The popular uprisings in Arab nations should bury some long-standing Orientalist myths.
With the recent wave of popular uprisings in the Middle East, Western observers have had the chance to face up to an important realization: that the oldest of clichés about Middle Eastern politics, “the Arab street,” is both a pernicious myth and a dynamic reality. For decades, Orientalist stereotypes about Arab culture and attitudes imbued this so-called street—a crude and monolithic metaphor for Arab public opinion and popular political sentiment—with almost uniformly negative connotations, which would then segue into dire warnings about the consequences of its eruption. Now the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and antigovernment protests in many other Arab states have demonstrated that the Arab street most certainly does exist—but it bears no resemblance to the bogeyman so long cultivated in the Western imagination.
Western commentators supplemented their hand-wringing about the Arab street with anxiety about “our Arab allies,” generally autocrats whose rule was considered vital to American interests in the region: the maximization of US power and influence, the control and pricing of energy, Israeli security, and regional stability. It’s true, of course, that the future complexion of the Arab political landscape remains uncertain, but the character of the rebellions has already been the strongest possible refutation of this traditional calculus and the mythology that misinformed it.
From the moment the Western imagination conjured the Arab street into being, it was populated by mobs of enraged, irrational, violent, and anti-Western religious fanatics, all bent on mayhem. This mythology has deep roots in Western misconceptions about the Arab world, as Edward Said famously demonstrated in his seminal 1978 study, Orientalism. Drawing on Michel Foucault’s investigation of the nexus between knowledge and power, Said argued that there exists an intimate connection between the presumed authority to define a subject and the assumed authority to rule that subject. Said explained that a key “dogma” of Orientalist thought “is that the Orient is at bottom something either to be feared . . . or to be controlled.” Under a carefully tended network of colonial oil fiefdoms and client states, Western strategists have essentially outsourced the task of control to autocratic but US-allied Arab governments. And in turn, these pro-Western autocrats have exploited the mythology of the Arab street to their own ends; the specter of a dangerous mass population barely held at bay helped them to cultivate their own claims to political legitimacy, while underwriting a decadent atmosphere of “Après moi, le déluge.”
Beyond the fairly recent myths of “realist” foreign policy, the Western image of the dangerous Arab masses actually harks back to the Middle Ages—in particular, the era’s religious and political competition between Christendom (the precursor to modern Europe) and Dâr al-Islam (from which the Arab world derives its identity), as Norman Daniel showed in his pioneering 1960 book, Islam and the West: The Making of an Image. Daniel’s thesis was more recently taken up by John Tolan in the 2002 study Saracens: Islam in the Medieval European Imagination, which traced the centuries-old religious origins of an incorrigible “sentiment of Western superiority over Muslims and over Arabs.”
Such traditional attitudes have routinely received new glosses in the Orientalist literature on what is purported to be a closed and rigidly change-averse “Arab mind.” This body of work usually bears the appearance of dispassionate cultural inquiry—but its authors are expressing essentially medieval anxieties about the mortal threat that Arab or Muslim power presents to the West. The Israeli right, in particular, has been adept at stoking such Western fears—most notoriously in the outrageous caricatures that Raphael Patai advanced in his 1973 study, The Arab Mind. This absurd and insulting book has been continuously reprinted and, more disturbing still, has been used for “cultural training” by the US military, most disastrously in connection with the war in Iraq. David Pryce-Jones’s influential 1989 tract The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs, meanwhile, reproduced much of Patai’s patronizing hostility; Pryce-Jones pathologized all Arab culture indiscriminately, suggesting that it dooms its unfortunate adherents to suffer self-inflicted oppression and exploitation. Similarly, Lee Smith’s dreadful 2010 misreading of Arab politics, The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations, unapologetically asserted that in Arab culture, might makes right, and that since “violence is central to the politics, society and culture” of the Arabs, not only will brutality always prevail but “Bin Ladenism . . . represents the political and social norm.”
Irshad Manji’s militantly ignorant screed The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith (2004) actually argued that Arabs played virtually no role in the golden age of Islamic civilization—a position akin to asserting that the peoples of Italy played no role in Roman culture. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof picked up on her obsession with sand, contending that there is a distinction between the Middle East’s “desert Islam,” which he says is a problem, and Southeast Asia’s “riverine or coastal Islam,” which supposedly is not. This line of thinking grows out of a misguided tendency to rescue Islam from the Arabs, when in fact Islam sprang from Arab culture, an Arab “prophet,” and a “holy book” in Arabic. Islam itself, these people argue, is not the problem—it’s the Arab progenitors of the faith and their sandy, impoverished, nasty culture.
The uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia should put paid to such rubbish once and for all. Any serious, honest appraisal of what is spreading throughout the Arab world refutes every aspect of this pernicious mythology. Certainly, the size, scope, and bravery of the demonstrations for democracy, good governance, and accountability mean that no one can continue flogging the Orientalist shibboleth that Arabs are inherently resistant to change—at least not with a straight face. Likewise, the idea that Arab political culture is inherently violent has been most eloquently debunked by the extraordinarily self-disciplined nonviolence of the protesters in Egypt and Tunisia—in spite of extreme provocation and abuses by the police and government-paid hooligans.
The allied Orientalist idea that Arabs are culturally lacking social consciousness cannot survive the spontaneous creation of an ad hoc social order under the most difficult circumstances in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and elsewhere in Egypt and Tunisia. Demonstrators banded together to protect one another—especially Muslims and Christians at prayer. They also joined forces to defend institutions such as the National Museum, create neighborhood-watch committees to prevent looting and banditry, provide medical care, and so forth. After the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak and a night of delirious celebrations, the Egyptian protesters even returned to the square and cleaned it up, handing it over to the country’s provisional new military authorities in almost pristine condition.
Consider, by contrast, how events in Egypt might have unfolded had the Western stereotype of the Arab street possessed any real explanatory power: The demonstrations in Cairo would have been violent and chaotic—and driven by religious fanaticism. But Islamism and religious identity played almost no role in the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings; indeed, these supposed prime movers of Arab culture and politics haven’t been particularly evident in the region’s other mass protests, with the exception of Jordan. It wasn’t Islamism that brought millions of Arabs out into the streets to demand change. Rather, these protests were the product—and, just as important, the expression—of national consciousness, uniting Christians and Muslims, the devout and the skeptical, and a range of urban social classes, from the upper middle class to the working poor.
Islamists may be hoping to gain from new political openness and elections, but their rhetoric and symbolism have been almost absent from the Arab uprisings. Orientalist stereotypes have long discounted the importance of national identity and sentiment—and social consciousness more generally—in the Arab world. But the recent secular and ecumenical agitations for political reforms have shown the true, unsuspected reach of nationalist movements in the region—and their ability to motivate millions of ordinary Arabs across the urban social spectrum to risk all for change.
Nor have the demonstrations been anti-Western, even though most of the governments being challenged are US client states. Indeed, in a subordinate irony no Orientalist text could ever account for, anti-American, anti-Western, and anti-Semitic sentiments have been almost entirely the provenance of beleaguered pro-Western governments. The Mubarak regime blamed “foreign elements” for the Egyptian unrest, implying that Iranian, Israeli, and American forces were secretly at work, and Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh has accused Israel and the United States of orchestrating the demonstrations in his country. The uprisings were not driven by, but did utilize, Western social media and ideals about democracy, and the protestors did issue many appeals for Western action and support, as well as some expressions of disappointment. Thus far, these Arab revolutionary movements have been for themselves and not against anyone, other than the autocrats in their own countries.
However, Arab protestors do share one central grievance that should be of urgent concern to Western policy makers: resistance to the Israeli occupation of Palestine that began in 1967. Some Western commentators seem determined to juxtapose the movement for self-determination within autocratic Arab states with the struggle against the occupation—and to argue, nonsensically, that because Arabs are willing to demand their own freedom, this somehow means they don’t care about the Palestinian cause. Israeli right-wingers and their American neoconservative allies have been flailing away vigorously at this straw man—but either they’re being deliberately deceptive or they’re not paying attention to what the protesters and Arab public opinion are saying about Israel and the Palestinians. There is no question that the Israeli occupation is still the prism of pain through which most Arabs view international relations—and that they are passionate about the cause of Palestinian freedom. The rash of Palestinian denialism on the right also doesn’t logically square with concomitant anxieties about the future of Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt. There is no indication of any plausible future Egyptian government abrogating the treaty—but as the frequent alarums of hard-line Likud leaders demonstrate, the Israeli right knows very well that even though the Arab peoples are proving they’re willing to fight for their own freedom with great bravery, that doesn’t mean they withhold support from the cause of Palestinian independence and the campaign to end the occupation.
Old myths die hard, when they die at all, but important correctives were on offer to American readers even before the wave of Arab protests ignited. Indeed, one such reappraisal came from an impeccably neoconservative source, Joshua Muravchik in the 2009 book The Next Founders: Voices of Democracy in the Middle East, a revealing set of profiles of next-wave and reformist Arab leaders. Not all of the subjects featured in Muravchik’s case studies are necessarily the cream of the crop, but The Next Founders raised the critical point that beyond the myths and before the uprisings, serious liberal reform was afoot in Arab political thought and life.
Probably the most significant work explaining how Arab reformers were gaining momentum (and helping to set the stage for the current uprisings) was Marwan Muasher’s 2008 The Arab Center: The Promise of Moderation. Muasher, a former foreign minister and deputy prime minister of Jordan, deftly laid out the essential conundrum facing Arab reformers, one that may bedevil the process of change into the future. He rightly observed that Arab societies require two essential principles: peace, in terms of resolving both internal disputes and regional struggles such as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; and reform, based on inclusivity, accountability, and the rights of citizens, women, and minorities. As Muasher noted, the problem is that governments and elites committed to peace are typically afraid of reform—while opposition groups in favor of reform are often opposed to peace. Whether the current uprisings can unite these two principles remains to be seen, but Muasher invaluably aided that intellectual reckoning by laying out its fundamental terms.
The uprisings should portend an Arab social and political renaissance, and the popular spirit for such a rebirth is plainly evident. But there are still plenty of hazards ahead for Arab reform, including threats of military dictatorships, fragmented or failed states, and the emergence of tyrannical majorities in unrestrained parliamentary democracies. There is nothing to be gained by rushing to replace dystopian and alarmist myths about the menacing Arab street with utopian and triumphalist celebrations of it. But surely serious observers in the West can find the time to let the image of a secular, reform-minded—and, above all, peaceful—Arab street sink in. Once the old myth of the Arab street, with all its stereotyped connotations, is retired, we can look ahead to a time when mainstream thinkers in the West no longer get rewarded for casually pathologizing, demonizing, dismissing, and denigrating Arabs and their culture. After all, meaningful reform takes time—as the new generation of Arab reformers, the ordinary citizens themselves, can well attest.