Middle East protests give lie to Western orthodoxies

For thousands of individuals across the Arab world, 2011 has already become the year in which the political and social realities of their hitherto corrupt and despotic autocratic systems changed. The world has watched with bated breath as populations in Tunisia, Egypt, and now Bahrain, Libya and also Yemen have mobilised against their (predominantly western-backed) rulers. But alongside the elation has also been a host of other, less familiar sentiments: surprise, awe, intrigue and self-reflection.

The uprisings in Egypt and across the Arab world have done more than undermine the authority of geriatric dictatorships in the Middle East; they have called into question the founding principles of western diplomacy and the prevailing counter-Enlightenment ideology of cultural relativism.


Much ink has been spilled by commentators debating the reasons for this flaring of the revolutionary spirit in the Middle East, but one view that has gained near complete consensus is that these protests are surprisingly nonpartisan: human rights and ‘dignity’ being called for above the institution of specific doctrine. This particularly apolitical aspect of the protests has lent them both power and flexibility, allowing them to draw on a wide support base that transcends traditionally rigid social hierarchies.


This has come as a shock for those western powers who have so vehemently justified their support of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East as the only pragmatic means of guarding against the bogeyman of Islamic fundamentalism in the region. Because the Arab world, so they claimed, was both wild and uncivilised; a place where bearded men in flowing white robes roamed the streets instilling the fear of God in the hearts and minds of the people, where women were reduced to nothing but shapeless black shadows, where wild-eyed believers sacrificed themselves to the greater cause of Islam, and where the western values of liberalism and democracy were both unfamiliar and unwelcome. Without the iron rods of dictators to keep them in check, the argument ran, the uncivilised wretches of these countries would find no other recourse than in Islamic fundamentalism and anti-western sentiment. ‘The effect,’ says Gary Younge in an article for the Guardian on 13 February ‘was to infantilise the Arab world in order to justify our active, or at least complicit, role in its brutalisation.’


The root cause of this pernicious way of thinking is planted firmly in the postmodern era of philosophical and political enquiry that sought to question the Enlightenment principles of liberty and rationalism. By undermining the Enlightenment vision of a common human identity, contemporary society has fostered an ‘us and them’ mentality founded upon cultural and moral differences between peoples. ‘The great divisions among mankind and dominating source of conflict will be cultural,’ affirmed the late Samuel P. Huntington in his seminal essay ‘The Clash of Civilisations?’: ‘the fault lines between civilisations will be the battlegrounds of the future.’ It is this concept, of the West versus the rest, which has encouraged the misguided modern liberal to consider individuals in terms of their cultural and religious affiliations, rather than of their humanity. We can see the results of this in Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent speech on the failure of multiculturalism.

What events in the region have proven is that a sense of humanity, above all else, is the driving force behind any political or social claim to freedom

Although his speech itself may have been confused, and the changes he proposed misguided, the underlying message is one we should all take to heart: that by building imaginary walls between individuals on the basis of culture and ethnicity in the misguided quest for tolerance we have ultimately succeeded in undermining their humanity.


However, a return to the Enlightenment vision of a common human right to liberty and freedom of expression should not be confused with the postmodern legacy of liberal interventionism as espoused by the neo-liberal policies of the Bush/Blair era. The point here is not that democracy and liberalism are natural expressions of the human character – and therefore should be promoted (and enforced) wherever possible – but that all individuals have a deep-seated desire to be in control of their own destiny. Bush and his cronies made the mistake of assuming that the people of Iraq and Afghanistan could be ‘forced to be free’, while forgetting that freedom, if it is to mean anything at all, must be both natural and autonomous and cannot therefore be imposed from outside.


Neither should we assume that the popular push for freedom and transparency in the Arab world will necessarily lead to noble or progressive governments; the word ‘Iran’ hardly needs mentioning as a historical lesson in being cautious about the positive results of popular revolutions in the Middle East. But nor is it guaranteed that the spectre of Islamism will succeed in casting its long shadow over the region – the ripples of discontent and unrest spreading out from North Africa are testament enough to the diversity and plurality of this revolutionary spirit.


What events in the region have proven is that a sense of humanity, above all else, is the driving force behind any political or social claim to freedom – a claim that transcends the supposedly rigid barriers of cultural and moral relativism that compartmentalise individuals and societies and projects the principles of liberty and autonomy as western imperialistic impositions on the rest of the world. ‘I protest because in Egypt we lack dignity and a sense of humanity,’ writes an Egyptian blogger, ‘I protest because I have no voice, I have no vote. I protest because everyone around me is unhappy and we’re capable of so much more, so much more.’


No one can be sure of what the coming weeks and months will bring for the people of Egypt and Tunisia, whose future as democratic and free countries hang in the balance; but one thing we can be sure of is that the protests have shattered the illusion of insurmountable cultural barriers that have hitherto shaped international politics and diplomacy.


For the West, events in the Middle East have called into question our construction of mental barricades against different cultures and religions that, in all truth, have little basis in reality. The walls have not yet come crashing down, but recent events have done much to chip away at their edifices – and this should give hope to us all.


is a PhD student at SOAS.