Much of this piece was written more than a year ago, when debates and discussions focused on two questions: 1. the proper term to describe events in the Arab world – were they revolutions, uprisings, or a “spring?;” and 2. whether events in the region were genuine and indigenous, or manipulated from the outside— namely, by the West. Today, both questions are still being debated and, as such, remain worthy of exploration.
Describing Events in the Arab World
Too many experts, who supposedly sympathize with the on-going struggles in the Arab world and claim to oppose Western hegemony and exploitation, have rushed to claim expertise on these events and to make judgments about their trajectory.
However we describe recent developments in the Arab world, whatever name we assign to these events, we end up trapped in a limiting and problematic framework. These debates ignore over a century of struggles and uprisings from North Africa to West Asia against western colonialism and capitalist modernity. Most importantly, however, these discussions, which are dominated by Western-centric academic theories, fail to explain or predict developments in the region. With every failure, a more arrogant wave of “theories,” “explanations,” and “perspectives” come to the fore.
This ignorance and arrogance has come to shape events and perception of events in the region. Two dynamics are at play here. The first has to do with a misplaced faith in Western knowledge. Since the rise of western capitalist modernity, the academic world has been shaped by the assumption that humans are rational, can achieve accurate knowledge, and can be accurately studied.
This has been accompanied by a denial of intellectual contributions made by different cultures from around the world. Some outside the West have been made to believe their history and knowledge production are invalid or irrelevant, have ended up mimicking and reproducing western paradigms, and have even distanced themselves from their local knowledge.
This western-centric intellectual bias has also created a trend toward universalizing “theories” embedded in a project of global domination aimed at maintaining western supremacy and subjugating the rest of the world.
Those in the West who have come to believe that western knowledge is “real, accurate, and useful,” have failed to seriously consider alternative knowledge sources, which would better explain human societies and historical changes. The end results of this approach have, on the one hand, been the marginalization of diverse and democratic knowledge, and, on the other, an insistence on paradigms and frameworks that have proven inadequate.
Academic discussions about recent events in the Arab world reflect these trends. These debates often measure the uprisings against the “ideal” case—the French revolution — and apply theories of revolutions and social change that are inappropriate and biased.
Since the Arab uprisings do not fit the “ideal model,” the answer we often get is that no revolution or real revolution has taken place. Many arguments have been presented to support this conclusion, including: that the demonstrations have no clear end goal, no base of political parties or groups, and have failed to bring about social change or a complete transformation in the government or power structures.
The French Revolution, celebrated in the West as the ultimate example of popular power and its positive effects on history, took years to achieve some of its goals. The Revolution was later hijacked by Napoleon who led French efforts to colonize large parts of the world. The slogan of “liberty, equality, and justice” were soon forgotten and domination and genocide against people in the Third World became the norm for the French “Republic,” its legacy, and continues to be part and parcel of French involvement in different parts of the globe.
During the French Revolution’s two hundred year anniversary celebrations, the Chinese foreign minister was asked about his views on the “historical” event. He replied, “[I]t is too early to tell.”
The response is interesting for several reasons. First, it reminds us that in France the revolutionary slogan “fraternity, equality, justice” is not only far from reality, but also contradicts current French foreign policy.
Second, the minister’s response inspires critical thinking about idealized world events, including theories of revolution and social change, and the naming of such events as the “American Revolution.”
What is the meaning of “revolution” when it leads to oppression, colonialism, and subjugation of other peoples? Was the American Revolution not about elite settlers wanting to take power from the colonial metropolis (London)? Was the Revolution not driven by Anglo-Saxon settler male elites who wanted more control over the colonized settler society, land, and resources? Isn’t this similar to the declaration of “independence” in 1948 from British colonial rule by Jewish Zionist settlers? Wasn’t this “revolution” about white men fighting other white men to colonize Palestine, to subjugate and displace its native people, and control its land and resources?
It is time for all “experts” (academic and otherwise) to rethink the theories that lead to such skewed understandings of revolutions. They have done little to predict or explain events, whether in history or in the contemporary world. There is something deadly about this Western centric approach. Are we not better served by knowledge that is less rigid and less certain?
When the Arab revolutions erupted, claims about western influence shaped much of the discourse both outside and inside the region. Early on, the Israeli media and Western press fomented fear about the danger of “radicals” overtaking Arab governments . When the revolutions managed to overcome local, regional, and global restraints, they were then depicted as influenced by the West.
Some local experts and commentators have also argued that events in the Arab world were the work of the West. Of course, Western powers have interfered, but they were not responsible for the region’s popular uprisings against brutal governments. Western interference came after the fact to control events and prevent genuine revolutions from taking place.
This interference is not the end of the story. Once the process begins and the people become emboldened to confront the regime, the end result is impossible to control. As such, the West and its allies will never be sure of what will happen in the region.
In fact, the actions of Western countries make the situation in the Arab world even more unpredictable. Selective support for some “revolutions,” ongoing relationships with brutal regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, and war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq are all part of the West’s crimes against the region’s people and resources. All of this plays an important role in fomenting and perpetuating discontent in the Arab world and will continue to fuel regional uprisings.
To achieve a better future for all and begin understanding the surrounding world, the old paradigms of western supremacist, capitalist, racist, colonialist practices and approaches to knowledge must end. If we aim in academia to produce knowledge that can benefit the world, that is more just and democratic, and not for the few but for the many, then this must be our goal.
In the meantime, the people of the Arab World will challenge Western intellectual arrogance by constantly inverting expectations, shattering predictions, and struggling against colonization wherever it appears.