The ongoing protests in parts of the Middle East and North Africa, ostensibly in the wake of a Z-list anti-Islam film produced in the US, have elicited the same tired, hackneyed responses on the part of significant portions of Western audiences and commentators. “Savages,” the refrain has been, “uncivilized barbarians!” from comment sections from The Blaze to the CBC. The brutal murder of American envoy Chris Stevens should certainly be condemned—yet the broader chauvinistic and racist response to the events in Libya, and in the wider region, speaks to a deep seated misunderstanding and ignorance on the part of Western and, particularly, American audiences when it comes to their relationship with this part of the world.
American media has attempted to demonstrate the “irony” of Mr. Stevens’ murder, in that he is now credited as the man who “helped save Libya’s eastern city of Benghazi during last year’s revolution.” The suggestion is clear: Americans try to do good, and how are “we” repaid? Bloody murder!
It is as though the US had, had no previous interaction with the people of Libya prior to the NATO intervention of 2011. If American, Canadian and Western European audiences have forgotten decades upon decades of Western support for “their” dictators and autocrats, the people of the Middle East and North Africa certainly have not. It was not “we” who liberated them—it was “we” who imprisoned them. Eventual NATO “support” of the events in Libya was far too little, too late, and generally reeked far too much of still further couched self-interest on the part of the Western allies.
Nor should we forget about the ongoing use of air strikes across the region by the US and their local allies, which more often than not end up killing civilians rather than “militants” or extremists. This has been the face of US and Western foreign policy for decades: bombings, assassinations and authoritarians. Have we forgotten the invasion of Iraq? The ongoing war in Afghanistan or the growing din for attacks against Iran? And, of course, like a spectre looming above it all, always and forever, remains the question of Palestine and the steadfast support of the US and her allies for a brutal, decades long occupation.
What else are we to expect then? Progressive Arab leaders have been murdered and deposed at our behest, while war after war of increasingly more dubious “strategic logic” has resulted in the murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians across the Middle East. And then some self-satisfied internet lout comes along and declares something like “ah, you don’t see Christians behaving this way, do you?” as though the entire thing could be reduced to some essentialist discourse about “savage” Muslims and “enlightened” Christians, the result of some slack-jawed yokel’s propaganda film. And this from a country where the Christian Right veers ever closer to outright endorsement of theocracy, where in Europe fascists are now routinely in the running for every public office in the land. How enlightened of us!
Thanks in large part to the intended and unintended consequences (“blowback”) of Western foreign policy, we have helped to create societies in the Middle East where violent sects of various sorts (religious and otherwise) have ruled for decades with an iron fist, on occasion coming to blows with each other over questions of succession or the division of the spoils of autocracy. The “Arab Spring” was in large part a reaction against precisely this tendency, sponsored by the West, and an attempt to reclaim the democratic ideal on local terms.
Yet reclaiming democratic practice and thought is a process rather than an event, rife with contradictions—and the people of the Middle East only now must begin deciphering how they will go about this process. One election cycle or two will not transform a society, nor will the confrontation with reactionary elements of every sort from within be immediate either.
It took the United States until 1964-65 to “officially” end state-sanctioned racism, the last Residential School was not closed in Canada until 1998—and these are only the most overt examples of “uncivilized” behaviour in our own, supposedly, democratic societies.
This should be an occasion to educate ourselves, to think critically about the process of democratization and how truly difficult it is. We ourselves live in societies of immense inequality, political and economic, in societies of growing polarization, where the forces of bigotry, racism, and chauvinism have once again begun to dominate the discourse. We claim to “know better,” indeed, to “be better” than the people of the Middle East but more often than not, it seems we only rise to the level of our own extremists.
The moment of truth for us, as citizens of nominally established democratic societies, was not when we commented on the “inspiring” nature of the events in Tahrir Square, when we were all Twitter revolutionaries. No, it comes when the dirt and blood and tears of revolutions has to be defended, when the democratic and progressive ideal has to be reclaimed—where are we then? Where are we now?
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