Late May saw an inspirational video wind its way to the internet: that of a Saudi Arabian woman confronting representatives of the Mutaween (see below), her country’s religious police. Unapologetically, she refused to leave a shopping mall on the command of these religious fascists: her crime was that of wearing nail polish and showing her hair. Uniformed police arrived following her commotion and seemingly deterred the mutawwa, all while she threatened to post their bullying on Facebook and Twitter. The sight of Wahhabi authoritarianism so proudly flouted warms the heart, to be sure, but it can be misleading.
That is to say, amidst optimistic editorials and rapidly-unravelling yet still-maintained myths about the so-called Arab Spring, this could merely reinforce the misconception that the Middle East is experiencing a historic march toward western liberalism. Though at the risk of beating a dead horse in highlighting this, the truth is quite the opposite; indeed, recent events simply underline that message. Note, for instance, the mass rally of thousands of Tunisian Salafis around 20 May.
…the notion of an Arab – rather than Islamist – state nominally still echoes…
According to the Middle East Media Research Institute, the Salafis chanted enthusiastically “Obama, Obama, we are all Osama”, and “Khaybar, Khaybar, oh Jews, the army of Muhammad is returning.” Khaybar, to clarify, was an oasis north of Medina and reportedly the last Jewish settlement in seventh-century Saudi Arabia. After its conquest by the Prophet Muhammad, Khaybar was then cleansed of its Jewish presence by their transport to Mesopotamia during the reign of Caliph Umar. Egyptian developments are scarcely more reassuring.
With the Muslim Brotherhood already dominating the Egyptian Parliament, its presidential candidate emerged on 29 May with a narrow lead in the first round. For a supposedly cosmopolitan country in which the notion of an Arab – rather than Islamist – state nominally still echoes, this makes for important news. It means that, even with the Coptic Christian community flocking to the Brotherhood’s main competitor in fear of an existential threat, Islamism can still potentially win the upcoming runoff.
US Senator John McCain openly made the case…
Clearly, then, the West profoundly misunderstood the revolutions of last year. Egypt’s Tahrir Square was demonstrably not as representative as had been hoped. We hoped for a secular Arab repeat of 1989 and later overlooked Egyptian stations such as Al-Nas TV exhorting hugely anti-Semitic works like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. With the downfall of Tunisia’s dictatorship, we saw yearning for western-style governance, ignoring the beginnings of Salafi political exertion. In short, by insisting blithely on democracy, western states seem to have overlooked that the term infers merely majority rule – not automatic respect for rights and rationality in government.
All this, however, need not merely be a dry, academic assessment. Egypt and Tunisia have returned racism, mysticism and statism, but Syria’s story is incomplete. This is not to suggest some naive assessment that the Syrian opposition will prove itself superior, but an outlook on what action we should take over al-Assad’s barbarism. US Senator John McCain openly made the case on 31 May for arming the Syrian rebels, and Strategic Forecasting notes that anti-tank weaponry has apparently been covertly supplied for some time.
…the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism…
While observations in Tunisia and Egypt certainly mitigate against such decisions, we ought equally not forget that the conflict is multi-faceted. Namely, the Syrian regime is a puppet of Iran. If the threat of Islamism is our concern in this – as it rightly should be – then promoting the collapse of an ally of the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism warrants favourable consideration.
Geopolitically, in spite of possible internal Syrian political concerns, we stand to gain something by undermining the al-Assad dictatorship; with its downfall, we can perhaps reverse the Iranian dictatorship’s march to ever-greater power.