One of the best pieces of childrearing advice I ever read said, “Don’t ask a child ‘what do you want for breakfast’ unless you are prepared to make macaroni and cheese at six-thirty in the morning.” The writer recommended giving the child a short list of choices: cold cereal or toaster pastry or instant oatmeal. The same principles seem to guide dictatorships and totalitarian government – only give the people a limited number of options; they will think they have freedom of choice when they really don’t.
For a people who have lived that way all their lives, or even most of their lives, true freedom is scary. It can be downright terrifying to suddenly have a choice of where one can travel or who one can associate with or what job one can get or which of twenty candidates to vote for. It can also be terrifying to realize that everyone else the same freedom, including the freedom to somehow deny someone else his or her freedom.
That is what is happening in the countries of the Arab Spring – Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. True freedom may be something to celebrate, but it can also be something to fear. Everyone else has the same freedom. What if a majority of them do not want everyone to be equal or free? What if that freedom extends to people who aren’t like us or who do something we don’t approve of? Too many decisions to make and no experience making decisions. It’s very scary.
When frightened, human beings retreat into the known and familiar, their comfort zones. They are easily persuaded that “the others” will rob them of their new freedoms and “the others” must be contained in some way. For the survivors of the Arab Spring, the comfort zone is Islam. It is ancient, known and highly structured. It is a replacement for the structure of a totalitarian regime, but one that appears to be outside the politics of mankind. It is God’s structure, so it must be beneficial.
America’s right wing is raising the alarms over the drift that Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have taken toward political parties that identify themselves as Islamist. They equate Islamism with the Taliban, Iran and terrorists, which is ironic since one of the most Islamic nations in the world is Saudi Arabia. They are also stuck in a trio of old concepts about the Middle East – pan-Arabism, pan-Islamism and the restoration of the medieval Caliphate – and they don’t understand what any of them really mean. They are contradictory at best and enemies at worst, and not supported by a majority of people in the region.
The rise of Islamist parties in the newly liberated Middle Eastern countries is not a reason to panic. When the thirteen colonies attained their freedom from England, the Continental Congress offered George Washington a crown. They wanted to make him our king. They were falling back on the safe, the familiar, because the other option was scary. The only model they had of an elected government was England’s parliament. Without a king, who would oversee the parliament, who would the prime minister report to, how would they have continuity as opposing parties traded the majority between themselves? When they finally worked out how to run a government without a king, they still clung to the familiar and safe – no rights for women and the continuation of slavery. We are still fighting for equality for all citizens of this nation, for full access to the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, for the right to be individuals and not slaves to social conformity as defined by the dominating culture.
The nations of the Middle East and North Africa were created by outside forces. They penned in nomadic people, divided tribes, lumped together people who were historical enemies, ignored all the natural divisions of the region. At this time, no one is suggesting going back to the drawing board and remapping the entire region (though that would be a fabulous idea.) So, it is necessary, as the tribal and ethnic divisions of the region threaten to fracture the existing structures as they did in Eastern Europe after the fall of communism, to create something to replace the “national” identity that was embodied in a single person like Moammar Qaddafi or a single party like the Baathists of Syria. Islam provides that unifying force, so long as the rights of non-Muslims are protected. The committee writing the new Tunisian constitution has chosen to do that.
The risk in this process comes more from our right wing and the right wing in Israel than from within these nations. There is a millennium of history here, and none of it assures the people of the Middle East that we are capable of honoring their freedom. From the Crusades to the invasion of Iraq, the West has proven repeatedly that we consider Muslims barbaric, inferior and in need of our guidance and supervision. If we can quiet those who insist that all Muslims are the enemies of non-Muslims, if we can calm the fears of the people of the region, they will be able to co-habit with the non-Muslims among them.
In the face of freedom and modernism, the people of the Arab Spring are seeking a security blanket, a way to feel comfortable with their new reality. For now, they will accept Islamism and its structure. These revolutions were begun by the younger generation and they will, over time, relax the structure of their nations. And, just as the United States has evolved from a land of privilege for the few, these nations will evolve into more secular governments and lives. We can only hope that it doesn’t take them over two hundred years to do so.