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THE ARAB SPRING

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THE ARAB SPRING

Post  Panda on Mon 15 Oct - 13:42

Tim Marshall

Foreign Affairs Editor

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What do you do when confronted with a prejudice so strong it takes your breath away?

In my case, I did what was immediately necessary. I took a deep breath to replenish lost oxygen, and moved on.

It wasn’t the time or place to take on this particularly ugly example of intolerance, but it is an intolerance which needs to be taken on.

I was giving a lecture at a charity which trains journalists from around the world. Some are already making their way in the industry and are expected to do well.

I was talking about my theory that the term Arab Spring actually clouds our understanding of what has been happening in the region over the past 18 months.

From the Egyptian coup d'etat onwards I've argued that calling these events the Arab Spring automatically frames them as positive.

The word spring invokes the feeling of growth, something benign, a time of renewal leading to a full flourishing of even better times.

When educated Europeans or North Americans hear the term Arab Spring we hear an echo of the Prague Spring, a heroic, positive thing.

Then, when sections of the media began to talk about a domino effect, the template for understanding the events was that of 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall, an utterly inappropriate template for a different region, with a different language, history, and culture.

Too many reporters rushed to interview young liberals, standing in city squares with placards written in English and mistook them for the voice of the people and the direction of history.

Some had done the same during the Green Revolution, describing the young students of North Tehran as the youth of Iran, thus ignoring that far more young Iranians were joining the reactionary Basij militia and the Revolutionary Guard.

The Arab uprisings, as I prefer to call them, may well end up leading to the flourishing of liberal democracy in the region, but it is far too early to tell, and it was far too early last year to frame the events in that light.

In 1989 in Eastern Europe there was one monolithic totalitarianism - communism, and in the majority of people’s minds one direction in which to go - away from Communism and towards democracy.
Militias in Libya have targeted people deemed Gaddafi loyalists
There was the example just across the Iron Curtain, and there was the shared historical memory of brief periods of democracy and in many places there was a civil society.

In the Arab world in 2011 there were none of those things but there were many choices of direction.

There was, and is, the direction of democracy, liberal democracy (which differs from the latter) nationalism, the cult of the strong leader, and there was the direction many people had been facing all along - Islam in its various guises, including Islamism.

In some cases people don't have much of a choice. Mao Tse Tung's maxim 'All political power comes from the barrel of a gun' is a flawed concept in a liberal democracy even if democracies insist on having a monopoly on violence, but it is a truism in the Arab countries.

Some good citizens of Misrata in Libya may want to develop a liberal democratic party, some might even want to campaign for gay rights, but, if the local militia are the de facto power, and if the de factor power shoots liberal democrats and gays, your choices are limited.

A case in point is Iraq, a democracy in name only, far from liberal, and a place where people are routinely murdered for being homosexual.

The second phase of the Arab uprising has begun. The internal struggle within societies whose religious beliefs, social mores, tribal links, and guns, are currently far more powerful forces than any 'Western' ideas of equality for all, freedom of expression, and power coming from the ballot box.

The Arab countries are riven by prejudices, indeed hatreds of which the average westerner knows so little, that they tend not to believe them even if they are laid out in print before their eyes.

We are aware of our own prejudices, which are legion, but often seem to turn a blind eye to those in the Middle East.

Routine expression of hatred for the other is so common in the Arab world that they barely draw comment outside the minority, often western educated liberal minority.

Cartoons which echo the Nazi Der Sturmer newspaper are common. Week in and week out, shock jock Imams are given space on prime time TV shows, which they sometimes host. They use their time to spew vitriolic hatred and calls for violence which would make Ofcom's eyes water.

Western apologists for this sort of behaviour are sometimes hamstrung by a fear of being described as one of Edward Said's Orientalists. They betray their own liberal values having forgotten that when they were students they believed them to be universal.

Others, in their naivety say these incitements to murder are not widespread, and have to be seen in the context of the Arab language which can be given to flights of rhetoric.

This signals their lack of understanding of the Arab Street, the role of the mainstream Arab media, and a refusal to understand that when such people, so full of hatred, say something, they mean it.

Al Qaeda leader al Zawahiri's letter to the Iraqi AQ leader is a case in point. He asked the Iraqi to stop killing Shia in such large numbers, and concentrate on killing American soldiers because the Shia could be dealt with later.
Libyan's army swept a militia group from a major base in Benghazi
The Arab uprising is now well into its second phase. The oppressive lid of dictatorial rule has been lifted in many areas. This has given the political and sometimes geographical space for ideas, and guns, to flow.

None of this happens in a vacuum. Outside forces are playing in the arena. For example Qatari weapons flowed to specific Islamist groups during the war against Gaddafi, and now Qatari dollars flow to the same people who are usually allied to the Muslim Brotherhood, or even more radical organisations.

Libya may have an election in which the Muslim Brotherhood comes only second, but it has an electoral aftermath in which the Muslim Brotherhood is the strongest, best organised and best armed network in a land now run as fiefdoms.

As we have seen since the removal of Gaddafi, the gangs running these fiefdoms have exacted their 'revenge' in a orgy of brutality against black Libyans, black Africans, and people deemed Gaddafi loyalists, and are killing each other in their bid for power.

In impoverished societies, with a lack of accountable institutions, power will flow to the gangs disguised sometimes as 'militia' sometimes as political parties. While they fight each other, many people die.

It was in this context during the lecture when I used the phrase, 'Muslims killing Muslims'. It was the response to this statement which took away my breath. I accept that the phrase might be construed as provocative, and that few people would say 'Christians killing Christians', but in context it was a statement of fact.

Among the audience of about 30 people from all over the world, was a young South Asian women. She stood up and said: "I cannot let you say that. Muslims kill Muslims."

I replied that we were all journalists and hopefully could discuss things in a rational manner and gave a few examples including how in Pakistan the Taliban were killing people, and how hundreds of Pakistani Shia Muslims were killed in sectarian murders every year.

At this she turned red and almost shouted "How dare you talk about my religion. I do not talk about yours!" I replied that I would be happy to talk about Christian fundamentalism, the bombing of abortion clinics, or even the Crusades if she wished, but suggested for everyone’s sake we should move on. Before I could finish, a man behind her from an Arab country interjected.

He said: "I also cannot allow you to say this. Muslims do not kill Muslims." I am familiar with the concept that no true Muslim could kill another, but find all too often this is merely used to wriggle out of a debate about the scale of killings, but the explanation this time was one with which I am also familiar but rarely hear in a public forum.

In an attempt to meet him halfway I suggested there was a debate to be had about whose fault it was to lift the lid off the sectarian tensions in Iraq, but in both Saddam's time, and in the past 11 years, Muslims killed Muslims by the hundreds of thousands.

"This is not true" he replied, "the media is wrong, it is foreigners killing people in Iraq."

Again, I was about to move on when I thought of what I felt might be a strong point: "But in the Iran-Iraq war, one million people died."

He replied: "Yes, but the Iranians are not Muslims." The penny dropped along with my heart.

The majority of Iranians are Shia, so I asked him: "Are you saying that the Shia are not Muslims?"

"Yes", he replied. "The Shia are not Muslims."

His fellow classmates were looking at him, in astonishment, some open mouthed. There are at least 200 million Shia Muslims in the world, it is possible some were in the room.

With only a few minutes of the lecture left, and some of the audience clearly uncomfortable, I felt it was best to move on.

I came away saddened by the experience. I’ve heard these views before, many times, but to say it so casually in an open forum made me wonder again, how widespread is this degree of prejudice? That is unknown.

I suspect a majority of the man's fellow Muslims would disagree with him. However, think back to the theory on the Arab Spring.

In the maelstrom of the current events, those with the guns ensure their ideas are shouted loudest, and there are many people who believe what this man does who are very motivated, and very well armed.

Panda
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