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Altered Consciousness: A new dawn or a darker night

Published: March 11, 2011
Section: Opinions


Graphic by Leah Lefkowitz/The Hoot

People in the West have the tendency to project their own values onto individuals that are completely unlike themselves. They are inclined to assume that everyone in the world wants ulimately the same things that they want, despite differences in culture, history, religion and other characteristics.

A recent example of this phenomenon is the American and European reaction to the Middle East uprisings. The Arab people, from Morocco to Bahrain, are rising up in a dramatic fashion against oppressive authoritarians, despots and monarchs after decades of political, economic and social stagnation and repression.

In response, Westerners are hoping that the Arabs desire everything that makes the West tick, particularly secular democracy and the accompanying institutions, rights, liberties and values that it entails. There is very good reason, however, to be skeptical about this prospect and the eventual outcome of these uprisings.

The two most powerful and appealing forces in the Middle East are nationalism and Islam. In all too many cases, however, both have been utilized to legitimize radical and extremist regimes. The former, for instance, was the basis for Nasser’s Egypt, as well as Baathist governments such as Bashar-al-Assad’s Syria and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The latter is the foundation for Islamism, which has given the world Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Qaeda. In contrast, the constituency for moderate, pro-Western, secular democracy, namely Arab liberals, is comparatively small. The plausibility of these individuals countering more sinister but popular forces is dubious at best.

In addition, there have been a number of ominous early signs. Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a virulently anti-Western Muslim Brotherhood cleric, preached his hateful messages to hundreds of thousands of ebullient and receptive Egyptians recently in Tahrir Square. The Brothers are also seeking to take control of Egypt’s clerical establishment. An emboldened Hamas has sabotaged the natural gas pipeline that flows from Egypt to Israel and Jordan. Protesters have drawn images of the Star of David on top of the heads of dictators like Mubarak and Gaddafi.

Additionally, the Obama administration itself is reportedly preparing for Islamist takeovers throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

Even if the protesters truly sought a democratic government, the precedents for them in the region, while they exist, are not encouraging, besides Israel. In Iraq, Prime Minister al-Maliki has exhibited increasingly autocratic tendencies.

Also, the government there has failed to provide basic services such as electricity to its people and cannot address sweeping problems relating to the economy, oil wealth and sectarian divisions. Lebanon’s confessionalist system is notoriously fragile and several months ago Hezbollah essentially took control of it. In Turkey, Islamist Prime Minister Erdogan has severely weakened secular and democratic institutions.

Lastly, movements that have been started in the name of freedom and liberty in the Middle East have often produced the opposite results. For example, the idealistic Young Turk Revolution of 1908 culminated in the Armenian Genocide.

The Free Officer’s Coup of 1952 installed Gamal Abdel Nasser as president of Egypt, who, under the guise of pan-Arabism, denied his people basic rights, initiated several conflicts against Israel and exacerbated Yemen’s civil war.

Additionally, the United States still is confronted with the outcome of the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the toppling of the Shah. Indeed, the late former ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick’s belief that the fall of autocrats can lead to instability and the rise of even more repressive totalitarian regimes certainly rings true in regards to this part of the world.

Regardless, I still try to be cautiously optimistic. Some governments, such as those in Libya and certainly Iran and Syria, undoubtedly need to go. Perhaps the United States can exert its influence to make a positive impression and even forge alliances with new leaders in the region. But we ought not to take this regional euphoria at face value. The Middle East is undergoing drastic change, perhaps for r
the worse.