Talk of the “Arab Spring” just shows the West’s ignorance

The “Arab Spring” is named after the “Prague Spring” which ended not in freedom but in the Soviet invasion. Are we really this stupid?

Plaque for the Velvet Revolution
Robin Shepherd, Owner / Publisher
On 27 May 2011 09:55

All right. First an admission, second an excuse, third a bit of a rant, and only then the serious stuff. So here goes. Yes, I’ve done it too. Like everyone else, I have found myself referring to the turmoil sweeping the Arab world as the “Arab Spring”. Only once, I think, and my real excuse is that when all around you are talking ahistorical nonsense, it’s easy to slip into error yourself.

As a political culture, as journalists, as analysts, as pundits, are we really this stupid? Isn’t there anyone out there to put up their hand, call a time-out and say: “You know, ladies and gents, there’s a risk here of us making fools of ourselves. You do realise that the Prague Spring took place in 1968, not 1989 – that was the Velvet Revolution – and that it ended with the Soviet invasion and the reestablishment of totalitarian rule, not freedom and democracy?”  

Watching the BBC this morning there was even some clown referring to talk of a “Marshall Plan” for the “Arab Spring” countries at the G8 conference in France. But the Marshall Plan got going two decades before the Prague Spring, and it didn’t apply to the eastern bloc, ie. not Czechoslovakia, anyway. Have these people had their brains removed?

If, as a culture, we can’t get basic historical reference points right even about Europe, if we’re choosing as a shorthand to express our hope and belief in the final flowering of democracy against a backdrop of tyranny something which ended in the precise opposite, if we can’t even show clarity on the difference between 1968 and 1989 – two of the most significant years in modern European history – what hope is there of us saying anything remotely sensible about events in the Middle East?

In this particular case, the dumbing down of our political discourse does have an at least partial explanation. The pathological obsession over the last decade with one small country in the eastern Mediterranean, the State of Israel, has left us in a state of unawareness about most of the rest of the region.

Labouring under the (now plainly false) assumption that everything of any importance in that part of the world really came down to what Israel did with the Palestinians, we placed ourselves in a condition of self-imposed ignorance.

Worse, due to a combination of a new mutation of anti-Semitism and a whole set of hang-ups related to post-colonial guilt, the bulk of Britain’s foreign policy establishment and media has spent much of its time sanitising an Arab political culture which, the evidence suggests, is to a significant extent in the grip of pre-modern bigotry, superstition, and the cult of the strongman leader.

The evidence suggests that, really? Yes it does. Remember Lara Logan, the CBS reporter who was subjected to a brutal and sustained sexual assault in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in February. That wasn’t by a lone predator in a dark alley, it was by a mob of 300 men screaming “Jew!”, “Jew!” “Jew!” at her in the very heart of the Arab world’s “democratic revolution”. I don’t remember anything like that happening in Prague or Berlin in 1989. Do you?

A survey by Pew in 2006 found that 97 percent of Egyptians and 98 percent of Jordanians openly admitted to negative attitudes towards Jews. I realise that anti-Semitism is not regarded as much of an issue by the Western political intelligentsia these days – it’s almost always ignored or excused by the BBC and the British Foreign Office for example. So, for a moral equivalent, imagine if Egyptians and Jordanians were confessing to similar hostility to black people. Would that give you confidence that the Arab world is in prime position to build a successful civil society in the manner of central and eastern Europe in the 1990s?

I can’t prove the point about the strongman leader with evidence that is anything other than anecdotal. All I can say is that the complaint about their leaders made by most of the Arabs I have been talking to in recent years is that they’re too weak, that they’re not aggressive enough against Israel and the Jews, and that they’re little better than poodles of the United States.   

I know central and eastern Europe very well, and, again, I just don’t remember this political-cultural template from those parts of the formerly communist world that have made successful transitions to democracy.

Of course, I don’t know for sure what’s going to happen in the Middle East. Maybe it'll be good, maybe it'll be bad, or maybe it'll be something in between. Like everyone else, I hope it ends up smelling of roses.

But it is surely the role of analysts and journalists to point up the risk factors rather than submerge them under ahistorical platitudes of the kind we are now being served up with.

The “Arab Spring” indeed…  

Robin Shepherd is owner/publisher of The Commentator. Follow on twitter @RobinShepherd1

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