The Arab Spring and the image of Islam

By Johan Galtung

The multi-season Arab Spring is the third anti-imperialist Arab revolt in less than a century: against the Ottoman empire, 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 in 29 October 1956 – in the shadow of the Hungarian revolt against the Soviet empire that crumbled 23-25 years later. And now it is the turn o 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, trusting that by sheer force they could contain such “indigenous, tribal” conflicts. Their successors followed in their tracks, with dictatorship and force. But less so for 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 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 revolts have a surface of fight for democracy, under that a fight against the powers sustaining the dictators, and under that the empire hits back, at unemployed youth and others in search of dignity.

Tunisia was, maybe, a let go; but Egypt is not, with much at stake like 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? 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 to US, Israel, the West. Few words are lost on millions striving nonviolently for dignity against serious odds, and 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 speculations on political Islam, much of it focused on the Muslim Brotherhood; ignoring that a leading person was executed by Nasser. The fight is for democracy and for an Islam, an ummah, not under a veil of Western secularism. Islam wants a place in the sun.

But there is a second discourse tune, less audible: not only revolt, but 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? In France they are not only manageable poor Muslims from former French colonies; and the nonviolence of non-cooperation and civil disobedience moves mountains.

Look at the discourse by the EU anti-terror coordinator Gilles de Kerchove; faced with Mohamed Merah, French, with Algerian background, who killed seven in eight days, among them three children 4-7 years old. He is a “lone wolf”, maybe 400 of them in Europe, trained by Al Qa’ida.

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 then preventive measures like social policies, measures to prevent radicalization of those captured, and surveillance of islamist websites. Rather obvious and justified; but no reflection of the Arab Spring. Better would have been more EU pressure on USA-Israel to dismantle the third Empire, but present EU diplomacy is probably the maximum they are willing and able to do.

And 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-bourka–or prayer in public space. That discourse beyond is dialogue, based on respect, curiosity and mutual learning. Like learning from the sharia that 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 can go together; a key Arab spring model.

West has much to offer, like democracy, human rights, tolerance, but short on ability to learn from others. 500 years of colonialism, and yet that ignorance X arrogance. Not strange there is a Latin American Summer right now building their own institutions like China and Russia. Soon CELAC (Comunidad de Estados Latinoamericanos y Caribeños) and SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) will be as known as OAS and NATO. True, there is an African Winter, but the African Spring cannot possibly be far away. And there are some early Asian Springs here and there.

Europe has a right to limit its immigration. But once there, as citizens, there is only one way: the of rule of law, human rights and democracy. And 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? A continued decline and fall of the West.

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