it, 2/11 may be the perfect antidote to 9/11.
Too optimistic? I think not. There’s a very good chance that we’re due for a major paradigm shift here in the United States — one that seemed unimaginable just a few weeks ago (and one even a congressman like Peter King, head of the HUAC-like committee due to start ‘examining’ the supposed radicalization of American Muslims (“are you now or have you ever been an American Muslim?”), might have to take into account).
What’s happening all over the Middle East challenges the crude stereotypes of “Arabs = riots.” Of “Islam = terrorism.” And above all, of Islam as somehow fundamentally anti-democratic.
These stereotypes run deep. Think of the scenes shown in the American media from the first week of the Egypt uprising. A close-up of 200 people prostrated in prayer, excluding the tens of thousands who stood behind them, not praying. A protestor holding a poster of Mubarak with horns and a Star of David drawn on his forehead – the only one of its kind, it turned out, in the whole square. Or a few days later, the replay after replay of Molotov cocktails – “flames lead” being the mantra of TV news – reinforcing the image of rioting Muslims out of control, “the Arab street.” It was exactly the image Mubarak was aiming for.
Thus the pumping up of the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat by both the Mubarak regime and conservative western pundits, as though the Egyptian protesters were extraordinarily dumb and naïve. As though they were not highly aware of how the 1979 Iran revolution was hijacked and perverted. As though they couldn’t see the fundamentalist regime in Saudi Arabia or the Hamas regime in Gaza. As though the Brotherhood itself were unanimously stuck in the 1950s mindset of ideologue Sayyid Qutb. As though the only way to be Muslim was to be a radical fundamentalist.
Thus the surprise in the west at the sophistication of the Tahriris, when “the Arab street” turned out to include doctors and lawyers and women and IT executives (you could practically hear the astonishment: “you mean there’s Muslim Google executives?”).
Thus the continually stated fear, stoked by the regime and by conservative pundits, that the protestors would shift from nonviolence to violence – that the nonviolence was merely a cover for some assumed innate propensity to violence.
Thus the slowness to realize that the old anti-West sloganism had been superseded, and that this wasn’t about resentment of the west; in fact that it was about the very things President Obama had talked about in his speech right there in Cairo in June 2009 – about democracy and freedom.
In short, what we heard and saw in those first few days was the modern version of Orientalism: The idea that the ‘Orient’ – that is, the Middle East (it should come as no surprise here that the geography is as weird as the idea itself) — is an inherently violent, primitive, medieval kind of place. Or as right-wing Israeli politicians have been endlessly repeating for decades, “a bad neighborhood.” And that the responsibility of ‘enlightened’ westerners and despotic leaders alike was to keep these benighted people under control.
But as the uprising went on into the second week, something began to change. Nobody at the blog of Seattle’s alternative newspaper The Stranger, for example, which one would have thought the first to support any kind of uprising, even bothered to comment on it at first. When they began to, it was with their usual weary stance of pseudo-sophisticated cynicism. But by the day after Mubarak unleashed his goons in Tahrir Square, when the protestors’ response was to turn out in larger numbers than ever, even The Stranger gave in to excited support. How not, when millions of people stood up to repression and dictatorship in the full knowledge of what they faced if they failed – arrest, torture, and death? Would you have such courage? Such determination?
So here’s what I saw here in the States: more and more Americans abandoning their unconscious Orientalism in favor of stunned admiration.
And that’s the beginning of something new, the very thing Obama declared twenty months ago in Cairo: respect.
There’s hope in the air…. Thanks Egypt!
Thanks Lesley … i do wish there is hope …
Hope is a rare commodity these days. Thank you Egyptian people!
Wonderfully written. Exciting times indeed.
I am sorry I don’t agree. The long term effects of these revolutions are still not known. It remains to be seen if Muslim Brotherhood will not form a parallel government or at least have extra constitutional authority. It remains to be seen if these countries will demonstrate same eagerness in throwing out religious fundamentalists. It also remains to be seen if a truly secular democratic country would arise out of Egypt.
The evidence from the past suggests that secularism
and Islam don’t gel. Even with the charter of Medina.
I believe you are a scholar of Quran, or at least you’ve studied it, I’d suggest you also study the history of Islamic kingdoms and Islamic republics.
Lets have a look at Iran and Pakistan, these are two
countries which are “democracies”, but have you ever looked at their blasphemy laws or their constant
persecution of religious minorities. I wouldn’t say that
it doesn’t exist in India, and we claim India is a secular democracy (I laugh every time I say that). But at least we are not sponsors of international terrorists, may be because we are poor but yet. I also don’t understand how one can suggest that Islam is
tolerant especially given that it doesn’t make any distinction between state and religion. If a believer
and non-believer are not same in the eye of religion
they can’t be same in the eyes of the state either, under such circumstances if the Islamic forces come to attain majority and it is indeed a distinct possibility in Egypt or Yemen or Bahrain etc do you think they’d
transform these places into true secular democracies ? Do you think the support for Al-Queda or Hamas etc would reduce if pro-Islamic groups came to power?
Yes, the revolution was by people oppressed, yes it was about respect but what will it end in? Russian revolution was not about socialism or Marxism it was
about a set of people oppressed – where did it end up ..in Stalin and 50 years of cold war, countless lives lost in Vietnam, Afghanistan, India/Pakistan, Iran/Iraq.
I am not an Islamophobe, I love what Islam and Islamic culture has done for my country for the world. I just think that time has come for all of us to reexamine these religions (hiduism/islam/christianity/judaism) and their tenets and if required throw them out.
you are right the long the term effects of the egyptian revolution is not yet known, and whether or not the Muslim Brotherhood will “take over” like many people are afraid (noting that they are not running for presidency) but what does that have to do with Islam itself?
The point is not to judge a religion by what people do;
Islam is not what Muslim people do
Judaism is not what Jewish people do
Christianity is not what Christian people do
do not judge Islam by what fundamentals or extremist or terrorists do
do not judge Judaism by what the IDF does and what Israel does
do not judge Christianity by what George bush did
Even though i would prefer a secular egyptian state, who’s to say that secularism is a test of a religion?
there are many states with christianity as a state religion (e.g. Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Finland) and there are also secular, muslim majority states (e.g. Azerbaijan, Gambia, Kosovo, Mali, Senegal, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan)
can you let me know what evidence suggests that islam and secularism do not “gel”?
as for blasphemy laws, they are always controversial, they are still being debated even in highly democratic european countries, some of which do have laws against blasphemy, of course the penalty there is not as tough as in pakistan, but again are we judging a religion based on what is the penalty on blasphemy? i don’t think you can post a cartoon in a german or danish newspaper with of a big nosed man with a star of david on his forehead and his armed wrapped around the world. so where is the freedom then?
I beg to differ.
Would you disassociate communism from what Lenin, Stalin, Mao etc did you would not? If you read Marx, and he makes a very interesting read, you’d realize that his communism differs a great deal from what was actually practiced but do you make the difference?
Religion is what majority of religious people do, nothing more nothing less. Because if you take away that and get down to essential core of it you’d find almost all religions are essentially the same.
I think secularism is a test of a religion because it tells me whether or not this religion shows signs of growth (not in number of people of that faith but in true growth) in its philosophy via debate via exchange of ideas. I would say my definition of secularism is a secularism of ideas with absolutely no space for public god/religion.
Why do I say Islam and secularism don’t gel? Well simply because it makes no distinction between borders of state and religion in public/private sphere. If you are going to quote me the charter of medina, I’m going to point to you that Mohammed created it only to ensure he had sufficient force and followers. It was a political treaty, and as such had nothing to do with religion of Islam. You realize it almost immediately when you look at the subsequent 10 years.
As to your point about blasphemy laws, I don’t think in European country someone is going to issue a fatwa against you if you drew anything ..but in an islamic republic..??
Ms. Hazleton, I am not sure I said anything in my comment which could be construed as offensive, but my comment seems to have been censored/deleted.
I’ve no issues with that really, I just wish to know what
is the commenting policy.
First-time commenters need to be approved by me, and I’m deliberately not online 24/7, thus the delay. Re commenting policy: I’m fine with all points of view, no matter if they directly oppose my own, so long as they do not denigrate others. If that happens, I will ask the commenter to stop doing this. If they then do not stop, I will, however unwillingly, deny access.
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