The protests that raged across the Middle East and North Africa over the last week have prompted many questions, but perhaps not the right ones. The attacks on American embassies in nascent democracies are not betrayals of some utopic, democratic future, but the a further playing out of larger geopolitical forces we are still struggling to understand. 

I may be coming a little bit late to the game on this one, but the protests throughout the MENA region last week, while now thankfully died down, have raised a number of questions back in the US region. Most of these questions are quite old and tend to resurface as new and salient any time people “over there” act or react in ways that uncomfortably call attention to what might not be as impartial, mature, logical, and just generally correct behavior on our part as we would like to think.

“Why do they hate us?” “Why can’t they take criticism?” “So illogical!” (note this last might as well read: “how uncivilized!”) Some commentators have seemed shocked that the new political openings in the region hadn’t precluded such a thing, that this was a betrayal of the democratic promise made to us (thus adding the idea that not only are they irrational, but they are untrustworthy as well). In some ways, then, asking these questions about the recent protests comes back to asking what the Arab Spring really is.

See for example, this op ed from Fouad Ajami in the Washington Post. As he makes clear from his introduction, “Modernity requires the willingness to be offended. And as anti-American violence across the Middle East and beyond shows, that willingness is something the Arab world, the heartland of Islam, still lacks.” What follows is a long summary of colonial history in the region and the general feeling that the Arabs just haven’t quite been able to get with it, to keep up with the times, to modernize. There is nothing imperialist about this; it is what the modern world demands of everyone.

Ajami’s recounting of history is correct in the details, but I disagree with his thesis and dangerous misuse of terms. By “modernity” – a term that can mean everything and nothing – what he really means is “Western culture.” So, Arab culture is lacking Western culture. I see where this is going. Ajami in effect says that decades of colonialism and historical humiliation have led Arabs to be perpetually thin-skinned. They are trapped by history, as unchanging in their ways as the great deserts they inhabit.

The idea that a century or more of being a “subject people” is solely responsible for rough relations with Western society is pretty specious, given that more than half of the cultures in the world can be described in the same way. It doesn’t help, but there’s nothing particularly exceptional about the Arab or Muslim worlds in this regard.

One might say that to the extent that societies are not secularized, that any political differences of significance are bound to be religious in appearance. But that, I fear, misunderstands the secular mindset as a norm (and monolithic) and once again places the arguer in a position of self-defined superiority.

One possible argument for an essential cultural component to what’s going on is that Arab culture (and most others except ours) places a high priority on honor (or “face”). Disagreement is fine and healthy, but public insults are another matter. In America, we thrive on insults (giving more than getting, of course). I would hardly put that on the list of essential elements of our way of life, but it is a vibrant character trait/flaw.

I have no doubt that the history of Imperialism is terribly important and is material for resentment. From the American standpoint – and it is that standpoint which is of primary concern to me – we must find ways to “bridge the gap” with these societies, help with their disastrous youth-unemployment problems, and somehow desist from playing the role of regnant Imperialist power.

More and more, I think Sam Huntington had it right. This is one aspect of what he would have termed a “fault-line conflict,” which also helps to explain why it never goes away. Elites manipulate issues to gain and  retain power, and such a public clash of cultures (or civilizations) is an expedient means to do it.

So then, if not oriental thin-skinnedness, what are/were the protests about? How much is religious? How much political? As to the political: why?

I suspect that the attack in Libya wasn’t entirely linked to the anti-Muslim film that spurred on the Egyptian riots and which then spread to Pakistan and elsewhere. Of the others, who really needs a reason to protest the US? People have been deeply resentful of the US for decades. The yoke of empire sits heavy, and without a unifying story of a battle of good vs evil (the Cold War) to justify hegemony, it is not just heavy but unjust.

But it is far more complicated than that, of course.Tony Karon wrote a good overall assessment of the situation in Libya shortly after the attack. I think he overplays the danger in Libya and also doesn’t distinguish between different types of salafis; however, he does help to show the ways that elites manipulate issues in the region to their own advantage and he highlights the ways that the new political situation in Libya (and perhaps elsewhere) presents challenges and opportunities.

People don’t like the US. The US and Israel, in the local mindset, are responsible for every ill. That’s silly, of course, but also understandable to a degree. People in the region now have the physical ability to mobilize and act, where they couldn’t before under dictatorial rule. They also have the the encouragement to act, in that they’ve seen what collective action can bring.

Getting back to Huntington, I do think that the end of the Cold War is largely responsible for the Arab Spring generally (and I include the earlier Iranian Green Movement here) in that, along with a growing “middle-ish class” and 20% youth bulge, it upset the traditional balance of powers. We are in the process of seeing the cards settle after a good shuffle.

In many ways, I think events today resemble 1848, with a series of revolutions that produced, in that case, the dawn of ideological politics in Europe and throughout the world. That year saw the publication of the Communist Manifesto, and while communism played little to no part in any of the revolutions then underway, the “specter” of communism (to use Marx’s phrase) thereafter became the most potent ideological force available to anti-establishment forces. If the parallel is a good one, however, I think we have to ask what is the “specter” today? Is it Islamism or salafism, as some suggest? Or is it a greater geopolitical shift?