Why dissension needs to be protected for the Arab Spring to blossom

The crucial role of intellectuals – especially at a time as tumultuous as some Arab societies are currently undergoing – is to provide models for critical thinking and reflection on the conditions, challenges and aspirations of their own societies.

Imad Mansour
14 September 2012

The crucial role of intellectuals – especially at a time as tumultuous as some Arab societies are currently witnessing – is to provide models for critical thinking and reflection on the conditions, challenges and aspirations of their own societies, societies in which they have something directly at stake and on which they can, therefore, potentially have a real impact. In this context, reflections from within the region on the current events should be concerned neither with producing further historical/political analyses of the US role in distorting Middle Eastern politics, nor with the US’s purported responsibility in creating parameters to freedom of expression. Rather, reflections would be served by focusing on what Arab societies, and especially their intellectual and political elites, perceive of as acceptable boundaries to collective behaviour, as well as what constitute legitimate means of expressing dissent and disagreement toward ideas and ultimately, toward others.

Stating that “anger and violence are instruments of the weak or those without options” might have been sufficiently convincing in a pre-Arab spring context to account for the current unrest. And it might well have been that the reactions to the Danish cartoons seven years ago (to take the argument to the extreme) were used by sitting regimes to diffuse or divert popular frustration. However, the entire spectrum of events and processes which compose this Arab spring is exactly about empowerment, about finding alternatives, about developing more open, inclusive and fair systems of living: to make up, in short, for decades of suppression, oppression and state-sanctioned violence at all levels of society. Some might argue that general instability and such unrest (after September 11, 2012) is unsurprising in a transition period when the street is still volatile. Yet, the unrest and resort to such violence to express offence taken remains deeply troubling, and it is incumbent upon us to ask what this might augur for the future.

First, a comment is in order on how the mass public (around 1.5 billion Muslims) has so far remained tranquil, with only a minority having highjacked the street; in Egypt, a country of more than 80 million, only a few thousand at best have been demonstrating in front of the US Embassy in Cairo. While only a minority,however, its actions are not to be dismissed since such types of unrest are not new; they are part of a pattern of violent reaction to (and reaction is the operative word here) an offence, whether intentional or not, real or perceived. Perhaps examples could be the Danish cartoons issue, or reactions to the preacher in Florida burning Korans. I shall not delve into the episodes concerning US troops in Afghanistan because these are different, as a soldier does “represent” his/her state which means that their actions carry different responsibilities and so should be held accountable, and with that the entire control structure that should be overseeing state actions (domestically and overseas).

In addition to this pattern of violent reaction to ideas that are seen as distasteful or insulting, what is far more significant is that this minority has received very little, if any, criticism from fellow citizens who feel offended by their manner of expressing outrage: taking to the street, destroying property and killing others for what is a felt offence. What is worse, is that in popular discourses the actions of this minority receive convoluted and masked justification; and hence its actions very often end up being condoned as legitimate, though perhaps regrettable, expressions of popular sentiments in reaction to a grave offence (again, reaction is a key word). Less attention as well as political support and political legitimacy by elites has been (so far) given to the counter-protests in Benghazi for example; these emphasize the need to assert condemnation of the “the clip” but, to do so in peace and in reflection on what they consider is the true essence of Islam. Many such protests have expressed sympathies with the families of the slain Americans; some even started up a “sorry project.”

What is greatly under-represented in the Arab media is precisely that the entire Arab spring movement was and continues to be against repression and especially against the control of thought and ideas seen as “dangerous” by ruling regimes (freedom, justice, dignity, government responsibility, etc). Regardless of the intention and nature of the act which is said to have provoked this reaction, intellectuals, politicians and religious leaders have failed in their duty of clearly and systematically putting things in perspective by, for instance, commenting critically on: the American philosophy of freedom of expression (however flawed, manipulated, etc.) and different approaches to disagreement; the acceptable limits, no matter what the provocation, to expressions of outrage in a society, even against deeply held norms; the reality of discrimination against religious and other minorities in the region that the Arab spring sought to overcome but that stubbornly persists; and the fact that the “Arab street” seems to be mobilized more forcefully by a cartoon or film clip than it is by rampant poverty, thousands of deaths in Syria or Darfur, or elsewhere of concern to this street.

More than anything, these demonstrations reveal the profound, and profoundly problematic, effects of decades of exclusionary governance, repression of thought, propaganda and violence on many Arab societies. One prominent example of these effects has been reactions relaying a popular anger against the American Administration’s lack of initiative in stopping the broadcast of such a clip, and calling on it to legally prosecute the makers. An outraged Egyptian protestor noted, with disappointment, and I paraphrase: how could Obama let this happen? The underlying assumption is that Obama actually has the legitimate power and the logistical apparatus to do such a thing, and this assumption portrays a worldview in which individual lives are controlled by multiple, unaccountable security and intelligence organizations; a worldview which was, and continues to be, a reality for many Arabs. The US is consequently assumed to operate in a similar manner, with an office for thought control in the White House (for example) which spends a significant budget on reviewing daily what Americans do and what gets published and by whom, and then proceeds to issue arrest warrants or containment policies against select individuals and their ideas. In other words, there is the assumption that the world is run exactly how Egypt or Libya or Tunisia were.

And here I am not saying that there isn’t thought control in the US or the west, through, for instance, self-censorship or “punishment”; we did see the way that some academics who were antiwar (especially the 2003 Iraq invasion) were hounded or even being excluded, i.e. not given time on TV, etc. The difference is that the “Western” or “American” method of control, though definitely dishing out lots of propaganda and limiting some ideas, nevertheless still leaves space for expression of alternate opinions; which is why there are lots of counter-opinions in the US, just maybe not mainstreamed.

However, it is not the assumption about the world held by many in Arab societies – based as it is on a lifetime of oppression and vicious crackdowns on dissenting ideas of any type – that is disturbing; in many ways, such assumptions are to be expected. What is worrisome and what should be loudly commented on, is that many voices in the Arab and Islamic media today openly express the desire that a certain amount of such thought control and censorship of ideas considered “unacceptable” should be not only maintained in Arab societies, but should be imposed on other societies as well.  

There are troubling precedents being set. (And before noting some, I mention that there is hope that leadership learns from its mistakes and that with time the turn towards tolerance and non-violence picks up speed.) One example is the Muslim Brotherhood’s letter to the NYT. The statement, regardless of the intent of its writers, shows that political elites actually accentuate these very troubling attitudes by saying that, for instance, freedom is about expressing anger, which is a very negative view of freedom; rather than freedom being about creating spaces for people to express what they feel without the fear of reprisals. There is a reason why in Arab societies people do not speak out. This is either because the state carries out reprisals directly, or because it actually encourages an atmosphere of intolerance, or in many other cases the state does not prevent other individuals from carrying out personal vendettas and/or reprisals. In all cases, freedom’s potential is neutralized. More than anything, the tragedy of such events, and given the official discourse and reactions, is that people with dissenting views are going to be even less likely to say anything because they can see what will be provoked. What happened on many Arab streets was one strong deterrent to expressing dissent.

In the end, one of the most urgent problems today is the absence of a credible leadership who is popular enough to have a mass following, yet who is enlightened enough to impose social parameters that generate security while remaining enabling for its various citizens. A leadership, in other words, that is interested in recognizing the weaknesses and faults of its own society and works on addressing these (such as the street behaviour), rather than acquiescing to, and at best being apologetic for, the ways in which citizens react to provocations or actions (or whatever they might be called) done by an “Other”. While Arab societies are today reaping the legacy of past regimes that rested on their laurels partly by eliminating viable prospective future leaders, the hope remains that credible and legitimate leadership will emerge from the spaces opened up by the Arab spring. For the time being, however, none of the available Arab political elites seems to have enough depth of thought, clarity of strategy, foresight, popularity, legitimacy and  – quite simply – courage –  to risk the censure of its own society by calling upon its intellectuals, religious figures, unionists, feminist organizations, community leaders, and ordinary citizens to discuss taboo topics (religion, the treatment of minorities, Israel, etc.), to ask anxiety-provoking questions (Why are we so illiterate? What is the place of the military?); and, of course, to provide and protect the spaces – lectures halls, theatres, conference rooms, public plazas, television programmes – where these different constituencies might embark on a real and sustained dialogue about how the present is and should be different from the past, and what they want the future to be. Everyone is catering to the least common denominator in popular opinion. And while this is certainly not an Arab problem, but one plaguing even most established democracies (i.e. the very short-term concern for holding office and being re-elected), it is a special challenge for societies that are passing through massive ideational transformations, more profound even than those to statehood in the twnetieth century.

Going back to the word “reaction” for a moment. In popular discourse, this ludicrous clip is frequently framed as a purposive act, falling in line with widely-accepted conspiracy thinking. This may well be the case, i.e. it may indeed be a cleverly-crafted conspiracy to insult and offend and provoke. But in the region, what is more important than dwelling on the various theoretical scenarios leading to the production and dissemination of a clip that is imminently undeserving of so much attention, is asking and discussing the far more relevant and local question of where the “agency” of the “reacting street” is. How can we accept statements that claim that the filmmakers obviously “knew” what would happen? Does this not cast Arab societies as totally predictable, stagnant and lacking in creativity, self-determination and restraint – all stereotypes that the Arab spring was supposed to have successfully and dramatically challenged? What does it say about Arab societies if, even after a revolutionary moment, others are able to “know” it through and through, playing on its anxieties like some puppet-master?  If indeed it is the aim of the “other”, the “stranger”, the “outsider” to create internal fitna (sedition) – and in an open society this deeply-held belief would be questioned, challenged and discussed – where are the loud voices in Arab societies which expose this as a cheap miscalulation?

In the end, given the continued power of old elites and military apparatuses, and the concomitant fragility of the change we have witnessed over the past year and a half, we need to think carefully about how condoning such street violence now might lay the groundwork for a renewed use of state violence against society in the future. Where, in other words, should the limits to the use of violence lie? Is it an acceptable means in resolving domestic political differences? Is violence an acceptable means of expressing ideas or dissent, or even in showing disagreement? Arab societies, like many others, have complex intersecting cleavages: around gender, race, age, ideological orientation, economic class, ethnicity, and especially around religion. The use of violence as a means of showing disagreement or in reaction to an insult is a dangerous default setting to accept, if only because it easily leads to the legitimation of other forms of violence within societies.


The author thanks Giulia El-Dardiry

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