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Colonial Attitudes towards the Arab World

February 11, 2011

Minutes ago, Hosni Mubarak stepped down. The future is uncertain.

Here’s a timely email I received earlier from a French acquaintance who writes under the nom de plume of  “Fils de Danton”, or “Son of Danton” in English. Students of the French Revolution will recall that the original Danton was a firebrand orator who eventually met his end at the hands of Robespierre. I previously published Fils de Danton’s tirade against President Sarkozy of France. This time he aims his sights at people in the West who view the Arab world through a colonial prism. I leave the link in for the benefit of readers who speak French.

“Hi Steve,

I wish you could read in English the article contained in this link:

 http://www.rue89.com/passage-benbassa/2011/02/11/revoltes-dans-le-monde-arabe-notre-arrogance-colonialiste-189970

Basically, it describes how deep the misunderstanding in the West is about what’s going on in the Arab world right now. How so many people see all this through the prism of the Islamic and Arab-Israeli conflict, both in the press and in people’s minds. And how arrogant it is to want to “protect the dignity” of Arab women over here by prohibiting the niqab, while they are demonstrating, without niqab, side by side with men. The article talks at length about how these people are using technology for freedom, while we are using it for fun, and how they stand up to tyrants while we moan about the “crisis” and worry about losing jobs. Bourgeois concerns, in the face of guts and courage in the face of true oppression and deprivation….

Western people have become fat, petty, and fearful. Wake up!, the article concludes, and stop being so condescending when witnessing guts you no longer have.

I fully agree with the article. Many Arabs speak French. I’d love at least one of them to know that not everybody in the West takes them for what they are not, and respects what they are trying to do, under great pressure and intimidation, while ensuring that one tyrant is not replaced by another – which many European revolutions failed to do in the past. Let also at least one person in the West right now reflect for one second on what it actually means to face a tank and hear bullets whizzing past.

You said in one of your blog pieces, let’s hope the hatred doesn’t last for too long. I’m not sure I agree. It is not hatred, it is anger and strength, and it is necessary sometimes. You know my stance – and I am as guilty as others for doing nothing. Violence and anger, if for a good cause, are sometimes necessary. They have the leadership, and we don’t, because we let corrupt politicians and greedy global groups take away riches. That should be a lesson, but people in the West, who are trying to protect their jobs and hard-earned property, may not listen to it. And yet they should…at least, tone down this stinking, bourgeois, colonial-style thinking… I have respect for these people, and I hate this Western arrogance, ignorance, and weakness, including mine.

For years, intellectuals in the West, and especially in America and France, were telling us two things:

  1. Economic growth automatically and eventually brings about democracy anywhere in the world. Not so, if wealth is being hijacked by a family gang. What brings about democracy is human will and resistance to injustice. 
  2. Democracy will never work in the Middle East because of culture, and of course, the only alternative is “Islamism” – as if the Iranian model was all-pervading. Behind this idea are two very arrogant and false ideas: that these people are somehow inferior, and are bound to be the slaves of their cultural heritage (but of course this is not the case in the West!) and that they are so limited in imagination that they can only turn to extremist islamism. As if they were incapable – feckless and divided as they are supposed to be –  of simply protesting against and fighting for poverty and injustice.

Could it be possible that these people will achieve what the French, those hypocritical lecturers on democratic rights, could not achieve in 1793, or the Hungarians in the Fifties and the Czechs in the Sixties? If they do, the Arab world will have given the West – and Israel – a lesson in history. 

 That would be my most sincere hope and a step forward as regards human freedom and dignity.”

While I don’t agree that everyone in the West lacks courage, I do believe that we take our liberties for granted. And we’re content to stand by and let our governments pick and choose whose freedoms they defend – and chose not to defend – depending on what they see as the national interest. So successive Western governments have been happy to count Hosni Mubarak as their friend for strategic reasons, yet are prepared to rid Iraq of Saddam Hussein, another serial abuser of human rights, for other strategic reasons.

To repeat the popular cliché,  modern versions of the Great Game do not play well in the “Arab street”. But to focus only on the attempts of the US and the former colonial powers to influence events in Egypt and Tunisia is to ignore the complete picture, which is that neighbouring countries are trying to do the same. Also that broadcasters such as Al Jazeera, whose ownership is clear but whose agenda is not, are important influencers. What the demonstrator in Tahrir Square would say – and many have said it – is that “this is our revolution, our agenda, and we don’t need foreign interference. If you believe that we are influenced by outside forces, media or otherwise, you are very much mistaken.”

Fils de Danton’s point, as I interpret it, is that we should respect the courage of people who are standing up for what they believe is right, and set aside our fear that that the outcomes will be against our interests. And that we  – meaning the rest of the world – should let the newly-empowered people of Egypt and Tunisia determine their futures in their own way, and deal with the new political realities when they become apparent.

It’s hard to disagree, but also hard for risk-averse politicians to accept.

2 Comments
  1. Interesting to see that in my dictionary the first definition for ‘Revolution’ is 1. The overthrow or repudiation of a regime or political system by the governed and 2. (in Marxist Theory) the violent and historically necessary transition from one system of production in a society to the next, as from feudalism to capitalism. Then 3. a far-reaching and drastic change, esp in ideas, methods, etc but in truth, before any of these ideas came into being revolution simply meant 4. A movement in or as if in a circle or b. one complete turn in such a circle. To my mind these elementary entries should be listed first, it just show even our dictionaries are biased towards stiring things up.

    In the cycle of things revolutions create momentum, hopefully forwards eventually, even if there’s a slight retrograde check at first.

    • True, and too many revolutions have ultimately disappointed those who had the courage to bring them about.

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