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March 9, 2011
The Disappearance of the Nightmare Arab
How a Revolution of Hope Is Changing the Way Americans Look at Islam
By James Carroll
Since 2001, Americans have been living with a nightmare Arab, a Muslim
monster threatening us to the core, chilling our souls with the cry, “God is
great!” Yet after two months of world-historic protest and rebellion in streets
and squares across the Arab world, we are finally waking up to another
reality: that this was our bad dream, significantly a creation of our own
For years, vestigial colonial contempt for Arabs combined with rank
prejudice against the Islamic religion, exacerbated by an obsession with oil,
proved a blinding combination. Then 9/11 pulled its shroud across the sun.
But like the night yielding to dawn, all of this now appears in a new light.
Americans are seeing Arabs and Muslims as if for the first time, and we are,
despite ourselves, impressed and moved. In this regard, too, the Arab
revolution has been, well, revolutionary.
The Absence of Arab Perfidy, the Presence of God
For those same two months, jihadists who think nothing of slaughtering
innocents in the name of Allah have been nowhere in sight, as millions of
ordinary Arabs launched demonstration after demonstration with a non-
violent discipline worthy of Mohandas Gandhi. True, rebels in Libya took up
arms, but defensively, in order to throw back the murderous assaults of
Muammar Qaddafi’s men.
In the meantime, across North Africa and the Middle East, none of the usual
American saws about Islamic perfidy have been evident. The demonizing of
Israel, anti-Semitic sloganeering, the burning of American flags, outcries
against “Crusaders and Jews” -- all have been absent from nearly every
instance of revolt. Osama Bin Laden -- to whom, many Americans became
convinced in these last years, Muslims are supposed to have all but sworn
allegiance -- has been appealed to not at all. Where are the fatwas?
Perhaps the two biggest surprises of all here: out of a culture that has
notoriously disempowered women has sprung a protest movement rife with
female leadership, while a religion regarded as inherently incompatible with
democratic ideals has been the context from which comes an
unprecedented outbreak of democratic hope. And make no mistake: the
Muslim religion is essential to what has been happening across the Middle
East, even without Islamic “fanatics” chanting hate-filled slogans.
Without such fanatics, who in the West knows what this religion actually
In fact, its clearest image has been there on our television screens again
and again. In this period of transformation, every week has been punctuated
with the poignant formality of Friday prayers, including broadcast scenes of
masses of Muslims prostrate in orderly rows across vast squares in every
contested Arab capital. Young and old, illiterate and tech savvy, those in
flowing robes and those in tight blue jeans have been alike in such
observances. From mosque pulpits have come fiery denunciations of
despotism and corruption, but no blood-thirst and none of the malicious
Imams who so haunt the nightmares of Europeans and Americans.
Yet sacrosanct Fridays have consistently seen decisive social action, with
resistant regimes typically getting the picture on subsequent weekends.
(The Tunisian prime minister, a holdover from the toppled regime of autocrat
Zine Ben Ali, for example, resigned on the last Sunday in February.) These
outcomes have been sparked not only by preaching, but by the mosque-
inspired cohesion of a collectivity that finds no contradiction between piety
and political purpose; religion, that is, has been a source of resolve.
It’s an irony, then, that Western journalists, always so quick to tie bad Muslim
behavior to religion, have rushed to term this good Muslim behavior
“secular.” In a word wielded by the New York Times, Islam is now considered
little but an “afterthought” to the revolution. In this, the media is simply
wrong. The protests, demonstrations, and uprisings that have swept across
the Middle East have visibly built their foundations on the irreducible sense
of self-worth that, for believers, comes from a felt closeness to God, who is
as near to each person -- as the Qu’ran says -- as his or her own jugular vein.
The call to prayer is a five-times-daily reminder of that infinite individual
A Rejection Not Only of Violence, But of the Old Lies
The new Arab condition is not Nirvana, nor has some political utopia been
achieved. In no Arab state is the endgame in sight, much less played out.
History warns that revolutions have a tendency to devour their children, just
as it warns that every religion can sponsor violence and war as easily and
naturally as nonviolence and peace.
History warns as well that, in times of social upheaval, Jews are the
preferred and perennial scapegoat, and the State of Israel is a ready target
for that hatred. Arab bigotry has not magically gone away, nor has the human
temptation to drown fear with blood. But few, if any, revolutions have been
launched with such wily commitment to the force of popular will, not arms.
When it comes to “people power,” Arabs have given the concept several
Because so many people have believed in themselves -- protecting one
another simply by standing together -- they have been able to reject not only
violence, but any further belief in the lies of their despotic rulers. The stark
absence of Israel as a major flashpoint of protest in these last weeks, to take
a telling example, stands in marked contrast to the way in which the
challenged or overthrown despots of various Middle Eastern lands
habitually exploited both anti-semitism (sponsoring, for instance, the
dissemination through Arab newsstands of the long-discredited Protocols of
the Elders of Zion) and the plight of Palestinians (feigning sympathy for the
dispossessed victims of Israeli occupation while doing nothing to help them,
precisely because Arab dictators needed suffering Palestinians to distract
from the suffering of their own citizens).
Not surprisingly, if always sadly, the Arab revolution has brought incidents of
Jew-baiting in its wake -- in late February in Tunis, for example, by a mob
outside the city’s main synagogue. That display was, however, quickly
denounced and repudiated by the leadership of the Free Tunisia movement.
When a group of Cairo thugs assaulted CBS correspondent Lara Logan, they
reportedly hurled the word “Jew” at her as an epithet. So yes, such incidents
happened, but what makes them remarkable is their rarity on such a
To be sure, Arabs broadly identify with the humiliated Palestinians, readily
identify Israel as an enemy, and resent the American alliance with Israel, but
something different is unfolding now. When the United States vetoed the U.
N. Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the very
thick of February’s revolutionary protests, to flag one signal, the issue was
largely ignored by Arab protesters. In Palestinian areas of the West Bank
and Gaza, the spirit of Arab revolt showed itself mainly in a youth-driven and
resolutely non-violent movement to overcome the intra-Palestinian divisions
between Fatah and Hamas. Again and again, that is, the Arab Muslim
population has refused to behave as Americans have been conditioned to
The Mainstreaming of Anti-Muslim Prejudice
Conditioned by whom? Prejudice against Arabs generally and Islam in
particular is an old, old story. A few months ago, the widespread nature of
the knee-jerk suspicion that all Muslims are potentially violent was
confirmed by National Public Radio commentator Juan Williams, who said, “I
get worried. I get nervous” around those “in Muslim garb,” those who
identify themselves “first and foremost as Muslims.”
Williams was fired by NPR, but the commentariat rallied to him for simply
speaking a universal truth, one which, as Williams himself acknowledged,
was to be regretted: Muslims are scary. When NPR then effectively reversed
itself by forcing the resignation of the executive who had fired him, anti-
Muslim bigotry was resoundingly vindicated in America, no matter the
intentions of the various players.
Scary, indeed -- but no surprise. Such prejudice had been woven into every
fiber of American foreign and military policy across the previous decade, a
period when the overheated watchword was “Islamofascism.” In 2002,
scholar Bernard Lewis’s book What Went Wrong? draped a cloak of
intellectual respectability around anti-Muslim contempt. It seemed not to
have occurred to Lewis that, if such an insulting question in a book title
deserves an answer at all, in the Arab context it should be: “we” did -- with
that “we” defined as Western civilization.
Whether the historical marker is 1099 for Crusader mayhem; 1417 for the
Portuguese capture of Ceuta, the first permanent European outpost in North
Africa; 1492 for the expulsion from Spain of Muslims (along with Jews); 1798
for Napoleon’s arrival as a would-be conqueror in Cairo; 1869 for the
opening of the Suez Canal by the French Empress Eugenie; 1917 for the
British conquest of Palestine, which would start a British-spawned contest
between Jews and Arabs; or the 1930s, when vast oil reserves were
discovered in the Arabian peninsula --- all such Western antecedents for
trouble in Arab lands are routinely ignored or downplayed in our world in
favor of a preoccupation with a religion deemed to be irrational, anti-modern,
and inherently hostile to democracy.
How deep-seated is such a prejudice? European Christians made expert
pronouncements about the built-in violence of Islam almost from the start,
although the seventh century Qur’an was not translated into Latin until the
twelfth century. When a relatively objective European account of Islam’s
origins and meaning finally appeared in the eighteenth century, it was
quickly added to the Roman Catholic Index of forbidden books. Western
culture is still at the mercy of such self-elevating ignorance. That’s readily
apparent in the fact that a fourteenth century slander against Islam -- that it
was only “spread by the sword” -- was reiterated in 2006 (on the fifth
anniversary of 9/11) by Pope Benedict XVI. He did apologize, but by then the
Muslim-haters had been encouraged.
Western contempt for Islam is related to a post-Enlightenment distrust of all
religion. In modern historiography, for instance, the brutal violence that
killed millions during paroxysms of conflict across Europe in the sixteenth
and seventeenth centuries is remembered as the “religious wars,” even
though religion was only part of a history that included the birth of nations
and nationalism, as well as of industrial capitalism, and the opening of the
“age of exploration,” also known as the age of colonial exploitation.
“Secular” sources of violence have always been played down in favor of
sacred causes, whether the Reformation, Puritan fanaticism, or Catholic anti-
modernism. “Enlightened” nation-states were all-too-ready to smugly
denounce primitive and irrational religious violence as a way of asserting
that their own expressly non-religious campaigns against rival states and
aboriginal peoples were necessary and therefore just. In this tale, secular
violence is as rational as religious violence is irrational. That schema holds
to this day and is operative in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the United States
and its NATO allies pursue dogmatically ideological and oil-driven wars that
are nonetheless virtuous simply by not being “religious.”
No fatwas for us. Never mind that these wars were declared to be “against
evil,” with God “not neutral,” as George W. Bush blithely put it. And never
mind that U.S. forces (both the military and the private contractors) are
strongly influenced by a certain kind of fervent Christian evangelicalism that
defines the American enemy as the “infidel” -- the Muslim monster
unleashed. In any case, ask the families of the countless dead of America’s
wars if ancient rites of human sacrifice are not being re-enacted in them?
The drone airplane and its Hellfire missile are weapons out of the Book of
The Revolution of Hope
The new Arab revolution, with its Muslim underpinnings, is an occasion of
great hope. At the very least, “we” in the West must reckon with this
overturning of the premises of our prejudice.
Yes, dangers remain, as Arab regimes resist and revolutionaries prepare to
erect new political structures. Fanatics wait in the wings for the democrats to
falter, while violence, even undertaken in self-defense, can open onto vistas
of vengeance and cyclic retribution. Old hatreds can reignite, and the never-
vanquished forces of white supremacist colonial dominance can reemerge.
But that one of the world’s great religions is essential to what is unfolding
across North Africa and the Middle East offers the promise that this
momentous change can lead, despite the dangers, to humane new
structures of justice and mercy, which remain pillars of the Islamic faith. For
us, in our world, this means we, too, will have been purged of something
malicious -- an ancient hatred of Muslims and Arabs that now lies exposed
for what it always was.