Review of Sohrab Ahmari’s “Arab Spring Dreams: Freedom and Justice from North Africa to Iran”

Preparing for my preliminary exams required a year of reading. After completing the exams on April 18, I pledged to continue tackling books at a steady pace. One book I recently read, Arab Spring Dreams: Freedom and Justice from North Africa to Iran, warrants special attention because its problematic on so many different levels. Ahmari’s anthology is a collection of essays written and submitted by the youth of the Middle East and North Africa. The aim of the project is to highlight the regions’ complexities through the vast array of personal struggles. According to the editors, Sohrab Ahmari and Nasser Weddady, the volume accepted essays from liberal youth and is designed to appeal to liberals in the west for the stated aim of enlisting the people of “the West” to help strengthen the liberal cause in the Middle East, whatever that means, in order to challenge dictatorship and fend off the rising “threat” of a seemingly monolithic “Islamist threat.”

Before I outline all the points I found seriously problematic within this book, let me say that it does at the same time serve a good purpose in that it brings attention to important issues that many people experience in different parts of the Muslim world ranging from homophobia, sexism, racism, corruption, election fraud, dictatorship, and more.  Such taboo subjects, especially homophobia, warrant attention and rarely get it.

But the book’s major flaws do in fact overwhelm the positive aspects of the volume and I think it’s important to address them because these are issues important to anyone interested in the region or concerned with Middle Eastern studies, the politics of representation, or basic historical accuracy.

I’ll start with the minor issues and then gradually make my way to some of the more disturbing ones:

1- The title of the book is a bit misleading. Little about it has to do with the actual “Arab Spring” per se. I feel as though the editors picked such a title so as to appeal to the growing demand for books on the historic transnational uprising.

2- The little that is covered about the Arab Spring is simply inaccurate. On page 3, the editors describe Muhammad Bouazizi, the man whose self-emolation sparked the inferno of revolution across the region, as an unemployed university graduate. He never finished high school let alone obtained a undergraduate degree. His father died when he was young and he dropped out to work and support his family.

3- The editors write: “The world is now witnessing the dramatic awakening of a Middle Eastern civil rights movement as it is relentlessly beamed out via social media platforms and traditional media outlets.” The problem with this statement is that it seems to suggest that the Middle East was a place of apathy and that it has now, all of a sudden, awaken from its slumber. This is simply not true. There have been countless uprisings and rebellions throughout the regions history, especially during the modern period.

4- In one of the segments, the editors talk about one al-Abdullah. Seeing as though one of the editors is a native of Mauritania, I don’t understand why “Abdullah,” a possessive construction with the definite article “al” inherent to it or an “idhafa” in Arabic, needs an additional “al” as a prefix. In terms of Arabic grammar, this is simply incorrent.

5- On page 211, the editors write: “Regimes from the so-called resistance bloc (Iran, Syria, and Sudan)…” I’m sorry, but this is the first time I’ve ever heard of the Sudan being part of the resistance bloc. I’ve heard Iran, Syria, Hizbullah, and Hamas, but never Sudan. These countries and resistance groups are strategically closely aligned, or least they were… Hamas’ role is now under question and the Syrian regime may very well be on its last leg, but the Sudan is not aligned with them whatsoever. This is basic Middle East politics 101.

But I’m nitpicking, on to more pressing matters.

6- The editors write: “Modern Egypt is more closely associated with the brand of Arab nationalism embodied by Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser.” (pp 15) This not even remotely true! Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, broke with Nasserism in every way, shape, and form, and this break was continued under Mubarak. The post-Nasser regimes betrayed Palestine, disavowed Arab socialism, and aligned with the US entirely. In all, Egypt has been governed for the past 40+ years under a system that is effectively anti-Nasser.  Indeed, analysts jokingly stated that when Mubarak was ousted, Sadat was finally dead! The post-Nasser regimes even refused to have a mural, billboard, or statue in his honor and his non-mausoleum tomb, which I visited in ’08, stands in stark contrast to systems that venerate their larger-than-life revolutionary leaders. It almost seem as if the regime wanted you to forget Nasser and his legacy.

7- On page 25, the editors peddle this as historically accurate: “In 1941, however, the Allies–concerned by Reza Shah’s pro-Axis sympathies and the need to secure Iranian oil fields–forced him to abdicate in favor of his son, Muhammad Reza…” The Allies’ primary reason for invading Iran was not to secure oil but to use Iran as a transit route to arm and supply the Soviet war effort as the Nazis had invaded the USSR in the same year.

8- On page 174 the editors talk about Rafiq Hariri’s assassination as if there’s no controversy or debate. They simply say Hizbullah did it. There is no disclaimer that the event is a highly disputed one and that no really knows who did it and that this is simply their opinion. On the contrary, they simply state it as if it’s a fact and there’s no dispute. There is too much controversy around his assassination for one to simply make an accusation and not offer any nuance. Furthermore, they mention Iran’s support of Hizbullah in a very negative light, as if Saudis and others aren’t supporting rival factions in the Lebanon. The truth is, long before Iran supported Lebanon’s Shi’ite, other sectarian groups were aligned with other foreign powers. Today, those same groups, while accepting foreign support, denounce Hizbullah’s proximity to Iran. The hypocrisy of such one-sideness is, as argued by Shaery-Eisenlohr in Shi’ite Lebanon: Transnational Religion and the Making of National Identities, is to say that Lebanese Shi’ites should not be getting outside support and should not have a political voice and that they “should know their place” while all the others, mainly Lebanese Christians and Sunnis, can get outside support and have a legitimate claim to power. I surmise that Lebanese Shi’ites would take issue with such sentiment as them being without a voice in the past has effectively meant their domination by other Lebanese, Israelis, and the PLO.

9- A constant issue that surfaces over and over again in the book is that there is a Muslim world and a West, and these are two neatly categorized entities. There is a growing resistance amongst academics towards such “Islam vs the West” or “Islam and the West” paradigms and for good reason. To talk in such terms is to implicitly disavow the notion that there has been a give-and-take relationship for centuries; that ideas travel and that some things “western” had their origins in the “east” and vice-versa. There are no neat borders between the supposed two and these two “entities” are not monoliths. As much as the book aims to convey the complexities of the Muslim world, by using such an “East-West” paradigm they are perpetuating simplicities the editors seek to de-construct!

10- The editors write: “While many blame the US-led coalition for the ensuring bloodbath, the real blame belongs to the very ideologies that were clashing in Iraq. Doctrinal disputes notwithstanding, the worldviews of Sunni insurgents, anti-American Shi’a militias, and Ba’athists share a common denominator: a complete disregard for the value of human life.” Where do I begin with this rancid apology for the US invasion of Iraq!? For starters, let me remind the editors that before the war, Iraqi Sunnis and Shi’ites lived in mixed neighborhoods and intermarriage was common. Years of sanctions destroyed the middle class, the incubator of Iraq’s secular class, causing many to turn to sectarian institutions for support. The war also intensified sectarian issues as the Shi’ites, right or wrong, were considered collaborators with the US occupation as they had much to gain from the overthrow of the Sunni-led Ba’ath party. Additionally, I would say that the American military occupation is no less respectful of the value of human life than some of these militias. Any basic search on youtube will show you video game-like footage of American gunners just tearing Iraqis to pieces without any evidence of their wrongdoing. And, of course, there are American massacres that we know of like Haditha, and the many more we don’t know about.

11- And the granddaddy of them all is the editors’ final note: “Egyptian liberals face numerous challenges and formidable foes–including Islamists determined to impose their own nightmare-visions on Egyptian society…the question remains: will the West continue to dimiss Mideast democrats as before–or embrace them as they roll up thier sleeves to build their dreams?”  I really was dumbfounded by this statement. The US never dismissed or ignored Mideast democrats as before, but actively fought, overthrew, and marginalized them and their voters. The US overthrew Iran’s democratic premier in 1953, installed an absolute dictator, and then armed him to the teeth against his own people. The US has sent over $100 billion in aid supporting Israel and by default its military occupation of Palestine, a blatantly anti-freedom occupation, urged elections in Palestine and then when the people voted in a way that the US disliked, then-president Bush worked hand-in-hand with Israelis to punish Palestinian civilians for the way they voted. The US has armed and bankrolled the most anti-democratic regimes in the region in the face of democratic struggles, from Egypt (especially post-Mubarak) to Saudi Arabia to even post-Saddam Iraq where the US tried to impose its own anti-democratic system of  governance but had to back down in the face of widespread civil disobedience (see Juan Cole’s The Ayatollah’s of Iraq). If Ahmari and Weddady want genuine democracy in the region, the first entity they should petition is the US foreign policy establishment and demand that it stop subverting democracy in the Middle East! Furthermore, the editors talk about an Islamist nightmare as if all Islamists are bin Ladenites. It is a major fallacy to assume that all Islamists are alike and that all are bin Ladenites. A real democrat would ensure that they along with all other non-violent political forces (most Islamist groups have in fact eschewed violence!) have a stake in the political process. The editors ask their “western” readers to do anything they can to support “liberals” in the Muslim world. This is basic American arrogance 101. The assumption here is that Americans have an answer to other people’s problems. Not only should Americans not help as they don’t know the region and when they think they are helping, they could be in fact making things worse, but if they insist on helping, the first place they should start is with their own foreign policy that has not ceased to subvert democracy in the region.

As I said earlier, the anthology does serve a positive purpose, but the above points are so disturbing that they distract from the positive aspects of the book.

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