The history of popular revolutions has been horrifying if we look over our shoulders at Russia, China, and Germany, but you can’t help but hope that Tunisia starts a domino effect in the Muslim world. Fear has kept the West, and the U.S. especially, on the side of brutal reactionary rule in countries where the alternative — fanatical fundamentalism — was even more fearful. No image frightened the average American more than the Arab street portrayed on TV, an angry mob ready to hate us without provocation. But behind those outraged young men lie real grievances that run very deep.
The fact is that repression fuels terrorism. The Muslim Brotherhood, for example, was ignited by the Mubarak regime’s opposition, following a pattern all too familiar from Iran: a ruler who seems “just like us” placates the West while at home his secret police quash opponents without restraint. The total absence of freedom can’t be called the American way by any stretch of the imagination, yet when the U.S. is the supplier of money and arms to these reactionary governments, what conclusion can the ordinary citizen reach? The U.S. is seen as the enemy of freedom. Our policy has paid for stability at all costs. Blinded for decades by anti-communism, along with an addiction to cheap oil, we tolerated oppressive rulers whose stink rose to high heaven.
Now there’s a chance for change — if we stop being so afraid. It is very likely that the mullahs in every country will rise in power, as they have in Iran and Iraq. Religious fundamentalism, as much as one dislikes it, has been the last hope for people living in degraded conditions while a tiny elite scrapes off the country’s wealth. The real answer to Islamic fundamentalism is an open, free, modern society, where education is given outside the religious schools that are currently the only option for poor Arab children. What feeds our fear? Substitute al-Qaeda for communism and we have a new version of Reagan’s great Satan. There’s no substitute in place for our country’s oil addiction. Our oil consumption and dependency is going stronger than the days in the ’70ies when OPEC tripled the price of oil. With both the economic and religious influences in place, the powers that be are shaking at the prospects of widespread revolution in the Arab World.
So it’s heartening that President Obama came out in support of the uprising in Tunisia. This is in keeping with his attempts, since the day he was elected, to reverse the shameful fear-mongering of the Bush Administration. Whatever hard knocks he is taking, Obama is right to claim that the bulk of the deficit, not to mention two wars and an outrageous favoritism shown to the rich, as well as to the religious right, all occurred on Bush’s watch. I am as nervous about the Arab street as anyone. But where else can we turn if these oppressed societies are to breathe fresh air and enjoy the freedoms that all people deserve?
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