Monday, October 10, 2011

What the Arab Spring Did Not Change...

Today, major clashes broke out in Egypt between Coptic Christians (Copts) and Muslims, reviving a centuries old clash in that country arising from the second class status and mistreatment that Coptic Christians have faced since Egypt was conquered by the Muslims in 641 AD. The plight of Copts is similar to the plight of many religious minorities in the Islamic world, from the Baha'i in Iran, to the Maronites of Lebanon to the Jews who lived in many Arabs states, to Shia minorities in Sunni nations. The systemic discrimination against religious minorities in many Middle Eastern nations, coupled with systemic political and social discrimination against women has been a constant throughout most of the governmental changes that have shaken the Middle East in the last 100 years. The reasons are varied, in many cases repressing any unpopular religious groups is a convenient way for a new leader to establish credibility amongst the majority, while in other cases hearkening back to a more "traditional order" is a good way to cement reputation.

No event has catalyzed this type of discrimination more than the Arab Spring. Far from the democratic revolution that many naive Westerners expected, the Arab Spring has enabled religious groups that hold power to settle old scores or curry favor with the average people by lashing out against unpopular religious minorities. In Syria, the Alawite minority ruling group is lashing out against largely Sunni protesters against the Assad regime, which has created discord in the Turkish-Syrian relationship and has created significant friction between Turkey (a Sunni nation) and Iran, Syria's benefactor. In Egypt, various groups seizing power, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, are attempting to fill the power vacuum and establish credibility by going after Coptic Christians and trying to establish Islamic credibility among the people.  Yet, even countries that have not endured regime change from the Arab Spring practice systemic discrimination. Notorious cases of honor killings, lashing women who drive cars, destroying Christian and Jewish places of worship, killing people who convert from Islam and imposing second class citizenship on nonbelievers. Regardless of what underlying tenants of Islam say, most Islamic nations since the Umayyads have featured some or all of these features.

The Western reaction to this ongoing behavior has been underwhelming. Most recently evidenced by the West's relative non-reaction to the Arab attempt to slaughter the Black Africans of Sudan wholesale as part of official Sudanese government policy, Western societies have struggled to come to terms with the frequent discrimination in Islamic nations. The core problem arises from a conflict of two ideas at the core of Western liberalism: tolerance for other cultures and the goal of equality and political rights. While Western societies increasingly try to end discrimination based on sex, religion and race, Islamic nations such as Iran and Saudi Arabia are becoming increasingly regressive from a Western standpoint and entrenching views of religious and sex relations that are antiquated at best and oppressive at worst from a Western standpoint. However, Western societies' history of colonialism and the white guilt that still permeates the West prevents many people from condemning discrimination in Islamic societies the same way they could condemn Nazi Germany and Apartheid South Africa. Those two examples feature white peoples oppressing other peoples and fit comfortably into the narrative of Western guilt for colonialism.

It's not that Westerners don't care about these issues. On the contrary, one need only look at the increased criticism that Christian Conservatives in the United States face for their stances on gay rights to see that the Western societies are demanding greater rights for a variety of minorities. Yet, it is interesting to see that despite the push for rights for women and homosexual persons in Western societies has been coupled with significant criticism of groups that are perceived to be opposed to such progress, the regressive aspects of Islamic societies has received comparatively little criticism. There are, of course, some blips on the radar, usually after a particularly heinous honor killing or when someone like Daniel Pearl is executed because he is Jewish. Yet, we see far more pervasive criticism of the Christian Right in American and Europe despite the fact that for the most part, Christian Conservatives take violent action to impose their beliefs on others far less frequently that do groups trying to reinstate a more traditional Islamic social order.  

Moreover, while it is expected without exception that Europeans traveling to Islamic societies conform to their social mores and expectations, the ideals of multiculturalism and tolerance have allowed the worst excesses of Islamic societies such as honor killings, antisemitic attacks on synagogues and the opposition to any rights for homosexuals or women to be imported into America and Europe. Indeed, it is ironic that Western multiculturalism has allowed for an increase in the type of behavior that runs opposite to the goals of most Western societies to foster equality. The irony is especially palpable because other groups professing similar ideas to many Islamic governments are rebuked and pushed to the fringes of political discussion precisely because of their views. In the United States, "right wingers" who are perceived as anti-abortion, racist, intolerant and preachy receive far more criticism in our society than many other peoples who espouse similar views. The reasons are quite obvious when one starts to think about the Western mindset, which is based on the idea of rationalizing other people's behavior based on what Westerns did to them to cause their behavior. Our narrative has decidedly put the blame on us for other people's lashing out, and many other leaders take advantage of this idea when framing their own persona as an anti-Western crusader (notably Gamal Abdel Nasse, Ayatollah Khomenei, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and increasingly, Tayyip Erdogan).

After the initial shock of 9/11, many people began to try to rationalize the event by asking "what did we do to cause this?" Answers range from focusing on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, U.S. support for Israel, European interventions in various nations in the Magreb, the British and French establishment of "puppet regimes" in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, the destruction of the Caliphate in World War I and the Crusades. What followed was the establishment of a framework for viewing Western-Islamic relations as a history of Western attacks on Islam, which brought about an expected military response. Indeed, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Ayatollah Khomenei, Gamal Abdel Nassar and other prominent Islamic leaders have cultivated this Western attack imagery, referring back to the Crusades and the establishment of Israel as a successor to the failed Crusader Kingdoms. Of course, this narrative tells only half the story, especially when looking at more distant history. While the Crusades certainly were an attack on Islam by Christendom, it could be readily sandwiched between the Umayyad invasion of Europe in the 8th Century (stopped by Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours in 732) and the Ottoman invasion of Central Europe in the 17th century, culminating in the Battle of Vienna in 1683. However, the last 100 years have essentially washed over further centuries of history that is far more complex and multidimensional than we can imagine. Indeed, the perceived "imperialism" of Israel has essentially whitewashed over everything that is going on in Gaza and the West Bank. Forget about Palestinian treatment of Israelis, and look instead at how the Palestinian governments treat Christians, women, Druze and Europeans. Look at how the Iranian government treats Baha'i and homosexuals (though their President claims that none exist in Iran, a claim similarly made by various Soviet premiers in the 1950s and 1960s), look at how Egypt treats its Copts and look at how every Arab nation evicted all of its Jews wholesale in 1948.

What does this mean for Israel? For all intents and purposes, Israel is a Western nation. It is inaccurately portrayed in the Western media as a nation full of white, Europeans transplanted into the "Arab" desert. We in the West can project our expectations, morals and demands on Israel because they look like us and sound like us. The fact that Jordan bans Jews from buying land or from being citizens (and that's Israel's closes Arab ally!) is far less significant than Israel's construction of a partial separation fence to keep out terrorists. Moreover, we project Western history onto Israel even when it makes no sense to do so. The characterization of Israel as anything resembling the old Crusader states is laughable except that it is an image that many feel is accurate. To think that 8 million Israelis pose an existential threat to the well being of the Arab, Iranian and Turkish Middle East is bizarre role reversal by which the Islamic world seeks to redeploy the narrative of colonialism against a political entity that had nothing to do with it. Even if people in Britain or France feel guilt over their ancestors' actions against Muslim peoples over the centuries, the stateless Jews had no hand in those actions. Yet, we now face a situation in which Israel is cast as the successor colonizer in the style of the British Empire, crushing the nationalist dreams of the hapless Palestinian peoples.

While this narrative is quite useful from the standpoint of garnering sympathy for the Palestinians, it of course ignores the fact that the Palestinian leadership is among the most regressive. Since receiving local control in Gaza and the West Bank Palestinians mobs killed Vittorio Arrigoni, a man who supported the Palestinian independence struggle, Gaza has grown to lead the world in honor killings, Christians have all but abandoned Gaza and political repression is extreme. Of course, all of this gets pushed aside any time a house is built in Jerusalem or if a teenager attacking Israeli soldiers is shot.

The Arab Spring has not changed the fundamental tenants of most Islamic societies, and while we may have been expecting change, the overthrow of military or minority dictatorships in places like Egypt, Syria and Tunisia are only more likely to bring to power Islamist leaders who can take  populist positions by trying to break away from any corrupt "Western" influences and trying to return their societies to the more glorious times before the perceived rise and invasion of Western values and ideas. When we see that type of regression in such societies, our fear of seeming racist, intolerant or elitist has and will prevent us from speaking out in the necessary voice to stop another Darfur genocide, Armenian Genocide, or Syrian government crackdown.

6 comments:

David said...

Very, very interesting article. Couple questions:

1. You suggest that the reason domestic right-wingers are criticized in the U.S. more than foreign right-wingers is because of the "Western mindset" that rationalizes other people's behavior based on what we did to them. Is this really a "Western" mindset? It seems like more of a post-1960's liberal mindset.

Also, even if you're right that this "Western mindset" is a factor, a bigger factor is probably the fact that the actions of domestic "right-wingers" directly affects our neighborhoods, schools, etc. in a way that foreign right-wingers never do. Surely you don't think that the "Western mindset" is why people are more likely to criticize domestic actors than foreign actors. For example, there's a lot more vocal criticism of conservative attempts to restrict birth control or abortion in the United States than there is criticism of female genital mutilation in Afghanistan. That's not because anyone in the U.S. thinks the former is worse than the latter. It's because half of the people in the United States are affected by the laws that conservatives seek here, whereas very few people here actually know anyone who suffering in Afghanistan, much less see them every day.

David said...

2. I think your point about the "West" being more willing to criticize Israel because Israelis are more like "us" is a very interesting argument. But doesn't that treat the opinion of a minority of Americans who have been completely unable to change American foreign policy to Israel as if it's the opinion of the entirety of the "West" and "our narrative"? If the "West" was actually more critical of Israel than, say, Iran then we wouldn't have sanctions on Iran and massive foreign aid to Israel. We wouldn't have standing ovations in Congress for Netanyahu and we wouldn't have Obama being told that his support of Israel merits a "badge of honor."

Of course, I think criticism of Israel is lop-sided because there's a lot more to be critical of other countries in the region, but that doesn't mean that anywhere close to a majority of people in the West have adopted the narrative of Israel as a brutal colonizer, oppressor, crusader state, etc.

In the same vein, you say that "our fear" of seeming intolerant or racist prevented the U.S. from "speaking out in the necessary voice" to prevent another Darfur. As I recall, no one in the U.S. has every had a problem with "speaking out" against the situation in Darfur because they thought that doing so would make them seem intolerant. If anything, the criticism was that the government was not doing enough because, unlike Bosnia, white people weren't being threatened.

Basic point is this: while clearly there are people in Europe (especially France) and in the United States (but primarily only in the far left), is it necessary to your conclusion to attribute such views to the entirety of the "West"? Is it necessary to cede control over what "our narrative" has been? It seems like your attempt to stage a criticism of the entirety of the "West" and what "we" think weakens what would otherwise be a very powerful analytical tool.

And finally, by focusing on the impact that the Western narrative has and saying that it's the Western voice that's "necessary" to stop another genocide from taking place, aren't you once again blaming the West for the actions of violent states? It's ironic to me that, in many of your posts, you focus your criticism on the U.S. and Jewish Americans instead of directly on the Arab leaders that directly cause most of the problems you identify. That's not to say that such criticism is invalid at all -- certainly people in the U.S. are too critical of Israel -- but it seems that your criticism stems from the same kind of "Western mindset" that you criticize.

JabotinskyJr said...

I think in some ways you are right and the foreign/domestic relationship makes sense. Obviously people care more about what's going on here than across the world. One of the situations that has caused me to think like this is the trial and scrutiny of Geert Wilders, the Dutch right wing politician who was recently put on trial for allegedly anti-Islamic comments in his film Fitna. Although some may criticize Wilders' actions as a publicity stunt, his perceived anti-Islamic behavior received very strong criticism both in Europe and the States, in a way that I don't believe that discriminatory comments and actions by many Arab nations do. Similar things can be said for the outrage over Switzerland's ban on minaret construction, while the destruction of churches in Egypt, the destruction of synagogues in Egypt, Libya and across the Middle East is a blip. One may also consider the criticism of the Vatican in association with its stances on birth control and homosexuality and compare it to the criticism of Saudi Arabia or Iran's treatment of women and homosexuals. In my view, certain beliefs that are core in modern liberal democracies make us far more willing to be "self-critical" (criticizing people of White, European, Judeo-Christian origin) than to criticize "others" regardless of which behavior is more in contravention of our beliefs. The point is not that it is our obligation to change how Iran or Saudi Arabia behave, but to the extent that we live in a world of international humanitarian missions and acts, it seems counterproductive to stand silent or inactive while female genital mutilation, floggings of homosexuals and second class citizenship for non-believers reigns in many nations.

JabotinskyJr said...

On your second point, you should be aware that one of my central beliefs about Israel is that there is a very strong intent to portray Israel is a "white nation" in order to hold it to different standards. I cannot otherwise explain the differential media and international obsession with Israel over say, the Sri Lankan/Tamil conflict or the Moroccan/Western Sahara conflict, which share many many features with Israel's predicament with the Palestinians. The point is not that a select small group U.S. government official support Israel and welcome Netanyahu, as you need only look across the pond to see large scale government-sponsored boycotts of Israel (in Ireland), significant increases in anti-Semitic violence (in France and Holland). The United Nations passed a resolution condemning Jewish nationalism (Zionism) as racist (and yes I know it was later stricken, but the very fact of passing such a resolution says a lot). While the United States is less critical of Israel, Western Europe has for the most part lost most of its sympathy for Israel. France, for example, was the leading supplier of military technology to Israel until the end of the 1960s, when the De Gaulle government imposed arms sanctions on Israel after the Six Day War.

The point here is the level of discussion. What happened in Darfur came close to the disaster in Rwanda, but that event received in the long term less media attention than apartment construction in East Jerusalem. Moreover, in that conflict, I perceived that there was very little discussed about how it was fundamentally a racial-religious war of the Islamic janjaweed trying to exterminate non-Muslim blacks. I think a lot of this difference arises fundamentally from the idea of seeming like colonialists or hypocrites for criticizing the acts of other nations. We view Israel as "like us" and we feel that they should be subject to our standards, even though Israel is not an heir to Western Europe's history of colonialism.

David said...

Re: Wilders.
There's no "allegedly" about Wilders' anti-Islamic views. I haven't seen the film, but Wilders makes no effort to hide his view that he "hates Islam." (e.g. http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/0,1518,544347,00.html).

I think the vast majority of people in the U.S. would be shocked by the trial of Wilders. Regardless of whether you agree with his views, United States culture is very much intertwined with free speech values that are not shared in Europe. Where was the "very strong criticism" in the United States? Was it in the fact that Wilders was invited to screen the movie for the Senate?

I've heard much more criticism re: Iran and Saudi Arabian treatment of women and gays (and stray hikers and thieves for that matter). Vatican? Not nearly as much.

But I think your point is valid: Israel is held to a higher standard. There are probably aspects of racism that have to do with it, which is ironic because Jews were never before considered part of "white" culture/people. But, that exact same dynamic also explains a lot of why Israel gets the emotional support that it does from America: Israel is like us, and we like us. I don't think it's one-sided, and I don't think the negative consequences of cultural identification with Israel come anywhere close to the very material positive consequences. But that doesn't mean there aren't negative consequences, which is what I think your point is.

David said...

I think there's an additional dynamic as well. To the extent Israel is not like "us" in the sense of being a former colonial power, it's because Israel is viewed as victims of the Holocaust. Because they were victims, Israel is held to a higher standard. Israel is supposed to be perfect regarding human rights because it's supposed to know better. They are sort of caught in the middle between two versions of their identity that are commonly projected onto them, neither of which are fair.

Re: France/Ireland/UN
I think that kind of makes my point. I don't think it's useful to talk about the views of the "West" re: Israel because I think the views held by the majority in Europe are very much contrary to the views in the United States. Especially France. The free speech point is another example of that. It doesn't make sense to lump them all together, nor is it necessary to make the very apt criticisms that you do of certain portrayals of Israel.