Moving Forward in the Arab World
This past spring, the voices of protesters in the Middle East and North Africa forever changed the way in which we see Arab society, spawning new hopes for progress and creating a unique opportunity for reconciliation between the Arab world and the West. But now, with President Obama threatening to veto the Palestinian bid for statehood in the United Nations, we risk increasing tensions and destroying our chances for peace. As the 2012 elections in the United States draw nearer, it’s time to rethink our policies towards the Middle East. In the wake of the Arab Spring, a new image of the Arab World and a new vision for peace has emerged — and we need to pay attention.
Osama Bin Laden had dreamed of the day that Western-allied leaders such as Hosni Mubarak, Ben Ali, and Muammar Gaddafi would fall. The United States increased funding of despotic regimes across the Middle East and North Africa under the pretense that these repressive leaders quelled Al-Qaeda’s influence. But despite the decades of Al-Qaeda’s struggle for power, it wasn’t violent extremists who lead the revolutions and led to the downfall of those dictatorial leaders — it was regular Egyptians, Libyans, Tunisians and others, who were calling for reformation, freedom and democracy.
Ultimately, it is the moderates in the Middle East and North Africa who have made their voices heard. Arabs of all walks of life have united with a similar vision for the future. Perhaps the most inspiring image from the Arab Spring was a photograph taken by Egyptian blogger Nevine Zaki of Egyptian Coptic Christians protecting their praying Muslim counterparts from the surrounding violence. The pictures depict two groups long engaged in conflict coming together to fight for a common cause. A few days later, Egyptian Muslims served as “human shields” during Christmas Mass.
But imagine what the alternative could have been—what the United States and other Western countries had always feared it would be. Perhaps we had it all wrong. Perhaps the sensationalized threat of Al-Qaeda’s influence seeping into Arab politics without leaders who used heavy-handed policies of clamp-downs and suppression to quell extremism was a figment of our imagination—exploited by corrupt Arab leaders as a means to request American financial support for counter-terrorism programs.
While right-wing pundits have repeatedly accused Muslims of harboring radicals, polls from the past decade have painted a different picture: support for violent extremism across the Muslim world has been quite low. The most extensive survey of the global Muslim community, conducted by Gallup in 2008, reveals that approximately 93 percent of Muslims are, what they defined as, “moderate.” An even smaller percentage of the “radicals” advocate violence. A more recent Gallup poll that was published in early August reveals that Muslims living in the United States are in fact the most likely religious community to condemn all forms of violence against civilians.
However, the clearest indications of the Muslim world’s vision for its future—more so than the countless surveys conducted over the past decade—are the events that have flooded the headlines since last spring. In less than a year, the perception of an Arab has gone from shoe-bomber to freedom fighter. The lack of radical rhetoric during the revolutions is actually the clearest condemnation of it. Extremism, like its symbolic leader, is no more.
The fate of Libya, Egypt and Tunisia is still unclear. Interim governments over the next few months will be tasked with the difficulty of setting up functioning political systems. However, what is obvious is that mainstream Arab consciousness is far different from what has been portrayed in American pop culture, academia and media.
With the upcoming 2012 elections in the United States, we need to begin thinking about ways to build bridges in an increasingly interdependent world. The protests for just and democratic governments in the Arab world were votes for peace. Now it is our turn. Ten years after September 11, we need to begin to rethink our policy of interventionism in the Middle East. As the Obama administration prolongs the war in Afghanistan, continues air-strikes in Pakistan, maintains unequivocal support for Israel, and conducts massive unwarranted spying operations domestically, it is time that, like our Arab counter-parts, we begin to push for substantial policy change.