Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Middle East Protests - Are Things Really Changing?

Protests around the Near and Middle East over the last three months have surprised many in the West, who may have thought that the sleeping giant of the region--its growing population and consciousness of conditions elsewhere in the world--would never express itself publicly. Apparently, the penetration of media--television, movies (video), cell phones, internet and texting, etc.--into previously "dark" parts of the globe has been having an effect. It has been thought that this phenomenon will eventually "open up" China to Western influences, much as Japan was "opened up" in the late 19th Century.

This concept of prying open previously "closed" societies, or those which had developed a sort of insular character, was an aspect of colonialism, chiefly the notion that Western powers could exploit Third World nations, with the excuse (pretext) that they were "civilizing them." But the domination of "primitive" or "backward" or weak societies by technologically superior Western powers was not an honorable duty. Britain's influence upon India, for instance, or South Africa, was undoubtedly a mixed blessing; much of Great Britain's vaunted technological and cultural "order" was simply imperialism in its purest form.

Most of the African, Asian and Middle Eastern regions today bear the vestiges of Western domination and meddling. Borders, relationships, class distinctions are hybrid adaptations of Western cultural organization and structure. Which is to say that they still look a good deal more like how we imagined they should look, than they would have, had there never been the colonial expansionism of the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries. We can't undo history and turn back the clock. The march of industrialism, capitalist development and exploitation, and intellectual enlightenment which has occurred over the last four centuries has an irrevocability about it which appears unstoppable. In a sense, the rise of China and India, Indonesia and the other Tigers fulfills a promise made at least two centuries ago, when the organization of society turned away from agrarian concentration of land, and mass production began to take hold. China and India are simply late-comers to the party. In the West, we're still surprised when the paradigm shift, foretold so long ago, has finally come to pass.

The Middle East is, in this respect, quite like Asia. Europe's "disintegration," as symbolized by the First World War, was an expression of the "delay" of Germany, Italy and Central Europe to achieve a widened enfranchisement of political power; they were latecomers too, and the dictatorships represented a transition between the old hereditary figure-heads of the Middle Ages, and the Parliamentary forms of Western Europe and America. The rise of China and India represents the same kind of transitional birthing pains. Mao ruled China with an iron fist, just as Britain dominated India. It may only be a matter of time before the real power centers of China--the present-day capitalists building great fortunes and influence on a global scale--sweep the old Communist hierarchy aside for more practical instrumentalities.

Are the rising societies of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere in the Near East, the harbinger of a real transition to a democratic-styled institutional framework? Or will these surging mass protest movements be hijacked by the old religious institutions which still guide much of the thinking and opinion in these societies? My guess is that it's still too early in the game, for us to expect parliamentary structures to be established. The tradition of dictatorial power is still stronger than any notion of Western style enfranchisement. That's true in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Lybia, Jordan, Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Yemen. It would be unreasonably optimistic to expect anything better than theocratic oligarchies in any of these states, for at least another quarter century. Wishing won't make it otherwise.


Kirby Olson said...

Let's see.

Kirby Olson said...

The notions of pluralism and universal human rights are everywhere now but they are not terribly popular. Women's rights seem to be held in particularly low regard throughout Islam. In Egypt I noticed relatively few women on the streets in the crowds. They were crowds of men.

Likewise in Libya.

I didn't catch the tumult in Tunisia.

when communism collapsed in 1989 there were several places that got harder: Tianamen Square, was one.

Ceausescu did not go willingly.

At least there's now the possibility of pluralism.

But today theyshot the highest ranking Christian official in Pakistan. He had stood against blasphemy laws, and was machine-gunned.

Not sure if the ideas in the first amendment of freedom of speech and religion really exist in most of the world. Even in universities here they don't exist.

J said...

Camus's story the Guest--

Have u read that Sir F?

Camus offers some insight into affairs middle east--we have reasons to detest the colonialists and in, this case Hillary-Co with her supercarrier dildo--but at the same time recognize the Fedayeen are not exactly some liberals at the bay area potluck.

I don't doubt that US and Israel are behind some of the "rebel" activities. There might be some "theocratic oligarchies"-- in the non-theocratic, they have booze, resorts, movies, whorehouses, walmarts, etc.

I would not presume to defend the code of the Prophet across the board but one has to understand the context of muslim society Sir F. It's opposed to western decadence and exploitation of all sorts. There are definitely radical elements,'s typical jingoist thinking to dismiss Islam in its entirety because of the radicals--for that matter, shiites are not sunnis (shia tradition--the teachings of ibn Sina....-- has some slightly catholic elements--respect for Aristotle & Co at least (tho they might not admit it).

Curtis Faville said...


Nowhere in my post did I cast any aspersions towards Islam, or Islamic culture generally. I merely pointed out that, given its history, it was unlikely that we would see any Western Style Democracies (as they've been characterized lately), in the countries I named, for a very long time.

There are some odd ironies here, J.

American press takes the position that the "protestors" are trying to liberate themselves from dictators. But it's those very dictators--in some cases--whom the United States has counted on as allies in the region. Some of the "protestors" have in fact named the United States as part of the pattern of exploitation and corruption they identify with these oppressive regimes.

What you think about Islam or Middle-Eastern cultures is a separate matter from our official (or unofficial) diplomatic positions with regard to specific governments in that region. The United States had, at one time or another, supported both Iran and Iraq, and basically for the same reason (to prevent destabilization within the region). Until the 1990's, when radical Islam set its sights on America, we were perfectly happy to live and let live with Islam. Muslims were OUR ally in Afghanistan when the Russians were trying (without success) to bludgeon it into submission.

Egypt's President Mubarak was OUR man. It's all very well to salute the young protestors in the streets of Cairo, but what is the likely outcome if we stand by and do nothing? We've already fought two bloody wars in the Middle East. We aren't "up" for another few, I'd wager.

Yellowcake, anyone?

J said...
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J said...

Per Sartre, "Humanity is a useless passion." Most Mericans are infected with a naive optimism--mostly protestant, IMHE--and insist things will be getting better--when that's generally not the case. Things could get worse--in mideast, EU, USA--whether economically or politically speaking. The battle for control of Libyan oil fields could be starting.

Existentialism was hardly some perfect Weltanschauung but mostly free of western optimism typical of sunday schoolers and many marxistas for that matter (and contra newage, quasi-buddhist BS as well). Make friends with yr Being-towards-Death