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The Arab Spring and the Image of Islam

The multi-season Arab Spring is the third anti-imperialist Arab revolt in less than a century: against the Ottoman Empire, against the Western Italian–French–English empire, and now the US-Israel empire. The empires hit back. The Ottomans were weak, but England–France–Israel even invaded Egypt on 29 October 1956––in the shadow of the Hungarian revolt against the Soviet empire that crumbled nearly a quarter century later. And now it is the turn of USA–Israel to try to maintain an illegitimate structure.

So much for the background. In the foreground is class, pitting the powerless at the bottom against the powerful at the top. Wealth flows upward, accelerated by corruption; military, police and secret police forces protect the top against revolts; decision-making is by dictatorships; all of this that used to be justified by the fight against communism is now hitched on to fight against Islamism.

Needless to say, we can have corrupt, brutal dictatorships in Arab countries without any imperial backing. Like in former colonies––Libya, Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria––where borders were drawn regardless of inner and outer fault-lines. The architects thought that by sheer force they could contain such “indigenous tribal” conflicts. Their successors followed in their tracks, with dictatorship and force. But less so in Egypt and Tunisia: they were old, established countries.

But imperialism, as opposed to naked force, works through local elites that can do whatever they want to their people as long as they serve the imperial interests. The Ottoman empire was run from Istanbul; the Western empire was partly based on monarchs that were deposed. The US–Israel empire is based on more ordinary corruptible, brutal dictators.

The current revolts are, on the surface, a fight for democracy. Beneath that is a fight against the powers sustaining the dictators. Still below––the empire hits back at unemployed youth and others who are in search of dignity. Tunisia was perhaps a “let go.” But Egypt is not, because there is much at stake, for example, Camp David flow of money into military elite coffers. In Libya, Western and US imperialism hit back, together. In Syria, all three empires are hitting back, together. In Bahrain, the job was left to Saudi Arabia. And so on. But in the far end, empires will crumble and people will prevail.

We turn to the question what is the impact of the Arab revolts on the discourse in Europe about Islam, both the political and the religious aspects of it? Like the media discourse on Muslims in Europe? So far the media impact seems to be more in terms of geopolitics. Within a relatively narrow band of reflection, their main concern has been what does this mean to us, meaning the United States, Israel, and the West in general. Few words are lost on the millions striving nonviolently for dignity against serious odds. The financial support to Tunisia and Egypt after the revolts had ousted dictators was a pittance relative to what is spent on Libya and others to preserve the geostrategic status quo. Every day brings new speculation on political Islam, much of it focused on the Muslim Brotherhood. The fight is for democracy and for an Islam, an Ummah (community) not under a veil of Western secularism. Islam wants a place in the sun.

There is another tune of this discourse that is less audible––it is a revolt, and it is nonviolent. That raises three questions: Is nonviolence Islamic? Does it work for the powerless against the powerful? And will Muslims in Europe one day do the same to us? Look at the discourse by the EU anti-terror coordinator Gilles de Kerchove; faced with Mohamed Merah, a French of Algerian background, who killed seven in eight days, among them three children between 4 and 7 years of age. He was a “lone wolf”––maybe one among 400 of in Europe, trained by Al Qaida.

He has three approaches: criminalize people who have attended Islamist training camps (as it is done in Germany and Austria); register all who fly in and out of Europe; and implement preventive measures like social policies, measures to prevent radicalization of those captured and surveillance of Islamist websites. All of it rather obvious and justified, but no reflection of the “Arab Spring.” Better would have been more EU pressure on the USA–Israel to dismantle the third Empire, but present EU diplomacy is probably the most they are willing and able to do.

Yet there is so much that can be done. There is a discourse beyond negative nonviolence, the positive nonviolence of Gandhi’s “convert, not coerce”––applicable to anybody when conflicts turn violent. There is a discourse beyond the tolerance practiced in Europe as long as the faith is not made too public––hijab, niqab, burka––or prayer in public space. That discourse will be dialogue based on respect, curiosity and mutual learning. Like learning from the sharia––for instance, it may be a good idea not to lend more than 30 percent of your capital. Or from Turkey on how democracy and the Ummah (community) can go together––a key Arab spring model. The West has much to offer––democracy, human rights, tolerance, but it is short on ability to learn from others. Five centuries of colonialism, and yet so much ignorance and arrogance.

It is no surprise that there is a “Latin American Summer” right now. They are building their own institutions like China and Russia. Soon Comunidad de Estados Latinoamericanos y Caribeños (CELAC) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) will be as known as the Organization of African States and NATO. True, there is an “African Winter,” but the African Spring cannot be far away. There are some early Asian Springs, too, here and there. Europe has a right to limit its immigration, but once there as citizens, there is only one way: that of rule of law, human rights, and democracy. Democracy is more than elections––no discrimination, tolerance, transparency, dialogue of civilizations based on respect and a minimum of knowledge, engaging in mutual learning. The alternative? Continued decline and eventual fall of the West.

Adapted from a lecture at the Advanced Studies Research Center, Brussels, Belgium.