Opportunities and Risks in the Epoch-Making Year 2011
What the Revolutions Mean for the Relationship Between the West and the Islamic World
The epochal events of 2011, which no one could have foreseen at the start of the year, took on immense proportions over the summer. Three of the longest-ruling Arab despots - Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt, and Gaddafi in Libya - have been driven out of office by their own people. The final departure of Yemen's President Saleh is only a matter of time, and in Syria too President Assad's Baath regime will disappear sooner or later. How will these changes affect the relationship between the Islamic world and the West?
The revolutionary state of play
The epochal events of 2011, which no one could have foreseen at the start of the year, took on immense proportions over the summer. Three of the longest-ruling Arab despots - Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt, and Gaddafi in Libya - have been driven out of office by their own people. The final departure of Yemen’s President Saleh is only a matter of time, and in Syria too President Assad’s Baath regime will disappear sooner or later. How will these changes affect the relationship between the Islamic world and the West?
The revolutionary state of play
To welcome the changes in the region, one does not have to assume that the Arab world will undergo a development similar to that of Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. For economic reasons alone, this is unlikely to be the case. The Arab world lacks benevolent and financially strong neighbours that are interested in both democracy and the rule of law, as was the case with the Eastern Europeans and the EU. The Arabs’ neighbours are either poor like themselves, or incredibly rich countries that consider democracy to be the work of the devil and are already using their wealth to undermine it as best they can. In ten years’ time, the Arab world will probably look more like Latin America than Europe today. However, anything is better than the repressive, depressing, and stultifying stagnation that kept the Arab world under its spell until the magical year 2011 - a spell that not even the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 and the subsequent military escalation in Afghanistan and Iraq could break.
In fact, the opposite is most likely to have been the case. 9/11 and the West’s reaction to it prolonged the stagnation, because Western support for the repressive, yet pro-Western, anti-Islamist Arab dictatorships all of a sudden seemed quite clearly to be the lesser of the two evils. The fact is, however, that it was these very regimes that drove the people into the arms of the Islamists, the only opposition that had any notable means and infrastructure at its disposal and was firmly rooted in the population. This constellation being what it was, Islamism’s success stemmed above all from the fact that it succeeded in breaking through the already blurred borders between political religion and traditional religious faith, a phenomenon that is linked not to the non-existent separation of religion and state in Islam, but quite simply to the fact that the only remaining outlet for political discourse, which is suppressed in the public space in repressive states, is the religious sphere.
Political Islamism, which is largely in a ruinous state, attracted new followers who joined as an act of defiance to the West’s strategy of escalation. Consequently, anti-Western propaganda moved into secular spheres. Fomented by the criticism of Islam absorbed by large parts of the population after 9/11, the West fostered the paranoia that Arab civil society and the Arab democracy movement are ultimately nothing more than the Islamists’ fig leaf and a way of smoothing their path to power, a paranoia that remains widespread to this day.
In this atmosphere, many Israelis were ultimately seduced into believing that it was best to postpone reaching compromises with the Palestinians for as long as possible and that they could put themselves in a stronger negotiating position for the future by forging ahead with their settlement activities on the West Bank. The Palestinian government that was democratically elected in 2006 under the leadership of Hamas was boycotted and ultimately quarantined in the Gaza Strip. In line with the pattern of the self-fulfilling prophecy, this led to exactly the kind of radicalisation of Hamas that the West had tried to prevent by integrating it into a democratically elected government.
It is safe to assume that, had 9/11 not happened and Iraq not been invaded, 2011 would have happened a few years earlier, and even Saddam Hussein would possibly have been ejected from office in a similar manner to Gaddafi; certainly not without the spilling of blood, but without the same repercussions that are currently bathing Iraq in blood. To this day, more people in Iraq are dying as a result of violence than is the case in countries that are in the throes of revolutionary turmoil.
Prospects for Israel
This vision is certainly not wishful thinking. For both sides, the objective incentives for a normalisation of relations are considerable, however loudly the subjective atmosphere currently says otherwise. We in the West would also benefit because our solidarity with Israel and the hasty equation of Israel with the West is preventing a normalisation of our relationship with the Arab world. If, however, the Arab Middle East takes on democratic forms, certain forces in Israel will need our support, namely those that do not consider their country to be an exception or a special case in the region, but an integral and integrated part of the eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East, and the ‘Orient’. Were Israel to remain a permanent foreign body in the region, the chances of its long-term survival would be very poor indeed.
However, the moment when the Arab uprisings began revealed just how ill-prepared Israel is for change. In the middle of January - by which time Ben Ali had already been ousted in Tunisia - all media, without exception, reported that the Israeli secret services were convinced that Mubarak’s position was unassailable. If one is not inclined to believe that the best secret services in the world either had too little or fundamentally incorrect information at their disposal, the most logical conclusion is that the misleading glasses through which they read this information made it impossible for them to see what was actually going on.
It is really not too far-fetched to say that these tinted glasses are a hangover from a colonial mentality, a mentality present in almost all observers, even those who sympathised with the Arab world. This mentality plainly boils down to an underestimation of Arabs and Muslims, at least on an unconscious level. They are considered underdeveloped, retrograde, less cultivated, unable to stand on their own two feet, unenlightened, and consequently incapable of taking self-determined, targeted political action. And have these prejudices not been confirmed by Arab history since the fall of the Berlin Wall? One could have harboured the suspicion that the Arabs themselves had become infected with this mentality. As if suffering from some kind of collective Stockholm syndrome, they seemed - at least in front of the cameras - to jubilantly cheer those forces that had taken them hostage, namely their own dictators and the Islamists. At the end of the day, we can conclude that the Arabs also took themselves by surprise.
Abandoning a mentality
This being the case, we can also conclude that 2011 is even more of an epoch-making year than it seems at first sight. This year not only emphatically brings down the curtain on the decade that followed 9/11 - thanks among other things to the death or, to put it more appropriately, the slayingof Bin Laden. It also marks the beginning of the end of an historic longue durée, a major epoch that lasted more than two hundred years, namely the history of Western imperialism and the colonial structures that it established, which have remained effective until recent times. The Arab regimes that have already been toppled or will in all likelihood be toppled in the near future often seamlessly maintained these structures within their countries or, inspired by Socialist models - as was the case in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Algeria - replaced them with other structures that yielded similarly incapacitating and catastrophic results for the people.
A centralist one-party system headed by a president who is not accountable to anyone but nevertheless controls the economy, military, legal system, parliament, and media of a country, and a king or prince with similar powers (as is the case in Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the emirates of the Gulf), are not fundamentally different from a colonial regime that enforces its interests with the help of a puppet government, pillages the country, and despises the indigenous population. The fact that they want their dignity back and want to be treated like people at last is a theme that featured again and again in the slogans of the Arab demonstrators. That said, was it not also the slogan of the anti-colonial liberation movements?
Objectively speaking, almost all regimes in the Arab world were viewed by their peoples as lackeys and agents of the West. Indeed, some of them were only able to stay in power for so long because of the support they received from the West. Seen in this light, the above-mentioned opening of the border to the Gaza Strip by the Egyptian authorities after Mubarak was removed from power seems less an act of solidarity with the Palestinians and more like a demonstration of recovered sovereignty: the Egyptians no longer want their foreign policy actions to be determined by Western priorities.
However, it is not only the Arab revolutions that indicate that the era of imperialism is coming to an end. It is also to a greater extent the understanding that is dawning in influential circles in the West that developments in the Islamic world can no longer be controlled directly and with the help of simple mechanisms. If, as announced with great ceremony this year by the American president, Western troops will start being withdrawn from Afghanistan in 2014 after thirteen years of ‘reconstruction work’ and ‘the war on terror’, and if, like all their predecessors, they will in all likelihood leave as a failed, if not defeated, force, it is unlikely that any alliance or any Western government will agree to get involved in a similar operation in the East in the near future.
Iran too is ruled by a regime that has outstayed its time, and which has long been held in disrepute by the urban, educated section of the population. One could say that the dress rehearsal for the Arab uprisings of 2011 took place in Iran in the summer of 2009 in the form of the protests after the presidential elections, which were probably rigged. Although these protests failed, they provided a template for spontaneous protest movements coordinated using mobile phones and the internet, a template that later proved successful in the Arab world.
After the Arab experiences, it is now possible to provide at least a partial explanation for the provisional failure of the uprising in Iran. Firstly, unlike the Arab states, which have a common language, transnational media, and intense social and intellectual exchange between countries, Iran is largely isolated and, which is worse, has two neighbours, Iraq and Afghanistan, that are both caught up in civil wars and are occupied by the United States. This means that the external pressure on the country is much greater, and a revolutionary domino effect that would act as a support to such an uprising, such as the one in the Arab world, cannot develop there. In other words, the revolutionary impetus must be generated and maintained by the people inside the country on their own.
Secondly, the protest movement in Iran is suffering because it has not integrated the poorer, less educated, more devout sections of the population. For years, the conservative elements in the ruling clergy have been styling themselves as the advocate and benefactor of these very people, as has the Iranian government under Ahmadinejad. In this respect too, it is to be expected that the power structure will gradually shift in favour of the opposition when the external pressure recedes with the withdrawal of Western troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, when the democratic changes in the Arab world become more sustained, and when Assad’s Syrian regime - Iran’s only real Arab ally - is brought down.
Interestingly, of all things, it is this view of the difficulties experienced by the revolutionary movement in Iran that confirms the theory that 2011 is a pivotal year for the epoch of imperialism. If it is indeed accurate to say that the toppling of the Arab autocrats, like the toppling of the Iranian shah in 1979, was a toppling of regimes that were little different to an autochthonous continuation of the colonial system, albeit with a new, socialist ideology, then despite the many aspects it shared with the ousted Arab dictatorships, aspects that were so contemptuous of human life, the Islamic Republic did indeed put an end to its country’s bondage to the West and the contempt for its own traditions. This is why the latent resistance to the regime in Iran cannot build on certain elements that played such a vital role in the Arab world, namely conservative Islam and those sections of the population that, although themselves without real prospects, are kept happy by the regime by the redistribution of wealth.
Victory of Western values?
In the nature of things, harm has obviously been done on both sides, both in the West and in the Islamic world. The most obvious form of harm is a permanent mutual distrust that is accompanied by accusations and reproaches. This mistrust, which reached its peak in 2001 and in the years that followed, is fuelled on both sides by a lack of knowledge, ignorance, prejudice, and in some cases targeted disinformation. Add to this blend exaggerated expectations and ideological blindness and you have a recipe for escalation.
Unexpectedly, the Arab revolutions now provide an opportunity to overcome this mistrust. And yet we can see much of the same uncertainty and fear as before. People are envisaging all manner of things that could be in store for us: waves of refugees and essential economic aid, oil crises, radical Islamic governments, and civil wars in which we will become embroiled. Even though this fear always relates to the future, it is nevertheless in thrall to the past and is the result of many decades spent pursuing a policy of alienating the people whether in the Arab world itself or in the way the West dealt with the Arab world. Transcultural psychoanalysis would be necessary in order to see things clearly.
Surprisingly for most people, and in particular for observers who are critical of Islam, the Arab revolutionaries have avowed values that belong almost entirely to the Western or - let us for a moment consider these Western values to be universal - universal canon of values to which everyone in our part of the world could - and indeed should - subscribe. One of the most impressive examples of this was supplied by a Friday sermon given by the young Libyan religious scholar Wanis al Mabruk in front of tens of thousands of Muslims in Benghazi on 25th March 2011 and broadcast live by the satellite channel Al Jazeera. This is a positive example of how the West has succeeded in passing on these values despite all the mistrust that exists. Alternatively - and this would be even better! - it is an indication that these really are universal values, or at least values that can easily be universalised.
In hindsight, in this context, it becomes evident that the Arab mistrust of Europe and the US is much less rooted in Islam or any specific culture, and is more the result of the repeated perception of Western duplicity: the West frequently proclaimed values that it did not observe itself, especially in its dealings with Muslims and the Islamic world, whether directly - as in the case of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, or its dealings with refugees - or indirectly, in the way the West cooperated with and supported rulers who quite openly trampled Western values underfoot, as was the case with the recently toppled Arab dictators.
However, the Janus-headedness (ambiguity) of the West’s dealings with the Arab/Islamic world runs right through the centre of our society, and in this respect we are harming ourselves. This is a reference to the discrepancy between government policy and civil society, between the official actions of high politics and in the vague soft power of those institutions that are independent of the government but generally supported by the state. While our foundations, our institutes of culture and exchange, and our NGOs, which are supported by large amounts of state money, worked to strengthen democracy and civil society in Egypt, high politics bolstered Mubarak’s autocratic regime in word and deed, in particular through economic cooperation. The same can be said of numerous other states, even Syria.
One of these two Janus heads represents the official government level of political realism and its immediate benefits; the other represents the soft power of semi-state organisations and NGOs, which are generally active in the cultural and social sectors and are responsible for the moral side of things. The lack of credibility generated by this split between political morality and political action is obvious and has not gone unnoticed by Arab observers. Otherwise one could only have assumed that the Goethe Institut in Cairo must have been conspiring against the German Foreign Office, its largest funder, when it provided a forum for the critic of the Egyptian regime Alaa al-Aswany in May 2009. After all, only a year later, the head of the German Foreign Office described the Egyptian president as a ‘man of enormous experience, great wisdom, and with his sights set securely on the future’. The complexity of our international political actions, which are no longer capable of pursuing a uniform objective thanks to the democratic division of powers into self-referential systems that are almost perfectly in line with Luhmann’s theory of systems, can no longer be undone. Nevertheless, it is a huge weakness and a horrific blemish on the West’s self-image. The criticism of Islam is a response to the corruption that goes hand in hand with all this, and this criticism comes from what is in principle the right moral impetus. It brings politics and morality back together in a single world view and objective. It goes without saying that the price for doing so is a terribly distorted view of the world.
While the West’s mistrust is rooted in the question of whether Arab societies are capable of democracy, Islam obviously doesn’t play a prominent role in criticism of the West for Arab citizens (with the exception of a few marginal groups that are unfortunately often portrayed as being representative of society as a whole). This is an asymmetry that can at least be partially explained by the fact that the perception of Islam as our adversary has blurred our vision for the fact that even the Islamic-hued resistance - whether to the despotic apparatus of state in the Arab world, against Israel, or against Western intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq - claims to support objectives with which we can also identify, namely respect for human dignity, political, economic, and cultural participation, legal stability, co-determination, autonomy, democracy, good governance, and freedom of expression.
Even traditional and orthodox Muslims are calling for these things, and that is a good sign, even if there is reason to fear that once they get into power they will not guarantee their political opponents the rights they themselves have demanded. This kind of double standard is not exclusive to Islam; we have seen it in many other revolutionary movements of the most varied ideological hues.The opportunities for the West, and above all for Europeans, inherent in a largely democratised Arab world with structures appropriate to a state governed by the rule of law are much too great to jeopardise them because of a trite scepticism fuelled by an attitude critical of Islam, or because of short-sighted fears about the price of oil. If we don’t seize these opportunities, and if we hesitate to provide both intellectual and material support for this new Arab beginning, we risk that the revolutions will fail or drift off course before the change has been made irreversable. This would lead to more decades of global political depression and a hardening of the ideological fronts. And no one, regardless of how different opinions are and will remain, can want that to happen.
is editor-in-chief of Art & Thought / Fikrun wa Fann.
Translated by Aingeal Flanagan
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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