What did we really witness last week?

It is always instructive but also irritating to be in the United States when tumultuous events occur around the Middle East or the wider Arab-Asian region with its predominantly Muslim populations. Last week was such a week, as we witnessed demonstrations and occasional violence 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 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?” A variation on 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 U.S. 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 subtext of this is the questioning of 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, let’s say, and often the subject of bewilderment here is simply “Islam,” not even Muslims as individuals).

My concern is primarily about the frequent and negative linkages between the Arab uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa that seek more legitimate and democratic governance systems, and the angry protests and the few incidents of violence or death that erupted across the Arab-Asian region in the past week. Some in the U.S. 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 usually involved 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 preplanned 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, and 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, as in Syria and Libya, violent regime responses prompted some opposition elements to use military means to confront 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. Arab freedom and sovereignty do not seem to be absolute rights, but rather are held hostage to American, Western and, in some cases, Israeli validation that we are behaving correctly.

This is not new, and is 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 and Islamist movements,” without first asking if this was good for the hundreds of millions of ordinary Arab men and women risking their lives to live in freedom.

That a handful of small, occasionally violent demonstrations last week could cause some Americans and others abroad to question the worth of the past 21 months of epic Arab struggles for liberty and democracy is a terrible reminder that deep chasms separate these two worlds in some critical areas.

The most important of these is a deep lack of respect for the other on both sides, including the widespread perception in many American quarters that the liberty of Arabs and Muslims is not an absolute God-given right, but rather a relative benefit that Arabs can 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 published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 19, 2012, on page 7.




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