Packaging the Revolution: Muslims’ Communications Lessons Post 9/11
By Jacqueline O’Rourke
Almost two months into what is being packaged as the “Arab” revolution, the international community is struggling to counteract the messages of an historical communication success for predominantly Muslim communities. Both the protests in Tunisia and Egypt demonstrate a media savvy on the part of a new generation of Muslims, which clearly has learned lessons of the past decade when it comes to positioning any protest originating in Muslim majority communities. All attempts, by both Arab dictators and early attempts by American and European media, to label the revolution “Islamic” have failed, thanks to the youth who initiated the movement. This generation grew up in the rhetoric of the “war on terror” and are familiar with the tenuous categorization of “good” and “bad” Muslims – the” bad” ones being responsible for the 9/11 attacks and the “good” ones being anxious to disassociate themselves from the “bad” ones. These young people are aware that the binary of traditional Orientalism – Islam versus the West – has been replaced by a new binary of “good” and “bad” Muslims and that the “good” Muslims, represent liberalism, moderation and compatibility of Islam with Western modernity. They are well aware that throughout periods of high alert, Islam and Muslims are routinely denigrated and stereotyped as enemies of freedom and civilization, victimized as potential holders of a threatening ideology, and even tortured to satiate the public need for perceived security. They also know that diverse players, from neo-cons to liberals to leftists, fragment Islam into convenient differentiations between various “types” of Muslims: the progressives, moderates, fundamentalists, neo-fundamentalists, and jihadists. They have lived in a world where simply being Muslim has become a highly contentious and visibly political stance. And even more important than all of these lessons, they know that the binary between “good” and “bad” Muslim is highly unstable and that the objectives of “good” Muslims are often quickly appropriated for both neo-liberal imperialist and leftist agendas. What they must be careful to remember, however, a lesson etched in recent Arab history, is that an ally today can become an enemy tomorrow.
This communication strategy of the youth movement began with a conscious decision to articulate a revolution by Muslim masses in secular language, contrary to various movements which pre-dated it which often expressed secular political ambitions in religious language. By positing the uprisings as revolutions rather than jihad, Muslims are demonstrating that to be Muslim does not necessarily mean to aspire to live in a theocratic state. They are also demonstrating, however, that being Muslim is actually an impetus to rise up against oppression which can be articulated in the indigenous vocabulary and lived experience of millions of Muslims across the region. This new communications plan is a direct attempt to create a counter-narrative to the predominant one which has dominated Western discourse for the past decade. That narrative runs roughly like this: The Muslims are jealous of the freedom and technological advantages of the West. Their society has been in decline after their scientific advances of medieval Europe. Instead, they try to use the West’s technology against itself. Whether airplanes, viruses, or chemicals, Muslims have appropriated science for the purposes of terrorism. Consider for example Thomas Friedman’s post 9/11 assertion that
"…terrorists can hijack Boeing planes, but in the spiritless monolithic societies they want to build, they could never produce them. The terrorists can exploit the U.S. – made Internet but in their suffocated world of one God, one truth, one way, one leader, they could never invent it" (Longitudes and Attitudes 46).
These days, however, even Friedman’s tune has changed slightly as he writes admirably of the insatiable spirit of youth who have used social networking to inspire a revolution. At the same time, there is something ominous in this admiration which is exemplified in Friedman’s recent New York Times op-ed in which he poses the major challenge to youth is to deconstruct the meta- narrative of the region, which he argues, of course, is false:
"That narrative says: ‘The Arabs and Muslims are victims of an imperialist-Zionist conspiracy aided by reactionary regimes in the Arab world. It has as its goal keeping the Arabs and Muslims backward in order to exploit their oil riches and prevent them from becoming as strong as they used to be in the Middle Ages — because that is dangerous for Israel and Western interests.’ ”Today that meta-narrative is embraced across the Arab-Muslim political spectrum, from the secular left to the Islamic right. Deconstructing that story, and rebuilding a post-1979 alternative story based on responsibility, modernization, Islamic reformation and cross-cultural dialogue, is this generation’s challenge. I think it can happen, but it will require the success of the democratizing self-government movements in Iran and Iraq. That would spawn a whole new story".
The ominous echo in Friedman’s analysis is his contention that this meta-narrative is paranoid and should be replaced by a mantra of neo-liberal ideology, which, conveniently, will not challengeAmerican and Israeli interests.
Likewise,the left has been particularly euphoric with the youthful secular messaging of the “Arab” revolution and is hopeful that it can be appropriated to universally invigorate the left. For example,Hardt and Negri, in a recent article in The Guardian, place hope that the Arab revolutions will be this generation’s Latin American struggle, as “ a laboratory of political experimentation”, a kind of “ideological house-cleaning, sweeping away the racist conceptions of a clash of civilizations that consign Arab politics to the past”. They argue:
"This is a threshold through which neoliberalism cannot pass and capitalism is put to question. And Islamic rule is completely inadequate to meet these needs. Here insurrection touches on not only the equilibriums of North Africa and the Middle East but also the global system of economic governance".
Hardt and Negri are right to note that the revolutions rejuvenate some basic principles of the left which had been discarded as outdated: principles of justice and universalism and popular power, but they ignore that these principles which they praise are the very foundations of Islam itself, the cultural foundation from which these revolutions are being generated. This nostalgia to migrate the nature of the revolution into a communist agenda betrays a need, not to understand how Islamic societies harbor the same instincts toward social justice as the left, but to leave Islam out of any serious inquiry into both the reason behind the revolution and the future of its achievement.
Slavoj Žižek is, perhaps, a noted exception, though his ideas on Islam are often inconsistent. Žižek’s Iraq: the Borrowed Kettle, which Žižek admits is not a book about Iraq, was reminiscent of Baudrillard’s The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. In fact, Žižek used Iraq to elaborate his Lacanian theories, while in his post 9/11 Welcome to the Desert of the Real, he saw an opportunity for radical Islam to be articulated into a socialist project:
"This means the choice for Muslims is not either Islamo fascist fundamentalism or the painful process of Islamic Protestantism which would make Islam compatible with modernization. There is a third option, which has already been tried – Islamic socialism. The proper politically attitude is to emphasize, with symptomatic insistence, how the terrorist attacks have nothing to do with real Islam, that great and sublime religion- would it not be more appropriate to recognize Islam’s resistance to modernization? And, rather than bemoaning the fact that Islam, of all the great religions, is the most resistant to modernization, we should, rather, conceive of this resistance as an open chance, as “undecidable”: this resistance does not necessarily lead to Islamo fascism, it could also be articulated into a socialist project. Precisely because Islam harbors the “worst” potentials of the Fascist answer to our present predicament, it could also turn out to be the site for the “best” (133-4).
This plea for a type of Islamic socialism remains consistent in Žižek’s work on the Arab revolution, from his opinion editorial in The Guardian to his recent appearance on Riz Khan’s show on Al Jazeera. Ironically the country where so called Islamic socialism has been tried, Libya under Gaddafi’s Green Book program, is now very much under attack.
In fact, the discussion which took place on Riz Khan’s Al Jazeera show, where both Tariq Ramadan and Slavoj Žižek offered their insights is representative of the lenses being used to interpret this revolution and steer it away from the reality that it is a revolution by Muslims, but not necessarily Islamists. Ramadan carefully argued that the revolution is not ideologically inspired and that the we must be cognizant of the reality that Western power wants changes in the region which at the same time enables the global situation to remain the same. Ramadan confronted head on the concerns about the involvement of Islamist politics, now that Arab dictators are disappearing, and argued that the fear of a monolithical, radical Islam is merely a guise upon which the West and Israel maintain hegemony over Muslim populations. Using the example of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which he argued is diverse in ideologies, he longingly looked to the example of Turkey, not Iran, where Islamism and political life has been successfully integrated, be it, under the eye of very watchful military. Žižek used the occasion to comment on universalism, and expressed his admiration of the Arabs who he argued truly understand democracy much better than does the West. Echoing his argument in Welcome to the Desert of the Real, and not responding to Ramadan’s contention of the diversity contained under the umbrella of Islamist politics, he claimed that the choices open to the revolution are not just “Muslim fundamentalist Islam” or liberal democracy, but must include the left and argues for a synthesis of Islamic and leftist ideologies. Unfortunately, however, Žižek’s well-intentioned conclusions betray similar biases to those that lurk in Friedman’s neo-liberalism: that is that the Arab revolution must speak the language of the West – whether it be the left for Žižek or the ideology of liberalism for Friedman. The reality is, right now, the revolution is speaking many languages, as it contains diverse aspirations. It is speaking the language of universalism, which is neither left nor neo-liberal, but at the very foundation of pluralistic Muslim societies.
Perhaps what Friedman and Žižek fail to mention, and Ramadan merely hints at, is that the silence of Islamists of various stripes has helped the revolution immensely. That doesn’t mean, however, that the Muslim social structure of the societies under upheaval is not related to the revolution itself. The struggle against injustice is the root of Muslim civil life and the young revolutionaries have been raised in this tradition where five pillars organize both social and spiritual life. The first pillar is to worship no God, but God and to recognize Muhammad as his messenger. This pillar, when applied to a contemporary reality, puts spiritual life and equality of all people as a first priority over the striving for global capital and Western liberalism. To place more attention on the material at the expense of the good of the whole community is against the major principle of tawheed in Islam, which always places God as the priority. Further, this very first pillar, by recognizing the role of revelation in the acquisition of knowledge, challenges one of the major contentions of the Western metaphysical tradition – that knowledge is secular, learned in the world, only, not transcendental. The recognition of the validity of both secular and transcendental knowledge poses a major philosophical challenge to this paradigm. The second and third pillars of daily prayers and fasting, also focus social life on the spiritualand identification with the poor and the dispossessed. The fourth pillar of zakat, institutes a system for the distribution of community wealth. The fifth pillar, the hajj, is a spiritual and politically symbolic ritual of the equality of all human beings, regardless of race or gender.
This rather rudimentary description of how basic pillars of Islam are related to an agenda for economic, social, and political equality, as well as the right of self governance, demonstrates how these pillars are present in the spirit of the contemporary revolution. The point is that the revolutionaries have been socialized in this Islamic context and thus they are articulating this context. The revolution does not need to turn to theprinciples of secular liberalism or the left to express its vision. The roots of the revolution are in Muslim societies and as such contain the roots of Islam which are now being articulated to Western audiences through action, in a manner which has been impossible over the past decade under the oppression of the “war on terror”. If traditional Islamic political ideology belongs to the last generation, then the living Islam belongs to the present. The youth's success has been their remarkable ability to package this living tradition in a secular language. The revolution is ending the monopoly that the conservative Islamists have had over dissent, and this fresh articulation is from within a living Muslim tradition, which is secular, leftist and Muslim, all at once. There is hope that this new political space will be fertile ground for moving beyond simplistic divisions of ‘religious’ versus ‘secular’, another misnomer in understanding the politics of the region.
One critical reality is that this revolution is not only a revolution against Arab dictators, but a revolution against the humiliation Muslims have been facing in the post 9/11 global landscape. In other words, the Arab/Muslim people are not just enraged with political, social and economic oppression, they are also angry with their rulers’ complicity with imperialism, particularly American and Israeli. In short, the revolution has erupted from Muslim societies as a result of internal oppression and as a response to political, economic and cultural imperialism, with which the post 9/11 youth are intricately familiar. In this regard, the international community must get the message that this revolution is as much against its hypocritical and condescending manner of dealing with Muslim societies as it is against Mubarak, Ben Ali or Gaddafi.
When the international community issued its response on February 28th to the violence in Libya, from the vantage point of the politically savvy Arab masses, its hypocrisy, once again, became obvious. While American warships prepare to enforce a no fly zone, as of yet announced but seemingly inevitable, freeze Gaddafi’s assets and impose an arms embargo on Libya, a few days earlier this same American government vetoed a United Nations Security Council Resolution, voted on by 14 out of 15 members, to make Israeli settlements illegal. After the horrendous and condemned Operation Cast Lead on Gaza in 2009 and the attack on the fictional “humanitarian terrorists” of the Mavi Mamara in 2010, the memory of “international” inaction to violent suppression of human rights and dignity in the region is still very much alive. This is not to mention, of course, the ongoing violations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the now transparent subservience of the Palestine Liberation Organization to the United States and Israel as evidenced in the Palestine papers. The Arab and Muslim masses are accustomed to such hypocrisy: one rule for Israel and another for all others, but this time the situation is even more precarious.
In a unipolar world where America manipulates the umbrellas of NATO and the UN to fabricate an “international” consensus, the Arab revolution is in danger of being co-opted and appropriated for the goals of global capital and American “security”. Talks of the necessity of humanitarian aid and access of humanitarian workers to Libya, the installment of their presence in Tunisia and Egypt, are warning signs for a region well accustomed to the connection between humanitarianism and following military intervention. The memory of the simultaneous dropping of food baskets and bombs on Iraq and Afghanistan is fresh in the minds of the activists on the streets, who are asserting, unequivocally from Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, that while they welcome diplomatic support, they do not wish military intervention in their struggles. The United States is well aware of this, of course, and although a slow learner, has no doubt learned some lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan. Hence, it is catapulting the European Union and the United Nations to the forefront as the key messengers of international humanitarian concern. What the Americans have learned from Iraq particularly, is not to go it alone, but to use the umbrella of “international” outrage at human rights to secure its intervention in a revolution which could threaten its control over oil resources and its military supremacy in the region. The argument it has used for the past 50 years that Israel is the only outpost of democracy in a dark, medieval Muslim heartland is now being radically deconstructed as the Arab masses demonstrate not only their desire for democracy, but also their willingness to break from neo-colonial rule. It is the latter, of course, which is problematic for the Americans, the European Union and the Israelis.
The recent diplomatic flurry, and the impending imposition of a no fly zone on Libya is an attempt to ensure that Western interests are not subverted by too much anti imperialist sentiment. And this will be the turning point of the revolution. Tunisians, Egyptians, Yemenis, Bahrainis, Libyans, and certainly yet others to come forward, are simply fed up with having their resources raped for the benefit of the North and selected locals who trade their nations' resources for the embellishment of their own personal power. They are fed up with being treated as perpetual Muslim infants who cannot grasp the adult complexities of concepts such as liberalism, leftism, or democracy. Meanwhile the United Nations, the EU and the Americans are all singing in the same choir, claiming to welcome and even champion these popular democratic movements, expecting that the Arabs will be amnesiac to the reality that they have supported these dictators for over 40 years, and that wretched memory of Muslim persecution, particularly over the past decade, will magically disappear.
The Arab masses, which now include not only the youth but opposition figures, rebels, peasants, the cosmopolitan middle class and others, are well aware of the international politics at play as well as the impending world economic crisis of historic proportions. They are not only ousting their leaders, but demanding accountability for the corruption, and simultaneously challenging the success of global capital – a world economy that has been organized to benefit the few at the expense of the many. And they are also spearheading a social and cultural revolution, organizing across class and ideology from within their own indigenous Muslim social fabric which provides the universality of such an enabling mobilization.
This is why Libya has become the frontline of this dual battle against internal dictators and imperialism. Gaddafi provides the international community the opportunity, under the guise of a hypocritical concern for humanitarianism, to intervene in a challenge to American hegemony throughout the Arab region. And it is evident that the Muslim majorities of Libya, and across the Middle East and North Africa, have learned a painful lesson over the past decade- a lesson in communication, a valuable lesson in employing the West’s own language of secularism to frame its aspirations. The revolution may have been started by media savvy youth who led the way in framing the argument in a secular, liberal or leftist, narrative understandable to the accepted discourse of the West. It will be carried forward, however, by Muslim societies which have truly come of age in giving birth to a new political space that the entire world is watching being born.
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Žižek, Slavoj, and Ramadan, Tariq. “Egypt”. Riz Khan Show. Al Jazeera International. 01 February 2011. Web. 15 February 2011. http://english.aljazeera.net/programmes/rizkhan/2011/02/2011238843342531.html. Web.
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Jacqueline O’Rourke is a consultant in research and communications who lives in Doha, Qatar. She has written academic materials for language acquisition, recently published a book of poetry and is currently awaiting the publication of her PhD thesis titled Representing Violence: Jihad, Theory, Fiction. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org