BOSTON -- It is always instructive but irritating to be in the United States when tumultuous or dramatic events are occurring around the Middle East or the wider Arab-Asian region with its predominantly Muslim populations. This has been just such a week, as demonstrations and occasional violence and deaths have occurred in over a dozen countries, from Morocco to Indonesia, sparked by the insulting film trailer about Islam and the Prophet Mohammad that angered so many Muslims and others, including myself. I see the fascinating and troubling dimension of the mainstream American media coverage of the past week’s events, including the prevailing themes of public political discussions, as the tendency to link the historic events of the past 21 months (the Arab Spring, as it is known in the United States) to the outbursts of anger and resentment among those who demonstrated across the Arab-Asian region, and to ask, “Was the Arab Spring worth it?” or something of that sort. A variation of this is to declare that the Arab Spring has led to a Dark Autumn, or some other such pairing of positive and negative attributes.
Many conclusions are drawn from this sort of discussion, including one streak in American thinking that says the United States should minimize its contacts with those violent and ungrateful Muslims over there who keep attacking our embassies and killing our citizens every time they are angered by manifestations of American free speech. A corollary sub-theme usually questions why those Muslims cannot be modern and tolerant like Americans or Westerners who are much more casual about insults to their religion or prophets (and the questions are always about “Muslims,” not Nigerians, Indonesians or Tunisians, and often the subject of one’s bewilderment here is simply “Islam,” and not even Muslims as individuals).
My concern is primarily about the very frequent and negative linkages between the Arab uprisings across the region that seek more legitimate and democratic governance systems, and the angry demonstrations and few incidents of violence or death that erupted across the Arab-Asian region in the past week. Some in the United States now feel that demonstrations and occasional violence essentially negate the epic gains of the Arab uprisings.
This is such a terrible equation because the demonstrators were usually a few hundred and occasionally a few thousand people (mostly men) who went out for a few hours here and there to express their rather legitimate anger (along with a few illegitimate and unacceptable acts of violence) at having their prophet and religion deliberately demeaned. The attacks against the American consulate in Benghazi may also have included a pre-planned attack by a small band of Salafist militants. In contrast, the Arab Spring uprisings have gone on uninterrupted in some cases for a year and nine months, have seen tens of millions of ordinary citizens go out into the streets to demonstrate peacefully for the most part, as they worked to remove their dictators and live a more dignified and free life. In some cases, like Syria and Libya, violent regime responses prompted some opposition elements to use military means to overthrow the regimes, usually with assistance from Arab and Western countries.
One gets the impression over and over in the United States that Arabs and Muslims often are perceived as something akin to juvenile delinquents on parole -- they have to behave well and obey the rules in order to enjoy the normal benefits of a free life. Our freedom and sovereignty do not seem to be absolute rights, but rather are held hostage to American, Western and, in some case, Israeli validation that we are behaving correctly. This is not new, only the latest twist to what we witnessed when the uprisings first threatened pro-American dictators in Tunisia and Egypt in January 2011. The reflexive, almost Pavlovian, first questions that many American analysts and politicians asked then were, “what does this mean for Israel? Iran? the Islamist movements?” without first asking if this was good for the hundreds of millions of ordinary Arab men and women who risked their lives to live in freedom.
The idea that a handful of small, occasionally violent demonstrations this week can cause some Americans and others abroad to question the value or worth of the past 21 months of epic Arab struggles for liberty and democracy is a terrible reminder that very deep chasms separate these two worlds in some critical areas. The most important of which seems to be a deep lack of respect for the other -- on both sides -- including the widespread perception among many American quarters that the liberty of Arabs and Muslims is not an absolute God-given right, but a relative benefit that they achieve if they play by the rules of the West.
I wonder, should we see the Arab-Asian-Muslim demonstrations and these American reactions as a lingering aftershock of the colonial mentality and the anti-colonial wars of resistance of the past century?
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri.
Copyright © 2012 Rami G. Khouri -- distributed by Agence Global