The opinion pieces dealing with the Arab world this morning from The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald come from complete opposite viewpoints, but each accuse the other of being condescending and helping to stereotype the Arab people and so perpetuate their dictators. In the SMH, New York Times commentator Nicholas Christof writes that anyone who doesn’t assume that these protests will create democracy is applying a “crude stereotype”:
Is the Arab world unready for freedom? A crude stereotype lingers that some people – Arabs, Chinese and Africans – are incompatible with democracy. Many around the world fret that ”people power” will likely result in Somalia-style chaos, Iraq-style civil war or Iran-style oppression.
That narrative has been nourished by Westerners and, more sadly, by some Arab, Chinese and African leaders. So with much of the Middle East in an uproar today, let’s tackle a politically incorrect question head-on: are Arabs too politically immature to handle democracy?
I’m not too sure I like the way he backs-up his argument:
The common thread of this year’s democracy movement from Tunisia to Iran, from Yemen to Libya, has been undaunted courage. I’ll never forget a double-amputee I met in Tahrir Square in Cairo when Hosni Mubarak’s thugs were attacking with rocks, clubs and Molotov cocktails. This young man rolled his wheelchair to the front lines. And we doubt his understanding of what democracy means?
In Bahrain, I watched a column of men and women march unarmed towards security forces when, a day earlier, the troops had opened fire with live ammunition. Can anyone dare say that such people are too immature to handle democracy?
I can dare say that. These examples no doubt show tremendous courage, but why is that the same as being able to handle democracy? I don’t understand how a man rolling his wheelchair into the front lines shows that he understands democracy. If Kristof can write for one of the leading newspapers in the democratic world and not understand democracy, why is understanding assured for a brave, somewhat handicapped, Egyptian protester?
Maintaining a functional democracy requires voting rights for all citizens; the rule of law; an independent executive, legislature and judiciary; the ability to criticise those in power; a free press with which do to so and an army/police force that will maintain the rule of law and protect all of the above-mentioned rights. How exactly this relates to marching unarmed into a massacre I’m not entirely sure.
David Burchell in The Australian explains this kind of viewpoint very eloquently:
What seems obvious about the young Libyans in the streets of Tobruk, Benghazi and Tripoli – like young Iranians and Egyptians, and quite possibly many Syrians and Saudis too – is that they no longer want any truck with those miserable self-serving fantasies of Arab victimhood and Zionist sorcery. Instead, they merely want to live – as Said was lucky enough to do – in a “normal” country, where their persons will be treated with dignity and their views with respect. But about how to create such a country, beyond toppling statues and setting fire to police stations, they have been left almost totally in the dark – partly through the agency of their own rulers, and partly by us.
The “miserable self-serving fantasies” he is referring to specifically come from Arab-American intellectual Edward Said, who created the theory of “Orientalism”, which basically explains that the West in the present day continues a patronising, colonial attitude towards the Orient, despite not actually colonising it anymore, meaning that we feel the need to impose our values and mindset on a people who don’t want or need them.
Said presented a political perspective of almost child-like simplicity: the West, in its domineering ignorance, was forever doomed to “other” the Orient, and to treat it as its inferior, even while Said and his disciples blissfully “othered” the Middle East themselves, as a sepulchre of Arab suffering, in a mirror-image of those they deplored. Said’s acolytes are probably less familiar with the articles he wrote over many years for the Egyptian state press – articles devoid of the criticism of any existing Arab government; (least of all Mubarak’s); and which reduce all the problems of the Arab world to the actions of those two familiar pantomime villains, the US and Israel. You will not be surprised to hear that Said had nothing whatever to say about Libya’s absurd Mussolini imitator, Gaddafi – except to heap abuse upon the US when it responded to the colonel’s various terrorist provocations.
Said reserved special contempt for brave Arabs who criticised the region’s political, economic and social backwardness. As he wrote, in his customary lachrymose tones, in Egyptian state weekly Al-Ahram in 2003: ‘I recall the lifeless cadences of their sentences for, with nothing positive to say about their people, they simply regurgitate the tired American formulas: we lack democracy; we haven’t challenged Islam enough, we need to drive away the spectre of Arab nationalism.’
So according to Burchell, Said and his “acolytes” attach a baseless romanticism to Arabs, meaning that they support everything that they do and assume that they can do no wrong and always know what’s best for themselves, without any need of Western intervention or values, because the West only ever does harm. Ironically, Kristof (and Paul McGeough) seem to fit this description exactly. In fact, it explains why, as I wrote yesterday, Western NGO’s refused to investigate the Taliban for war crimes and only wanted to scrutinise Western forces in Afghanistan.
These dictators are facing criticism now, but I only remember these commentators blaming Israel and the US for all of the Arab woes in the past. At the time, they followed Said’s point of view that Western ideas like secularism and democracy didn’t need to apply to the Arab people. I tend to agree with Burchell – our desire to be optimistic and tolerant is glossing-over the very real changes that these countries need in order to create functional democracies. Hopefully our leaders at least can see this.