The Arab Autumn: just the latest turn in a long-running cycle

An Egyptian journalist speaks out - the Latitude News Op-Ed

By Magdi Abdelhadi

Protestors destroy an American flag pulled down from the U.S. embassy in Cairo September 11, 2012. (Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany)

The Latitude News Op-Ed column is a space where people from all walks of life can share their opinions on the links and parallels between the U.S. and the rest of the world.

The first and perhaps most important lesson of the latest “clash of civilizations” that has resulted in the tragic deaths of 11 people and other violence throughout Egypt, Libya, Sudan and Tunisia is that it will most likely happen again.

If a cartoon in a Danish newspaper with a circulation of 120,000 did it once, anything can.

Ever since Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini fired the first salvo in this unholy war by announcing his notorious death fatwa against Salman Rushdie 23 years ago, a heady mix of politics and religion (which is far from being an exclusively Muslim malaise) has escalated around the globe as others have thrown more lethal potions into the broth.

The dramatic entry of global Islamic terror in the shape of Al Qaeda and the cascade of tragedies it released is one such toxic additive. We had September 11th, the Neocons’ global war on terror, the death of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the emergence of Hezbollah, a millenarianist president in Iran and the frightening growth of the influence of the religious right in Israel and their American friends, the Zionist Christians, who seem hell-bent on hastening the arrival of Armageddon to bring about the Second Coming of Jesus.

Now, on all sides of the numerous cultural divides, there is no shortage of players who have no other purpose in life but to continue the fight, real or imagined. Indeed, the battle is their raison d’être. The defenders of the faith need enemies and, if they don’t exist, the defenders will have to invent them.

Add to all that the arrival of the glorious Internet and social media that can be used to topple dictators as well as disseminate hatred and bigotry.

Modernity requires a thicker skin

The second lesson from the current crisis is that Muslims around the world have yet to learn to live with the unpleasant realities of the modern era: their faith will be criticized and caricatured, and they have to accept it in the same way Christianity has learnt to do so in the West. It will take time, but they have to make a start.

They also have to accept that freedom of expression in Western democracies is sacrosanct as long as it is not used to incite violence and hatred (it’s a moot issue whether ridiculing or criticizing religion is incitement to hating the people who hold that faith.)  In the authoritarian mindset, disagreement is tantamount to lack of respect, which in turn can easily translate into hatred and violence. They have to change that mental template. They simply have to learn how to live in the irreverent modern world.

Muslim leaders should get their house in order.  The Arab world is seething with anti-Christian and anti-Jewish media programs and literature. We have yet to see a single government acting against these outlets. More to the point, no one in the West has tried to occupy or storm any Muslim embassy for that.

‘We told you so’ doesn’t help

On the other side, Western Islamophobes have to update their perspective or seek help. Although the Arab Spring should have shattered their close-minded views, they still seize on every opportunity to say: ‘We told you so, the Arabs are savages who hate us for what we are! Just look at how a silly film has made them lose their minds, bare their teeth and froth with rage!’

Those Westerners deliberately forget that such clashes have little to do with the political upheavals in the region. They happened before the people toppled their tinpot dictators, and will erupt again because the Islamophobes (just like the Islamic extremists) would be out of business if empathy and self-criticism prevailed.

Another important lesson to be drawn is that it does not take much or many people to ignite such a war.

A very cheap video collage produced by a deranged man and a few thousand hot heads — that’s all it takes. Then we have the 24/7 media adding fuel to the fire. The vast majority of people in Benghazi, Cairo, Southern California and other locales associated with the current drama have no connection to the dumb film or the violence it spawned. But silent majorities don’t make for sexy headlines.

The next time a new battle brews on the horizon, the world should learn from past mistakes and be better prepared.  The cultural fault lines are not only geographical, but exist also within each society.  The bigots straddle all the borders, but so also are the reasonable people who can build bridges.

A modest proposal

The best we can hope for in the short to medium term is to form a “rapid deployment force” made up of  influential wise men and women — religious leaders, leading writers and politicians — who, once the sirens are off,  can immediately take to the airwaves and pulpits and to drown out the warmongers and other voices of hatred.

They may not be able to completely prevent a conflagration, but at least they might contain the fire before anyone gets killed.

Magdi Abdelhadi is a freelance journalist and broadcaster. Until recently he was the BBC’s Arab Affairs Analyst. Born in Egypt, he has lived in Western Europe since 1978. He now works out of London and Cairo and contributes regularly to Latitude News.