As a non-expert on the Arab world, how is one to understand the different clashes taking place in North Africa and the Middle East? Perhaps the easiest answer would be to say that each scene of rebellion, discontent and uprising is very different and highly contextual. Each country has its own history; Tunisia is not Egypt, Egypt is not Syria, Syria is not Libya, Libya is not Yemen. Yet, outbreaks have taken place across the region, with striking similarities beyond the obvious. Autocratic rulers have been removed; others are being challenged with varying degrees of success and violence. There is something going on here that is profound.
Can we in the West understand? One wishes to say that a new wave of modernization if not democratization is sweeping the region. Having been exposed via technology to advancements in the West and perhaps even the idealism of Barack Obama's famous Cairo speech, the Arab world is demanding the same kinds of freedoms we enjoy. Chauvinism would lead us to say that the Arab world is now trying to follow our democratic/free market example. That would be a wishful thought since there is a great deal of anti-Western antagonism shown by many demonstrators as well as keen observations about the economic catastrophes witnessed in many Western if not European countries. Would anyone really want to follow the economic examples of Greece, Iceland and Portugal with national bankruptcies barely avoided? (Notice I politely exclude the United States debt problem here.) Would anyone really want to follow the democratic examples of Finland or France with the rise of extreme right-wing parties? (Notice I politely exclude the Swiss minaret problem here.)
I certainly does not help our understanding that a religious belief outside the Judeo/Christian tradition is playing a prominent role in much of the region. Is Islam compatible with democratization and modernity, if not a modern state system? This question has been debated and will continue to be debated within European countries, but it is now coming to the fore in the Maghreb and Middle East. Turkey is being frequently cited as the best example of a solution. Our secular societies are firmly based on the separation of Church and State, besides some obvious references in Constitutions and on dollar bills. Easter, like Christmas, has become more a holiday than a religious celebration.
We observe what is going on; we try to understand. Perhaps we even try to interfere to save lives or to help a group that is favorable to us. But, for the moment, we are watching waves of activity that are like a tsunami causing huge destruction, and hoping that when the wave recedes the reconstruction will have something better than what was there before. It may even be more satisfying to ponder the tsunami "over there" than examine the potential earthquake ready to shake our economic basis at home.
April 26, 2011