In Voices of Arab Revolutionaries, A Counter Narrative

There was tension, fear, and hope. There was also blood. But the chaos that recently consumed Egypt and Tunisia in monumental displays of self-determination reveals another narrative — a subtle message from the energetic, passionate revolutionaries who made history: We are not “the other.” We are you.

In the years following September 11, 2001, some Americans and Europeans viewed Arabs and Muslims with great suspicion. At times, they were described as “anti-Western,” “incapable of reform,” “anti-democratic,” and of course, “dangerous.” In short, they were depicted as being the opposite of rational, stable Westerners who can handle freedom and democracy.

Viewing from afar the turmoil that swarmed the Arab street, one could easily have imagined that the latest episodes of violence were just another example of the allegedly hostile nature of Arabs and Muslims.

Yet, the anti-government protesters were not necessarily anti-Western. They were anti-authoritarian. Instead of burning American flags, protesters burned pictures of their own despotic leaders. The uprisings, however violent they may have been, were not a product of an inherent “rage” but rather, a righteous expression of the desire to be free. This was not jihad against the infidel enemy. The enemies, after all, were the native regimes — Arab and Muslim regimes — that had suppressed a weary citizenry to the point of breakdown.

“We want what you have. We want our freedom. We want to be able to say what we want, gather where we want, and freely elect our leaders,” one Egyptian protester told ABC News.

Could it be, that in their unity, in their hope for a new beginning, the protesters who took control of their dismal political systems also began to etch away a narrative that has, for years, cast them as “the other?” Could it be that in finally ousting their iron-fisted autocrats, Arab and Muslim populations embraced a political vision shared by outsiders who commonly lambast their backwardness?

Despite the protesters’ vociferous cries for freedom, accountability, and equality, in some quarters of the United States their passion for change is being discredited.

Conservative pundits have speculated that in the absence of the pro-Western tyrants, anti-Western regimes would come to power giving rise to an Islamic caliphate and a “coming insurrection.” There are others who, in a display of irony and hypocrisy, suggest that freedom is for everyone — everyone except the Egyptians whose embattled dictator must remain, lest the country collapse into a foaming brew of enraged, freedom-hating terrorists.

In these historic revolutions, Arab and Muslim societies have found their voices. Not only have they toppled their oppressive regimes, they have provided an opportunity for the world to reexamine the narrative of “us” versus “them.” In Cairo, in Tunis, and across North Africa, they have paid the price for an era of “we.” Now is the time to join their chorus.

Photo CreditAhmad Hammoud

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Nathan Lean

Nathan Lean is the Research Director at Georgetown University's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. His three books include, most recently, The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims (Pluto 2012). Nathan's writing has been featured in the New York Daily News, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, CNN, Salon, The New Republic, and others. His newest book, The Changing Middle East, will be released by Rowman and Littlefield in 2015.

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