Hussein Ibish: The Arab revolutions disproved stereotypes about the “Arab street”

In a recent article at Bookforum (also posted at his blog), Hussein Ibish argued that the Western image of the “Arab street” as a menacing outgrowth of a dysfunctional culture has been disproved by the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions:

The uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia should put paid to such rubbish once and for all. Any serious, honest appraisal of what is spreading throughout the Arab world refutes every aspect of this pernicious mythology. Certainly, the size, scope, and bravery of the demonstrations for democracy, good governance, and accountability mean that no one can continue flogging the Orientalist shibboleth that Arabs are inherently resistant to change—at least not with a straight face. Likewise, the idea that Arab political culture is inherently violent has been most eloquently debunked by the extraordinarily self-disciplined nonviolence of the protesters in Egypt and Tunisia—in spite of extreme provocation and abuses by the police and government-paid hooligans.

The allied Orientalist idea that Arabs are culturally lacking social consciousness cannot survive the spontaneous creation of an ad hoc social order under the most difficult circumstances in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and elsewhere in Egypt and Tunisia. Demonstrators banded together to protect one another—especially Muslims and Christians at prayer. They also joined forces to defend institutions such as the National Museum, create neighborhood-watch committees to prevent looting and banditry, provide medical care, and so forth. After the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak and a night of delirious celebrations, the Egyptian protesters even returned to the square and cleaned it up, handing it over to the country’s provisional new military authorities in almost pristine condition….

Islamists may be hoping to gain from new political openness and elections, but their rhetoric and symbolism have been almost absent from the Arab uprisings. Orientalist stereotypes have long discounted the importance of national identity and sentiment—and social consciousness more generally—in the Arab world. But the recent secular and ecumenical agitations for political reforms have shown the true, unsuspected reach of nationalist movements in the region—and their ability to motivate millions of ordinary Arabs across the urban social spectrum to risk all for change.

Ibish, a fellow at the American Task Force for Palestine, also writes to contradict the notion that the Palestinian question is no longer at the forefront of Arab political consciousness:

However, Arab protestors do share one central grievance that should be of urgent concern to Western policy makers: resistance to the Israeli occupation of Palestine that began in 1967. Some Western commentators seem determined to juxtapose the movement for self-determination within autocratic Arab states with the struggle against the occupation—and to argue, nonsensically, that because Arabs are willing to demand their own freedom, this somehow means they don’t care about the Palestinian cause. Israeli right-wingers and their American neoconservative allies have been flailing away vigorously at this straw man—but either they’re being deliberately deceptive or they’re not paying attention to what the protesters and Arab public opinion are saying about Israel and the Palestinians. There is no question that the Israeli occupation is still the prism of pain through which most Arabs view international relations—and that they are passionate about the cause of Palestinian freedom. The rash of Palestinian denialism on the right also doesn’t logically square with concomitant anxieties about the future of Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt. There is no indication of any plausible future Egyptian government abrogating the treaty—but as the frequent alarums of hard-line Likud leaders demonstrate, the Israeli right knows very well that even though the Arab peoples are proving they’re willing to fight for their own freedom with great bravery, that doesn’t mean they withhold support from the cause of Palestinian independence and the campaign to end the occupation.

Throughout the article, Ibish also discusses a number of books that reflect Western views of Arab culture.

One follow-up question that I would pose to Ibish is this: neither Islamism nor pro-Palestinian sentiment has been at the forefront of the demonstrations. Why do you believe that the former is unimportant while the latter remains important. I imagine that he would have a thoughtful answer to this question, but I would like to see it addressed.


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