James Carrol on the Arab Revolt

In a way, we have all been takenby surprise by the abrupt confrontation taking place between the governed andgovernments of the despotic Arab world. The potential was always there since Gandhi.  We in the West have also been taught tobelieve in the will of the people even when we despaired.  Thus after half a century of Middle Eastern misery,we see the people demand their voice.

This item is excellent and capturesthe sense that we are seeing something new in the Islamic world. Secular Islamis now the majority and demands status and human rights.  They have been able to watch other peoples gaintheir own rights and a government they deserve. They are now demanding the same.

We do not know how all this willplay out over the next two decades.  Quitewell actually if the eruption of 1848 is any rational guideline and I think itis.  The old elites are been ushered outand multiparty democracies are now been ushered in.   That is will be messy is a given.  That it will now be democratic is certainsince few future rulers want to sit on a gilded throne waiting for the mob torun him out of town.

The African revolts are also ontoday’s agenda as is that of China.  The despots all can now hear the clockticking down their time in office.

The Disappearance of the Nightmare Arab 

How a Revolution of Hope Is Changing the Way Americans Look at Islam
By James Carroll

Since 2001, Americans have been living with a nightmare Arab, a Muslimmonster threatening us to the core, chilling our souls with the cry, “God isgreat!” Yet after two months of world-historic protest and rebellion in streetsand squares across the Arab world, we are finally waking up to another reality:that this was our bad dream, significantly a creation of our own feveredimaginations.

For years, vestigial colonial contempt for Arabs combined with rankprejudice against the Islamic religion, exacerbated by an obsession with oil,proved a blinding combination. Then 9/11 pulled its shroud across the sun. Butlike the night yielding to dawn, all of this now appears in a new light.Americans are seeing Arabs and Muslims as if for the first time, and we are,despite ourselves, impressed and moved. In this regard, too, the Arabrevolution has been, well, revolutionary.

The Absence of Arab Perfidy, the Presence ofGod

For those same two months, jihadists who think nothing of slaughteringinnocents in the name of Allah have been nowhere in sight, as millions ofordinary Arabs launched demonstration after demonstration with a non-violentdiscipline worthy of Mohandas Gandhi. True, rebels in Libya took up arms, butdefensively, in order to throw back the murderous assaults of Muammar Qaddafi’smen.

In the meantime, across North Africa and the Middle East, none of the usual American saws aboutIslamic perfidy have been evident. The demonizing of Israel, anti-Semitic sloganeering,the burning of American flags, outcries against “Crusaders and Jews” -- allhave been absent from nearly every instance of revolt. Osama Bin Laden -- towhom, many Americans became convinced in these last years, Muslims are supposedto have all but sworn allegiance -- has been appealed to not at all. Where arethe fatwas?

Perhaps the two biggest surprises of all here: out of a culture thathas notoriously disempowered women has sprung a protest movement rife withfemale leadership, while a religion regarded as inherently incompatible withdemocratic ideals has been the context from which comes an unprecedentedoutbreak of democratic hope.  And make no mistake: the Muslim religionis essential to what has been happening across the Middle East, even without Islamic “fanatics” chanting hate-filledslogans.

Without such fanatics, who in the West knows what this religionactually looks like?

In fact, its clearest image has been there on our television screensagain and again. In this period of transformation, every week has beenpunctuated with the poignant formality of Friday prayers, including broadcastscenes of masses of Muslims prostrate in orderly rows across vast squares inevery contested Arab capital. Young and old, illiterate and tech savvy, thosein flowing robes and those in tight blue jeans have been alike in suchobservances. From mosque pulpits have come fiery denunciations of despotism andcorruption, but no blood-thirst and none of the malicious Imams who so hauntthe nightmares of Europeans and Americans.

Yet sacrosanct Fridays have consistently seen decisive social action,with resistant regimes typically getting the picture on subsequentweekends.  (The Tunisian prime minister, a holdover from the toppledregime of autocrat Zine Ben Ali, for example, resigned on the last Sunday inFebruary.) These outcomes have been sparked not only by preaching, but by themosque-inspired cohesion of a collectivity that finds no contradiction betweenpiety and political purpose; religion, that is, has been a source of resolve.

It’s an irony, then, that Western journalists, always so quick to tiebad Muslim behavior to religion, have rushed to term this good Muslim behavior“secular.” In a word wielded by the New York Times, Islam is nowconsidered little but an “afterthought” to the revolution. In this, the mediais simply wrong.  The protests, demonstrations, and uprisings that haveswept across the Middle East have visibly built their foundations on theirreducible sense of self-worth that, for believers, comes from a feltcloseness to God, who is as near to each person -- as the Qu’ran says -- as hisor her own jugular vein. The call to prayer is a five-times-daily reminder ofthat infinite individual dignity.

A Rejection Not Only of Violence, But of the Old Lies

The new Arab condition is not Nirvana, nor has some political utopiabeen achieved. In no Arab state is the endgame in sight, much less played out.History warns that revolutions have a tendency to devour their children, justas it warns that every religion can sponsor violence and war as easily and naturallyas nonviolence and peace.

History warns as well that, in times of social upheaval, Jews are thepreferred and perennial scapegoat, and the State of Israel is a ready target for thathatred. Arab bigotry has not magically gone away, nor has the human temptationto drown fear with blood. But few, if any, revolutions have been launched withsuch wily commitment to the force of popular will, not arms. When it comes to“people power,” Arabs have given the concept several new twists.

Because so many people have believed in themselves -- protecting oneanother simply by standing together -- they have been able to reject notonly violence, but any further belief in the lies of their despotic rulers. Thestark absence of Israel as a major flashpoint of protest in these last weeks,to take a telling example, stands in marked contrast to the way in which thechallenged or overthrown despots of various Middle Eastern lands habituallyexploited both anti-semitism (sponsoring, for instance, the dissemination throughArab newsstands of the long-discredited Protocols of the Elders of Zion) andthe plight of Palestinians (feigning sympathy for the dispossessed victims ofIsraeli occupation while doing nothing to help them, precisely because Arabdictators needed suffering Palestinians to distract from the suffering of theirown citizens).

Not surprisingly, if always sadly, the Arab revolution has broughtincidents of Jew-baiting in its wake -- in late February in Tunis, for example,by a mob outside the city’s main synagogue. That display was, however, quicklydenounced and repudiated by the leadership of the Free Tunisiamovement.  When a group of Cairothugs assaulted CBS correspondent Lara Logan, they reportedly hurled the word“Jew” at her as an epithet. So yes, such incidents happened, but what makesthem remarkable is their rarity on such a sprawling landscape.

To be sure, Arabs broadly identify with the humiliated Palestinians,readily identify Israel as an enemy, and resent the American alliance withIsrael, but something different is unfolding now. When the United Statesvetoed the U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements inthe very thick of February’s revolutionary protests, to flag one signal, theissue was largely ignored by Arab protesters.  In Palestinian areas of theWest Bank and Gaza,the spirit of Arab revolt showed itself mainly in a youth-driven and resolutelynon-violent movement to overcome the intra-Palestinian divisions between Fatahand Hamas. Again and again, that is, the Arab Muslim population has refused tobehave as Americans have been conditioned to expect.

The Mainstreaming of Anti-Muslim Prejudice

Conditioned by whom? Prejudice against Arabs generally and Islam inparticular is an old, old story. A few months ago, the widespread nature of theknee-jerk suspicion that all Muslims are potentially violent was confirmed byNational Public Radio commentator Juan Williams, who said, “I get worried. Iget nervous” around those “in Muslim garb,” those who identify themselves “firstand foremost as Muslims.”

Williams was fired by NPR, but the commentariat rallied to him forsimply speaking a universal truth, one which, as Williams himself acknowledged,was to be regretted: Muslims are scary. When NPR then effectively reversed itselfby forcing the resignation of the executive who had fired him, anti-Muslimbigotry was resoundingly vindicated in America, no matter the intentionsof the various players.

Scary, indeed -- but no surprise. Such prejudice had been woven intoevery fiber of American foreign and military policy across the previous decade,a period when the overheated watchword was “Islamofascism.”  In 2002,scholar Bernard Lewis’s book What Went Wrong? draped a cloak ofintellectual respectability around anti-Muslim contempt. It seemed not to haveoccurred to Lewis that, if such an insulting question in a book title deservesan answer at all, in the Arab context it should be: “we” did -- with that “we”defined as Western civilization.

Whether the historical marker is 1099 for Crusader mayhem; 1417 for thePortuguese capture of Ceuta, the first permanent European outpost in NorthAfrica; 1492 for the expulsion from Spain of Muslims (along with Jews); 1798for Napoleon’s arrival as a would-be conqueror in Cairo; 1869 for the openingof the Suez Canal by the French Empress Eugenie; 1917 for the British conquestof Palestine, which would start a British-spawned contest between Jews andArabs; or the 1930s, when vast oil reserves were discovered in the Arabianpeninsula --- all such Western antecedents for trouble in Arab lands areroutinely ignored or downplayed in our world in favor of a preoccupation with areligion deemed to be irrational, anti-modern, and inherently hostile todemocracy.

How deep-seated is such a prejudice? European Christians made expertpronouncements about the built-in violence of Islam almost from the start,although the seventh century Qur’an was not translated into Latin until thetwelfth century. When a relatively objective European account of Islam’s originsand meaning finally appeared in the eighteenth century, it was quickly added tothe Roman Catholic Index of forbidden books. Western culture is still at themercy of such self-elevating ignorance.  That’s readily apparent in thefact that a fourteenth century slander against Islam -- that it was only“spread by the sword” -- was reiterated in 2006 (on the fifth anniversary of9/11) by Pope Benedict XVI. He did apologize, but by then the Muslim-haters hadbeen encouraged.

Western contempt for Islam is related to a post-Enlightenment distrustof all religion. In modern historiography, for instance, the brutal violencethat killed millions during paroxysms of conflict across Europe in thesixteenth and seventeenth centuries is remembered as the “religious wars,” eventhough religion was only part of a history that included the birth of nationsand nationalism, as well as of industrial capitalism, and the opening of the“age of exploration,” also known as the age of colonial exploitation.

“Secular” sources of violence have always been played down in favor ofsacred causes, whether the Reformation, Puritan fanaticism, or Catholicanti-modernism. “Enlightened” nation-states were all-too-ready to smuglydenounce primitive and irrational religious violence as a way of asserting thattheir own expressly non-religious campaigns against rival states and aboriginalpeoples were necessary and therefore just. In this tale, secular violence is asrational as religious violence is irrational. That schema holds to this day andis operative in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the United States and its NATOallies pursue dogmatically ideological and oil-driven wars that are nonethelessvirtuous simply by not being “religious.”

No fatwas for us.  Never mind that these wars were declared to be“against evil,” with God “not neutral,” as George W. Bush blithely put it. Andnever mind that U.S.forces (both the military and the private contractors) are strongly influencedby a certain kind of fervent Christian evangelicalism that defines the Americanenemy as the “infidel” -- the Muslim monster unleashed. In any case, ask thefamilies of the countless dead of America’s wars if ancient rites ofhuman sacrifice are not being re-enacted in them? The drone airplane and itsHellfire missile are weapons out of the Book of the Apocalypse.

The Revolution of Hope

The new Arab revolution, with its Muslim underpinnings, is an occasionof great hope.  At the very least, “we” in the West must reckon with thisoverturning of the premises of our prejudice.

Yes, dangers remain, as Arab regimes resist and revolutionaries prepareto erect new political structures. Fanatics wait in the wings for the democratsto falter, while violence, even undertaken in self-defense, can open ontovistas of vengeance and cyclic retribution. Old hatreds can reignite, and thenever-vanquished forces of white supremacist colonial dominance can reemerge.But that one of the world’s great religions is essential to what is unfoldingacross North Africa and the Middle East offers the promise that this momentouschange can lead, despite the dangers, to humane new structures of justice andmercy, which remain pillars of the Islamic faith. For us, in our world, thismeans we, too, will have been purged of something malicious -- an ancienthatred of Muslims and Arabs that now lies exposed for what it always was.

James Carroll, bestselling author of Constantine’s Sword, is acolumnist for the Boston Globe and aDistinguished Scholar-in-Residence at SuffolkUniversity in Boston.  His newest book, Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our ModernWorld (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), has just been published. To listento Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Carroll discussesjust how the Arab revolutions, the last acts of the post-colonial drama,punctured American myths, click here, or download it to your iPod here.

Copyright 2011 James Carroll

Tomgram: James Carroll, Where Did All the Fatwas Go?

Posted by James Carroll at10:05am, March 8, 2011.

[Note to TomDispatch Readers: I have a special offer to maketoday. Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our ModernWorld, a new book by BostonGlobe columnist and bestselling author of Constantine’s Sword James Carroll, willofficially be published tomorrow. Let me extend the TomDispatch guarantee: it’sremarkable and, this early in 2011, already my frontrunner for year’s bestbook. For a $100 donation, which will give TomDispatch a real boost of support,you can get a personalized, signed copy of Carroll’s book.  He will be in New York City to signbooks on the 21st of this month, after which this offer expires.  (Allcontributions to TomDispatch.com are tax-deductible to the extent provided by law.) For more information, or simply to make your donation and get your copy, clickhere.]

A week or so ago, a friend of mine noticed a poster taped to a wallinside the rotunda of the Wisconsin State Capitol building, where Americandemonstrators were campedout.  It showed a lone demonstrator walking toward a line ofhelmeted Egyptian police, holding high a protest sign.  Under the photo, acaption said simply: “Walk like an Egyptian.” 

If you want to know something new about our American world, just thinkabout that.  No further explanation was needed.  Across this countryAmericans undoubtedly understood just what that meant and what it represented:an unbelievably brave explosion of desire for freedom in the Arab world. If that caption had said, “Walk like a Tunisian (or Bahraini, Algerian,Iranian, Iraqi, Omani, Libyan, etc.),” few would have found that strangeeither.  It’s already as normal here as mom and apple pie.  And yet,had you predicted that this was coming as 2010 ended, you would have beenlaughed out of the American living room by experts, among others, who assuredyou that Arabs were incapable of such acts, that their religion prevented it,and that “walk like an Egyptian” was nothing more than a 1986hit by the Bangles about the bizarre way Egyptians of old moved.

Sometimes the tectonic plates of our cultural world shift radically andwe hardly know it’s happened.  This seems to be such a moment and todayone of my favorite columnists, James Carroll of the Boston Globe, considers just thatshift.  In the disastrous early years of the George W. Bush era, Carrollput the rest of the mainstream media and the punditocracy to shame.  As aweekly columnist, he was perhaps the first media figure to notice -- and warnagainst -- a presidential "slip of the tongue" just after theassaults of 9/11, when President Bush referred tohis new Global War on Terror as a "crusade." He was possibly thefirst mainstream columnist to warn against the consequences of launching a waron Afghanistanin response to those attacks.  In September 2003, he was possibly thefirst to pronounce the IraqWar "lost" in print. 

He’s still ahead of the game.  As he so strikingly summed up events in the Middle East in his column lastweek, “The revolutions in the Arab streets, whatever their individual outcomes,have already overturned the dominant assumption of global geopolitics -- thathundreds of millions of impoverished people will uncomplainingly accept theirassignment to the antechamber of hell.” Tomorrow, his newest book, Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our ModernWorld, is officially published.  It is a stunning reconsideration ofmuch of Western (even American) as well as Middle Eastern history.  Itoffers a new way of looking at the origins and development of Judaism,Christianity, and Islam, of the Christopher Columbus story, of the history ofprinting, and of so much else, including the moment in 1973 when the MiddleEast nearly went nuclear.  There is no way to sum it up, except toindicate that the bestselling author of Constantine’s Sword has done itagain.  Here’s my advice: buy this book. It will change the way you seeour world.  (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview inwhich Carroll discusses just how the Arab revolutions, the last acts of the post-colonialdrama, punctured American myths, click here, or download it to your iPod here.) Tom

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