Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Remembering Arab Spring

During my freshman year at the University of Kentucky I studied Arabic. I believe that I made that choice because during the summer after high school graduation I read T.E. Lawrence’s huge book, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. I had also read a biography of the explorer and Arabist, Sir Richard Burton. In my imagination I was riding camels in the desert and dining with sheiks and entertained by belly dancers.

My instructor, an Egyptian named Mohammed el Assel, whose mother was one of many women in a harem, scared the crap out of me.  There were only four in the class: a woman from New York, two Iranians (“We are from Iran; however, our ethnicity is Persian”). We sat in those school chairs with a half desk attached. Professor el Assel would walk behind the chairs, looking over our shoulders as we transcribed our lessons. He always carried a sawn-in-half broom stick as a sort of swagger stick; when he noticed a mistake one of us had made, he would slam that stick on the back of our chairs making a horrendous noise and vibrating the chair and us down to our toes.

Alas, I never learned to speak Arabic well—perhaps because of all that rattling on my brain from the numerous times el Assel cracked the back of my chair.  I did manage to learn to read/translate a bit of Arabic; with a dictionary I still can. Of course, with a dictionary I can still translate all of the other languages I’ve studied—German, Latin, Hebrew, and Greek—too.   

I told you all of that so I could share this. From 1964, when I began the study of Arabic, until today I have had a special interest in the nations that speak the language. I have studied their histories, cultures, and religions. (Yes, dear hearts, all of the people who speak Arabic are not Arabs or Muslims just as all people who speak English aren't Englishmen).

One of the many conclusions I formed from what I read was that Arabic/Muslim countries were not good candidates for democracy. Only Turkey and Lebanon have come close to having democratic governments. The founders of modern Turkey developed a constitution making it a secular state; through the years Turks have worked hard to keep it a secular state. Poor Lebanon remains a democracy although the situation is so complex trying to figure who is who is rather like trying to figure out the characters in a Russian novel.

That said, I am beginning to change my mind based on recent events in Syria and past events in Tunisia and Egypt. Corrupt and dictatorial régimes are being challenged by the people. Democratic governments, although far from perfect, are being established. Except for the Muslim Brotherhood, there is no hint of theocracy working to undermine them.

The hoped for revolutions of the Arab Spring have not brought about all of the changes that the people sought. Still, they have brought about change and that transformation continues to develop. Roger Hardy has discussed four lessons learned from the Arab Spring:

  • It was never going to be quick or easy.
  • There is no fixed pattern.
  • The Islamists are at a crossroads.
  • People power is not enough.

I have a theory regarding the catalyst of the Arab Spring—the explosion of democracy—that it resulted from the ability of people to communicate with other people around the world via social networking, emails, tweets, etc. No longer can government propaganda of a nation tell its peoples that the citizens of another nations are hate mongers ready to destroy them. No longer can tyrants undermine a people’s natural drive for freedom.

There are many stories I could share about how communication with a person in or from another land or culture have opened my eyes to truth beyond my own ethnocentricity. But now I simply want to celebrate the people wherever freedom is beginning to bloom! And to note that if we—you and I—are willing to act, we have the ability to communicate and learn good things with and about peoples all over the world.

Should you want to delve more into what I have written, may I suggest:

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  1. I did no know you studied Arabic, Nick.

  2. What an interesting, and thought provoking post Nick!