By Gabriel Rom
Few people can say they’ve shared dinner with Moammar Gadhafi.
But Robin Wright, a world-renowned journalist and author specializing in Middle East politics shared that and other stories in a talk Monday about the ongoing revolutions roiling the Arab world.
Wright, the first speaker in this year’s faculty lectureship series, gave a presentation at Rosse Hall titled “Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World.”
Many Kenyon students have heard about the upheaval of multiple tyrants in Egypt, Tunisia and most recently Libya as well as the ongoing battles in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen. With over 30,000 killed and scores more tortured and imprisoned, these events are watershed moments in 21st century history. Why these revolutions occurred, who is behind them and how they will affect the arena of international politics are all questions thatWright helped to elucidate. Wright stayed away from overtly political statements and did not put the Arab revolutions into ideological contexts. Rather, she tried to paint an objective and fact-based picture of what sparked them. A storyteller who has traveled to over 150 countries, Wright began the lecture by relaying to the audience the perceptions she gathered during her extensive travels and conversations with Arabs engaged in the protest movements.
Wright’s lecture was tinged with the optimism that has been lacking in American political discourse. She presented the protest movements as largely grassroots and youth-based – a mass movement of young Arabs who are overwhelmingly literate, Facebook-savvy and more socially liberal than their parents. The protestor’s wishes are neither complex nor unreasonable: political corruption, chronic unemployment and the stifling of political dissent are what brought the masses to the streets. Wishing to be treated with dignity and respect by their governments, these young, dissatisfied and mostly unemployed citizens are the agents of change behind the revolutions in the Arab World and they represent what Wright termed “people power.” Wright summarized this “people power” movement by profiling various young individuals involved in the protests.
Closely linked to the idea of people power is the spreading of “counterjihad,” another term Wright often used. Counterjihad is the Arab Street’s response to and rejection of extremism as a way to further political goals. Instead of “suicide bombs and molotov cocktails,” counterjihad applies political pressure through non-violent civil disobedience. Wright told the story of Mohamaed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire in front of a Parliamentary building in the face of repeated harassment by Tunisian government officials. This one act of civil disobedience was all it took to bring thousands of Tunisians to the streets. And then, in a matter of just a few weeks, millions upon millions of people engaged in one of the largest mass movements of the 21st century. From Tunisia to Egypt to Bahrain, this one act of self-immolation acted as the finger that pushed the dominoes over.
One of the most optimistic parts of Wright’s lecture was an Egyptian poll she cited in which over 85 percent of those polled said that they believed in democratic government and would participate in the coming election this September. Revolutions are profoundly destabilizing events and the interim period between the euphoria of overthrowing a tyrant and implementing a stable and accountable government is fraught with potential pitfalls. Such a high level of participation is encouraging, but it can wither if results are not seen soon. Wael Ghonim, an Egyptian blogger who is one of the young leaders of the Arab Spring that Wright talked about, recently posted a message to his Facebook stating: “The resulting passivity has deformed Egyptian life. A sham democracy was founded, composed of farcical elections, pseudo political parties, and hypocritical media outlets.” The revolutions are teetering, and while political cultures do not change overnight, Wright tried to convey cautious optimism rather than wide eyed idealism.
Wright closed the lecture with a caricatured cartoon of Rep. Peter King (R- N.Y.) walking into a little boy’s bedroom and saying, “Sleep tight. Don’t let the Muslims bite!’ The young boy looked petrified. It was the most political Wright got all night, and the message was clear: fear and ignorance of Islamic culture can be exploited for political gain and can result in fear-based politics. In the question and answer section of the lecture, Wright clarified her position, saying, “I think Americans are more afraid of Islam today than they were on Sept. 12, 2001.”
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