I’ve spent a lot of the last few weeks glued to the TV and the computer screen, watching the news from the Middle East with gobsmacked delight—a great democratic tsunami first rolling over Tunisia and Egypt, now struggling to breach the walls of autocracy in Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Morocco, Palestine, Sudan, Syria, Yemen. Can Saudi Arabia be far behind?
Every time I watched footage of the demonstrators in Tahrir Square, I was swept back to Paris in 1968 by the look of incredulous pride and joy on their faces. That’s what people look like when they suddenly take power in their own city, people who never had any power in their lives before. Those occupying the square felt like they were now responsible for their city; they cleaned up and swept the streets, cooked and cared for one another, and spoke of the way they had been isolated and atomized until this time, when they found one another and became a community.
Such moments don’t last; how could they? But they give a whole generation strength enough to try to bring back that sense of community for the rest of their lives, as so many of my generation of 1968 have continued to do. No matter how much scorn others heap on us, we know what we have experienced, and we know it can happen again.
Of course there are dangers ahead—from Islamists, from chaos, from U.S. meddling. The Muslim Brotherhood may not be as violent as it was, but its members still are no friends to women’s or minority rights. And while the official State Department line has been to support dictators like Mubarak, for years it has also been surreptitiously courting the Muslim Brotherhood, visiting members in their safe havens in the UK, seeing them as the kind of “moderate Islamists” who are the next best thing to a dictator for keeping the population under control and the oil flowing. So the Obama administration is torn about whom to support, and it is easy to guess that the State Department could end up putting its money on a bunch of fundamentalist elders rather than an unpredictable popular revolution. We will have to keep tabs on that.
Two other things, though obvious, need to be said about the recent momentous events:
• They are a historical rejoinder to all the racist crap we have heard for so many years from the Netanyahus and Marty Peretzes of the world, who say that Arabs are different from other people, that they want different things, and that they are incapable of democracy. The uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa demonstrate that Arabs want exactly the same things as everyone else: democracy, human rights, respect, and a way to make a living.
• For decades, we have also been told that no progress can be made in the Middle East until the Israel-Palestine conflict is resolved. People in the region are now showing that attempts to focus all their anger on Israel and the United States will no longer work. They want human rights at home. This does not negate the need to find a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it means the conflict can no longer serve as an excuse for neglecting all the other problems in the region.
The democratic tsunami also poses a problem for certain elements in the U.S. and European Left. Since 9/11, a sector of this Left, eager to fight what it calls Islamophobia, has acted as though Muslim fundamentalists are the true representatives of Islam and that, therefore, to criticize fundamentalism is to be racist against all Muslims. Leftists who actually live in South Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East do not make this mistake; they know that, wherever fundamentalists come to power, their first act is to kill off the left opposition—look at what happened (and continues to happen) in Iran. But solidarity-minded militants in the United States and Europe are not necessarily bothered by what people on the front lines think; they are more worried about their own cred with other leftists in the North.
A recent example is an article by Rupal Oza, director of Women and Gender Studies at Hunter College, attacking Gita Sahgal, Karima Bennoune, and me. Oza’s thesis is that any criticism of salafi-jihadis at a time when Muslims in general are under attack from the Republican Right “fuels an imperial agenda.” The thinking and research behind the article are pretty sloppy (I have never been on the board of the CCR, for instance), but its arguments have become all too common in those parts of the U.S. Left where any attempt to discuss Muslim women is greeted by imprecations about Ayaan Hirsi Ali and the American Enterprise Institute.
Now, however, Muslims all across the Middle East and North Africa are showing that, contrary to being represented by Islamists, they have no interest in fundamentalism at all. As Olivier Roy said in a recent op ed, “The Tunisian revolt helps clarify a reality about Arab life: The terrorism we’ve seen over the past few years, with its utopian millennialism, doesn’t stem from the real societies of the Middle East. More Islamic radicals are to be found in the West than at home.” How will Northern leftists, who have been willing to subordinate women’s rights and defend fundamentalists as anti-imperialists, deal with this new reality on the ground? How will they counter the Tunisian women’s statement in L’Humanité calling for “La séparation du religieux et du politique”—a complete separation between religious figures and the state—and full equality for women? One is dependent on the other, and fundamentalism stands against both.
The Algerian reportage of Karima Bennoune—whose criticisms of Anwar al-Awlaki are described by Rupal Oza as “messaging” that all Muslim men are “suspect and partial citizens, ripe for conversion by terrorists, Jihadists, fundamentalists, and other haters of American Freedom”—shows how different the issues on the ground are from pomo deconstructions. Bennoune’s two most recent blogs can be found on the “Comment is Free” section in the Guardian on January 17 and February 19.
Also worth reading is a brilliant analysis by Mohamed Bamyeh, “First Impressions from the Field,” describing the progress of the Egyptian revolution as seen from Tahrir Square. Bamyeh highlights the social and psychological aspects of the sudden freedom and solidarity felt by those present, and the way religion—and the Muslim Brotherhood—faded into the background in the face of the sudden emergence of an energized civil society:
"More than one participant mentioned to me how the revolution was psychologically liberating, because all the repression that they had internalized as self-criticism and perception of inborn weakness, was in the revolutionary climate turned outwards as positive energy and a discovery of self-worth, real rather than superficial connectedness to others, and limitless power to change frozen reality. I heard the term “awakening” being used endlessly to describe the movement as a whole as a sort of spontaneous emergence out of a condition of deep slumber, which no party program could shake off before. . . . Like in the Tunisian Revolution, in Egypt the rebellion erupted as a sort of a collective moral earthquake—where the central demands were very basic, and clustered around the respect for the citizen, dignity, and the natural right to participate in the making of the system that ruled over the person. If those same principles had been expressed in religious language before, now they were expressed as is and without any mystification or need for divine authority to justify them."
I have no doubt that, like the young of my generation, people who went through this experience will be permanently marked by it and will fight to keep these principles alive for the rest of their lives. As the French students said in 1968, “Cours, camarade, le vieux monde est derriere toi!”—Run, friend, the old world is behind you!