Published in TomDispatch.com, March 8, 2011. Reprinted with permission.
How a Revolution of Hope Is Changing the Way Americans Look at Islam
By James Carroll
Since 2001, Americans have been living with a nightmare Arab, a Muslim monster threatening us to the core, chilling our souls with the cry, “God is great!” Yet after two months of world-historic protest and rebellion in streets and squares across the Arab world, we are finally waking up to another reality: that this was our bad dream, significantly a creation of our own fevered imaginations.
For years, vestigial colonial contempt for Arabs combined with rank prejudice against the Islamic religion, exacerbated by an obsession with oil, proved a blinding combination. Then 9/11 pulled its shroud across the sun. But like the night yielding to dawn, all of this now appears in a new light. Americans are seeing Arabs and Muslims as if for the first time, and we are, despite ourselves, impressed and moved. In this regard, too, the Arab revolution has been, well, revolutionary.
The Absence of Arab Perfidy, the Presence of God
For those same two months, jihadists who think nothing of slaughtering innocents in the name of Allah have been nowhere in sight, as millions of ordinary Arabs launched demonstration after demonstration with a non-violent discipline worthy of Mohandas Gandhi. True, rebels in Libya took up arms, but defensively, in order to throw back the murderous assaults of Muammar Qaddafi’s men.
In the meantime, across North Africa and the Middle East, none of the usual American saws about Islamic perfidy have been evident. The demonizing of Israel, anti-Semitic sloganeering, the burning of American flags, outcries against “Crusaders and Jews” — all have been absent from nearly every instance of revolt. Osama Bin Laden — to whom, many Americans became convinced in these last years, Muslims are supposed to have all but sworn allegiance — has been appealed to not at all. Where are the fatwas?
Perhaps the two biggest surprises of all here: out of a culture that has notoriously disempowered women has sprung a protest movement rife with female leadership, while a religion regarded as inherently incompatible with democratic ideals has been the context from which comes an unprecedented outbreak of democratic hope. And make no mistake: the Muslim religion is essential to what has been happening across the Middle East, even without Islamic “fanatics” chanting hate-filled slogans.
Without such fanatics, who in the West knows what this religion actually looks like?
In fact, its clearest image has been there on our television screens again and again. In this period of transformation, every week has been punctuated with the poignant formality of Friday prayers, including broadcast scenes of masses of Muslims prostrate in orderly rows across vast squares in every contested Arab capital. Young and old, illiterate and tech savvy, those in flowing robes and those in tight blue jeans have been alike in such observances. From mosque pulpits have come fiery denunciations of despotism and corruption, but no blood-thirst and none of the malicious Imams who so haunt the nightmares of Europeans and Americans.
Yet sacrosanct Fridays have consistently seen decisive social action, with resistant regimes typically getting the picture on subsequent weekends. (The Tunisian prime minister, a holdover from the toppled regime of autocrat Zine Ben Ali, for example, resigned on the last Sunday in February.) These outcomes have been sparked not only by preaching, but by the mosque-inspired cohesion of a collectivity that finds no contradiction between piety and political purpose; religion, that is, has been a source of resolve.
It’s an irony, then, that Western journalists, always so quick to tie bad Muslim behavior to religion, have rushed to term this good Muslim behavior “secular.” In a word wielded by the New York Times, Islam is now considered little but an “afterthought” to the revolution. In this, the media is simply wrong. The protests, demonstrations, and uprisings that have swept across the Middle East have visibly built their foundations on the irreducible sense of self-worth that, for believers, comes from a felt closeness to God, who is as near to each person — as the Qu’ran says — as his or her own jugular vein. The call to prayer is a five-times-daily reminder of that infinite individual dignity.
A Rejection Not Only of Violence, But of the Old Lies
The new Arab condition is not Nirvana, nor has some political utopia been achieved. In no Arab state is the endgame in sight, much less played out. History warns that revolutions have a tendency to devour their children, just as it warns that every religion can sponsor violence and war as easily and naturally as nonviolence and peace.
History warns as well that, in times of social upheaval, Jews are the preferred and perennial scapegoat, and the State of Israel is a ready target for that hatred. Arab bigotry has not magically gone away, nor has the human temptation to drown fear with blood. But few, if any, revolutions have been launched with such wily commitment to the force of popular will, not arms. When it comes to “people power,” Arabs have given the concept several new twists.
Because so many people have believed in themselves — protecting one another simply by standing together — they have been able to reject not only violence, but any further belief in the lies of their despotic rulers. The stark absence of Israel as a major flashpoint of protest in these last weeks, to take a telling example, stands in marked contrast to the way in which the challenged or overthrown despots of various Middle Eastern lands habitually exploited both anti-semitism (sponsoring, for instance, the dissemination through Arab newsstands of the long-discredited Protocols of the Elders of Zion) and the plight of Palestinians (feigning sympathy for the dispossessed victims of Israeli occupation while doing nothing to help them, precisely because Arab dictators needed suffering Palestinians to distract from the suffering of their own citizens).
Not surprisingly, if always sadly, the Arab revolution has brought incidents of Jew-baiting in its wake — in late February in Tunis, for example, by a mob outside the city’s main synagogue. That display was, however, quickly denounced and repudiated by the leadership of the Free Tunisia movement. When a group of Cairo thugs assaulted CBS correspondent Lara Logan, they reportedly hurled the word “Jew” at her as an epithet. So yes, such incidents happened, but what makes them remarkable is their rarity on such a sprawling landscape.
To be sure, Arabs broadly identify with the humiliated Palestinians, readily identify Israel as an enemy, and resent the American alliance with Israel, but something different is unfolding now. When the United States vetoed the U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the very thick of February’s revolutionary protests, to flag one signal, the issue was largely ignored by Arab protesters. In Palestinian areas of the West Bank and Gaza, the spirit of Arab revolt showed itself mainly in a youth-driven and resolutely non-violent movement to overcome the intra-Palestinian divisions between Fatah and Hamas. Again and again, that is, the Arab Muslim population has refused to behave as Americans have been conditioned to expect.
The Mainstreaming of Anti-Muslim Prejudice
Conditioned by whom? Prejudice against Arabs generally and Islam in particular is an old, old story. A few months ago, the widespread nature of the knee-jerk suspicion that all Muslims are potentially violent was confirmed by National Public Radio commentator Juan Williams, who said, “I get worried. I get nervous” around those “in Muslim garb,” those who identify themselves “first and foremost as Muslims.”
Williams was fired by NPR, but the commentariat rallied to him for simply speaking a universal truth, one which, as Williams himself acknowledged, was to be regretted: Muslims are scary. When NPR then effectively reversed itself by forcing the resignation of the executive who had fired him, anti-Muslim bigotry was resoundingly vindicated in America, no matter the intentions of the various players.
Scary, indeed — but no surprise. Such prejudice had been woven into every fiber of American foreign and military policy across the previous decade, a period when the overheated watchword was “Islamofascism.” In 2002, scholar Bernard Lewis’s book What Went Wrong? draped a cloak of intellectual respectability around anti-Muslim contempt. It seemed not to have occurred to Lewis that, if such an insulting question in a book title deserves an answer at all, in the Arab context it should be: “we” did — with that “we” defined as Western civilization.
Whether the historical marker is 1099 for Crusader mayhem; 1417 for the Portuguese capture of Ceuta, the first permanent European outpost in North Africa; 1492 for the expulsion from Spain of Muslims (along with Jews); 1798 for Napoleon’s arrival as a would-be conqueror in Cairo; 1869 for the opening of the Suez Canal by the French Empress Eugenie; 1917 for the British conquest of Palestine, which would start a British-spawned contest between Jews and Arabs; or the 1930s, when vast oil reserves were discovered in the Arabian peninsula — all such Western antecedents for trouble in Arab lands are routinely ignored or downplayed in our world in favor of a preoccupation with a religion deemed to be irrational, anti-modern, and inherently hostile to democracy.
How deep-seated is such a prejudice? European Christians made expert pronouncements about the built-in violence of Islam almost from the start, although the seventh century Qur’an was not translated into Latin until the twelfth century. When a relatively objective European account of Islam’s origins and meaning finally appeared in the eighteenth century, it was quickly added to the Roman Catholic Index of forbidden books. Western culture is still at the mercy of such self-elevating ignorance. That’s readily apparent in the fact that a fourteenth century slander against Islam — that it was only “spread by the sword” — was reiterated in 2006 (on the fifth anniversary of 9/11) by Pope Benedict XVI. He did apologize, but by then the Muslim-haters had been encouraged.
Western contempt for Islam is related to a post-Enlightenment distrust of all religion. In modern historiography, for instance, the brutal violence that killed millions during paroxysms of conflict across Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is remembered as the “religious wars,” even though religion was only part of a history that included the birth of nations and nationalism, as well as of industrial capitalism, and the opening of the “age of exploration,” also known as the age of colonial exploitation.
“Secular” sources of violence have always been played down in favor of sacred causes, whether the Reformation, Puritan fanaticism, or Catholic anti-modernism. “Enlightened” nation-states were all-too-ready to smugly denounce primitive and irrational religious violence as a way of asserting that their own expressly non-religious campaigns against rival states and aboriginal peoples were necessary and therefore just. In this tale, secular violence is as rational as religious violence is irrational. That schema holds to this day and is operative in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the United States and its NATO allies pursue dogmatically ideological and oil-driven wars that are nonetheless virtuous simply by not being “religious.”
No fatwas for us. Never mind that these wars were declared to be “against evil,” with God “not neutral,” as George W. Bush blithely put it. And never mind that U.S. forces (both the military and the private contractors) are strongly influenced by a certain kind of fervent Christian evangelicalism that defines the American enemy as the “infidel” — the Muslim monster unleashed. In any case, ask the families of the countless dead of America’s wars if ancient rites of human sacrifice are not being re-enacted in them? The drone airplane and its Hellfire missile are weapons out of the Book of the Apocalypse.
The Revolution of Hope
The new Arab revolution, with its Muslim underpinnings, is an occasion of great hope. At the very least, “we” in the West must reckon with this overturning of the premises of our prejudice.
Yes, dangers remain, as Arab regimes resist and revolutionaries prepare to erect new political structures. Fanatics wait in the wings for the democrats to falter, while violence, even undertaken in self-defense, can open onto vistas of vengeance and cyclic retribution. Old hatreds can reignite, and the never-vanquished forces of white supremacist colonial dominance can reemerge. But that one of the world’s great religions is essential to what is unfolding across North Africa and the Middle East offers the promise that this momentous change can lead, despite the dangers, to humane new structures of justice and mercy, which remain pillars of the Islamic faith. For us, in our world, this means we, too, will have been purged of something malicious — an ancient hatred of Muslims and Arabs that now lies exposed for what it always was.
James Carroll, bestselling author of Constantine’s Sword, is a columnist for the Boston Globe and a Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence at Suffolk University in Boston. His newest book, Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), has just been published. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Carroll discusses just how the Arab revolutions, the last acts of the post-colonial drama, punctured American myths, click here, or download it to your iPod here.
Copyright 2011 James Carroll