The Public Humanist

What Do Arabs Want?

My students sum up what Arabs want in one word: dignity.

I'm writing from the American University of Sharjah where I'm teaching for the semester. My students and colleagues are a fair cross section of the region and of the population of the United Arab Emirates of which Sharjah is a part: Arabs, Turks, Afghans, Pakistanis, Indians, Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis, and Africans from various African states. They all desire dignity. Who doesn't ? The "foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world" is, according to the universal declaration of human rights, the "recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.

Dignity encompasses all the slogans and goals of demonstrators from Tunisia to Iraq: the dignity conferred by freedom of speech and thought; the dignity conferred by being listened to; the dignity conferred by education and health care; the dignity conferred by work; and finally, the dignity conferred by courage. By facing down rulers who show no respect for citizens’ voices, demonstrators across the region have certainly shown courage.

Refusing to listen is the ultimate mark of disdain. Middle Eastern governments don’t want to hear so they turn down the volume of individual expression at its source. Mohamed Bouazizi, the 26-year old Tunisian who set himself on fire, turned the volume up. He tapped into a broad and deep vein of frustration across the region. Deeper than frustration, however, lay a well of shame; shame that Arabs had allowed themselves to be controlled for such a long time by venal and rapacious governments.

By projecting a voice that could no longer be ignored, Tunisians unleashed voices across the region and beyond. The Tunisian, and then the Egyptian example of unarmed civilians facing and defeating a highly armed government gave the rest of the region courage. Demonstrators across the region turn out in ever larger numbers in the face of great danger. They speak of their needs and express their contempt for rulers who do not dare to listen and respond. There is a certain rhythm, with rulers, participants, and audiences alike tuned to Fridays when the volume increases. Although this rhythm is created by the timing of the chief congregational prayer of the week, the demonstrators do not use religious slogans or chants.

The United States has been remarkably absent from demonstrators’ rhetoric even though the U.S. is implicated in supporting many of the authoritarian rulers that are their focus. My students express ambivalence about U.S. intervention in Libya. They regard Qadhafi as an embarrassment and they abhor the very idea of a government shooting its own citizens. But they wonder about an opposition that depends on help from the U.S. and NATO. They also fear that intervention will lead to a renewal of constraint on political expression and process. The example of Iraq is front and center. Some students seek refuge from the dilemma posed by intervention by constructing principles. In principle, all states in the region, Arab or otherwise, should solve their own problems without help/interference from the U.S. Others remember with gratitude that the U.S. led the effort to get Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, or saw for themselves that the U.S. gave by far more aid to Pakistan during the floods of August 2010 than any other state.

Students at AUS greeted the announcement of Osama Bin Laden’s death with immense curiosity, skepticism, relief, fear, and resentment. For myself, I cringed at the sight of American youth dancing in the streets (see previous blog by David Mednicoff). Lacking evidence of a body, many sstudents here questioned the story. But dead or alive, they expected no change in American policy towards Arab states. They did think that there could be changes with regard to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The killing of OBL provides the U.S. with a chance to withdraw from Afghanistan, but will it? Most think it should. As for the Pakistani government, they felt things looked grim. It will now be judged as incompetent in pursuing OBL or complicit in hiding him; either judgment bodes ill. Will the U.S. punish Pakistan and, as in Afghanistan and Iraq, destroy civilian life in the process? At home, the Pakistani government has lost credibility. By allowing the U.S. military to violate Pakistani sovereignty both in regard to killing OBL and in regard to allowing U.S. drones to bomb Pakistan, the government looks cowardly and weak. My students see permitting drone attacks and the consequent killing of Pakistani civilians as akin to Arab governments killing their own citizens in response to current waves of protest.

One of the most striking answers my students came up with to the question, what do Arabs want, was “understanding”, not to be understood, but to understand. This desire speaks to the control of information exercised by the governments of the region. Lack of information and complete distrust in the information made available leads directly to the conspiracy mindedness prevalent in the region. Weaving explanations based on conspiracy distracts minds from the rigorous thinking needed to address problems and suggest solutions. This is true of citizens and governments alike. Every ruler in the region has resorted to conspiracy to explain the current opposition each one faces. Bashar al-Asad, president of Syria, points to armed criminals of unspecified provenance, the King of Bahrain and other rulers in the Gulf like to finger Iran, Ali Abdullah Saleh the president of Yemen also points at Iran, Mu`ammar al-Qadhafi in his isolation points at just about anyone. None of them acknowledge publicly that they face real, homegrown, opposition bred of their own policies. Do any of them think privately and soberly about their responsibility for the present crisis they face or what, beyond the use of force, is to be done? Judging from their actions, the resounding answer is no.

Are my students’ opinions important? As a very small sample of opinion, no they are not. But, insofar as the median age of the population in Middle Eastern states ranges from 20 (Iraq) to 30 (UAE, Bahrain, Israel), the opinions and understandings of their age group matter greatly. And the question that puzzles my students is not, what do Arabs want. Rather, what puzzles them is what does the United States want. U.S. policy is totally mysterious to them thanks to the dissonance between words and actions, to the evocation of ‘principle,’ and to its selective and cynical application. Are they anti-American? No, they are adept at distinguishing individuals and cultures from governmental policies. But they certainly are critical of the effects of American policies in the region. And here it is the United States that refuses to listen.

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