The storming of America’s embassy in Egypt and the murder of America’s ambassador to Libya make it imperative that we understand why the Arab Spring was only the illusion of a warm breeze in the cold, dreary, pre-modern cultural darkness.
The fundamental problem is the values, priorities, assumptions, and expectations in the Arab-Muslim world. Yes, there are differences between and within the countries of the region. And no, not all Arabs and Muslims are blood-thirsty Islamists. But the common cultural elements help explain why those countries are impoverished, have repressive governments, and are breeding grounds for mobs in the streets and homicide bombers who do, in fact, thirst for blood.
The developed world today is informed by the Enlightenment values of Western Europe that have been worked out over several centuries. Chief among those values of modernity is reason, which is understood as the valid path to knowledge and the guide for our lives as individuals. The result has been the scientific and technological advances that contribute to human well being today as well as the personal liberty afforded the individual in developed countries.
By contrast, Middle East Islamic culture today is still steeped in religious dogma, ignorance, appeals to revelation, and a rejection of critical thinking. Its institutions are based on a mix of outdated traditionalism and loyalty to tribes, groups, or religious sects. In those countries we don’t see serious public discussions about the need for the sort of social transformation and rethinking of religion that occurred in Europe centuries ago. Tolerance is not tolerated and critics are shut up or killed. The howling, mindless mobs outside of American embassies are the true manifestation of that culture.
This pre-modern culture helps us understand not only the events in that part of the world but the errors in the thinking of many Americans about them.
It’s not just blowback
Most leftists of the Obama ilk and some libertarians as well need to understand that the hatred and violence in the Islamic world against America is not simply "blowback" because of America’s influence in the region and support for corrupt dictators. The war in Iraq might well have been stupid policy that did not serve America’s best interests. But it deposed a corrupt dictator and empowered oppressed groups. The truth is, anti-Americanism in the region is really part of a wider struggle against modernity.
Are they fit for freedom?
These facts also show the neo-conservative folly of believing that democracy, that is, representative government, will produce peaceful, more pro-Western regimes. Would that it were the case! The valid role of representative government is to protect individual liberty. But in a culture of rigid traditionalism, tribalism, and religious dogma, the results of free elections will be what we see in the Egypt: the replacement of a more secular dictator by a more theocratic one.
We saw this same result in Gaza after Israel pulled out its military and settlements in 2005, removing the excuse used by Palestinians for their own poverty and repression. But rather than focusing on educating their children, building enterprises, and generally immersing themselves into the activities of peace and prosperity, they voted for Hamas authoritarians who made the destruction of Israel their goal and who killed any Palestinian who objected.
The murder of America’s ambassador to Libya and some of the associated demonstrations and violence against America across the Middle East might have been spearheaded by al Qaeda. But they grew from the polluted pre-modern cultural soil.
Muslims insult America and secular values every single day, but Americans understand what freedom of speech is, so Arab embassies are secure in Washington. Too many Arabs do not know what free speech is, and they respond to insults with murder.
The struggle in the Middle East is cultural and requires a transformation of the sort that took centuries in Europe. Only if we understand the essence of the struggle will there be reason to hope that real cultural change will come to the Middle East any faster.
Hudgins is director of advocacy for The Atlas Society.
For further information:
*William Thomas, " Egypt’s Democracy Activists Get What They Wish For ." May 30, 2012.
*Edward Hudgins, " Deep Savages ." March 18, 2005.
*Edward Hudgins, " Are the People of the Middle East Fit for Freedom? " May 14, 2004.
*Edward Hudgins, " Israel vs. Palestinian Moral Smuggling ." June 3, 2010.
*David Kelley, " Does Islam Need a Reformation? " Spring, 2011.
*David Kelley, " 9/11 and the War Against Modernity ." May 2002.