The Arab Spring represents one of the most powerful and promising changes in the recent history of the Middle East. Its origins, like many revolutionary changes, began with a modest yet daring act of defiance when, in December 2010, a young Tunisian set himself on fire as a physical and symbolic act of protest. Since then, three stubborn dictatorships have fallen (Tunisia, Egypt and Libya), two are withering (Yemen and Syria) and one brutally retained its power (Bahrain). These, of course, are only some of the more dramatic results of the uprisings. One could easily point to the less spectacular yet fundamental changes underway including the formation of new political actors and coalitions throughout the region. Empowered by the tools of social media and the common desire for real political and economic change, these new alliances are critical for the possibility of a new Middle East.
Now over a year old, the Spring has been the subject of innumerable discussions and analyses. One of the most common conversations has focused on the question of Islam. From pundits on the neo-conservative right to commentators on the liberal left, the role of Muslim political actors in the region has precipitated numerous debates about the possibility of an “Islamic takeover.” With the recent political victories of Muslim parties in Tunisia, such fearful speculations have only increased and show little sign of retreat. Another topic of discussion has concerned the role of the West. For years Western countries such as the United States have supported the very regimes they now claim they want to fall. While in Libya, the West played a critical role in Moammar Gadhafi’s demise, in Bahrain and Syria, neither Europe nor the U.S. have shown similar enthusiasm. This seeming inconsistency has raised various questions about the sincerity of Western commitments to democracy in the region.
These are not the only topics of discussion surrounding the Spring. Indeed, there are countless more debates, predictions and interpretations about what caused the Spring and what we might expect as new political forms emerge in the rubble of Middle Eastern dictatorships. Important and justified as these conversations may be, there has been surprisingly little attention given to what I consider one of the more striking issues surrounding the Arab Spring. Perhaps its absence has to do with the fact that the issue has little to do with causes and/or results. Perhaps not. Whatever the reasons behind the void, the conversation I’m interested in concerns the question of narrative: the story in which we might understand the phenomenon called the Arab Spring. More specifically, I’m interested in the story that the Arab Spring fits into within the West. I want to highlight the issue of narrative not so much in terms of how we should see the Arab Spring but in terms of how we shouldn’t see it. This simple yet critical exercise has important ramifications for Western spectators and could play an important role in shaping what takes place over the next few years.
Those with even the faintest of historical memory can remember the story that emerged after the attacks of September 11. The narrative was old, for sure, but it achieved a powerful boost of popularity and legitimacy as the spectacle of violence traveled through the 24-hour news circuit. In its simplest form, the narrative frame was one of good versus evil: Evil Muslim Arabs attacked the good and civilized Americans. In its more complex manifestations, the characters achieved significant – even scientific – depth. Thus the McGill anthropologist, Philip Carl Salzman, claimed that modern Arabs, the antagonists of the story, were plagued by the culture of their Bedouin ancestors. Drawing on his own research among pastoral nomads in Iran, Salzman argued that Arabs were fundamentally backward; that is, trapped within the tribal framework of an “us versus them” mentality. This tribal culture was the root of not only Arabs’ but also Muslims’ violent disposition. As Salzman put it:
“Everywhere along the perimeter of the Muslim-ruled bloc, Muslims have problems living peaceably with their neighbors. Muslims may only comprise one-fifth of the world’s population, but in this decade and the last, they have been far more involved in inter-group violence than the people of any other civilization.”
Complementing the scholarship of Samuel Huntington, Bernard Lewis, Fouad Ajami and Daniel Pipes, to name a few, Salzman furthered the clash of civilizations narrative in which Arabs and Muslims shared a fundamental tendency toward irrational violence and, basically, evil. According to this narrative, the shock of 9/11 thus had more to do with its timing, not its cruelty. Yes, we were all shocked by the nature of the attacks – no one saw them coming. But no, we weren’t surprised by who launched the attacks – we all saw them coming.
This narrative of terror, the terror of Arab and Muslim civilization clashing with the decency of Western and Christian civilization, is now quite familiar. Promoted through the media, scholarship and government rhetoric and policy, it has become a fixture of sorts demanding the attention of anyone interested in the study of Arabs, Islam or the Muslim world. One of the primary reasons for this has to do with what followed 9/11. During the eight long years of the Bush administration, that terror narrative became a persistent, widespread and almost unchallenged cornerstone of U.S. policy. With attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq, and covert missions in countries such as Yemen and Somalia, the Bush administration’s violent efforts in the East gave the narrative a particular salience. Whether intentionally or not, the Bush administration relied on a dangerous discourse to justify its policies in the Arab and Muslim world that drew heavily on ideas about “evil” and “terror.” Thus although the administration would deny that evil was the unique province of the Arabs and Islam, the exclusivity of its actions in the Middle East and Asia suggested otherwise.
Of course, the Muslim world wasn’t without its own misguided stories. Osama bin Laden and his supporters were all too willing to promote a similar story that divided the world in inverse terms. For the al-Qaida crew, it was the West that was violent and uncivilized and the Muslim East that was good and innocent. Thus many of his broadcasts played on the polarizing themes of good and evil within a fanciful and harmful narrative of Muslim victims. Moreover, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the innumerable deaths they caused played directly into the fanatical narrative of terror bin Laden needed to promote the battle he wanted to have, a battle that, like Bush’s war on terror, was about righteous revenge and ruthless yet rational violence.
Whether in Western narratives about the East or Eastern narratives about the West, the story is dangerously similar and has been linked to unspeakable violence and pain. What then, does the Arab Spring offer? Where does it fit into these narratives and how?
Despite the efforts of Salzman, Pipes and other agenda-driven scholars to legitimize their narrative terror about the Arab and Muslim world, the Arab Spring has presented a compelling counter story that has dealt a serious blow to their cause. In particular, the unexpected form and success of the Arab Spring has sent two important messages that underscore the need for a new narrative that can only come from the fluctuating and complex events taking place now.
One of the key messages of the Arab Spring is that freedom and democracy are driving forces on the so-called Arab street. Far from the limits of the vendetta-culture or the violent dispositions described by the architects of the old terror narrative of 9/11, Arabs in the Spring have forcefully demonstrated that they too are united by a desire for political freedom and meaningful economic opportunity. Thus through the tools of social media and the formation of non-parochial alliances, Arabs took to the streets demanding immediate change through (mostly) non-violent means. In Tunisia and Egypt, for example, Arab youth, labor organizations and an assortment of motivated and peaceful organizations joined forces to assert a claim that the pundits of the terror narrative could never explain: the right to democratic freedom and the creation of a pluralist political environment. And to a large extent, they succeeded: Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak are gone – for good.
There is, however, another dimension to the Arab Spring that not only challenges the terror narrative but also raises important questions about the West’s own narrative of itself. In Libya, where the ruthless tactics of the now deceased Gadhafi led to scores of deaths, Arabs and the West worked together, violently. In this case, the modern technologies of warfare crafted by the “civilized” West were used to support the violence of a national coalition of fighters opposed to Gadhafi’s dictatorship. In a clash of civilizations where bitterness and backwardness promote Eastern hatred for the West, how could such cooperation occur? The simple answer is that there is no clash of civilizations. Libyans – Arab Muslim Libyans, to be precise – found common cause in the removal of Gadhafi’s government and thus fought together in the pursuit of freedom. Arab culture, Islamic jihad and Western secularism did not “clash” on the battlefield of liberation – the basic principle of freedom united East and West in the successful struggle to end Gadhafi’s grip on power. Surprising as it may be for some Western storytellers, the narrative has changed: Arab Muslims are as capable of peace and violence as the West.
And this brings us to a significant point about the Western side of the narrative coin created by the likes of Pipes and others: If the civilized countries of the West can use violence in the service of freedom in Libya, how can they withhold it from the service of freedom in Syria and Bahrain? Could it be that the civilized world, as conceived by Salzman, for example, has its own tribal tendencies: Gadhafi is “our” enemy but Bahrain is “our” friend? Certainly if the world of Arabs and Muslims is so heavily burdened by its cultural dispositions toward tribal loyalties, the West couldn’t be guilty of putting alliances before freedom – or could it? Whatever the answers to these questions are, the West’s discriminatory use of violence in the Arab Spring suggests that the civilizational narrative fails equally in defining the East and as it does the West.
In sum, the narrative terror of 9/11 is effectively over. The Arab Spring, whatever its outcomes, has dramatically ended the storyline crafted by the minds of men – and some women – who would have us believe that Arabs and Muslims are at their truest when engaged in violence and terror. The ongoing struggles of the Middle East suggest that understanding what Arabs and Muslims do defies the logic of “good” and “evil.” Indeed, if there is anything the Spring has shown us, it’s that the Arab world is as complex and unpredictable as any other. As much as they can use the technologies of modernity for terror (planes as weapons), they can use those same technologies for good (Facebook for freedom).
Thus as the events of the Arab Spring continue to unfold, perhaps the lesson is that narratives don’t always work. A more reasonable approach, then, might be to let the story of the Arab Spring emerge as events unfold. In other words, as incomplete as the Spring is today, so too is its narrative.
Michael Vicente Perez is senior editor of the Islamic monthly and lecturer in cultural anthropology at the University of Washington.