The Arab Spring

The Arabs are now, in 2011, reclaiming their public sphere. This should come as no surprise: Arab culture shares the roots of European civilisation.


The most surprising thing about the Arab Spring of 2011 is not that, at long last and pushed to the limit, Arabs across the Middle East have had enough of inept, authoritarian rulers. Nor is it that they took so long to get there: Islamophobes in particular should note that quite obviously, the Arabs are a rather peaceable people. They are not all Muslims, either, and even those that are, come in a variety of flavours.

No, what is surprising is that so many of us in Europe and the Americas were surprised.

We had no reason to be. First, look at the history of Western thought and follow the trail back through the philosophers and political thinkers we look to for direction. While we assume that the particular development path that led up to contemporary European culture and society started with the ancient Greeks, there is no direct trajectory. It is a path mediated pretty comprehensively through Arab thinkers – and not just Arabs, but Muslims.

Scientific and intellectual leadership may have eluded the Arabs for a while now, but in seeking to understand the roots of the uprisings of 2011 it is good to remember that the basis of Arab civilisation is in many ways identical to the underpinnings of Western society.

There is nothing in the Arab world view that runs counter to the ideal of democracy; there is no aspect of Arab culture that requires Arabs to want no part in an open debate on the shape and direction their societies will be taking. On the contrary, the instances where this aspiration to public engagement and freedom is thwarted are in fact aberrations and not the norm.

Look if you will at the great Arab Caliphates of the early Muslim world. We are going back a thousand years, but the Ottoman Empire (Turkish, this time, not Arab) continued the trend. These hugely diverse, multi-racial, multi-cultural states were a beacon of tolerance, particularly by the standards of their day. They were also enormously fertile cultures, producing groundbreaking developments in science, in medicine and of course in the arts and philosophical thought.

So now that the Arabs have decided to tell their rulers that enough is enough, that it is now time for them to reclaim their shattered public spheres, we should not be surprised.

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