Brain Drain, Soft Power and Orientalist Revolutions
The Arab Spring was neither democratic nor liberal. Those values are indigenous only to America and Europe.
There is a narrative at work. Man has evolved from a savage uncivilized species to a level of sophistication which is today best exemplified by the Western world. This view of history is linear, it allows only for Hegelian progress and it is also ethnocentric since it makes Europe and America the leaders of human progress. Huntington’s “Western civilization” concept reflects this view.
When large political upheavals take place, most of the commentariat resorts in a Pavlovian fashion to this narrative to explain them. Thus is the case with all the series of revolutions since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Velvet Revolution, the color revolutions and now the Arab Spring are all framed as being just one more step in the world’s adaptation to the Western concept of society and civilization. But are they?
If that were the case would they all happen to happen in Europe’s periphery? We have not seen dominos fall in sub-Saharan Africa, in South Asia or in the Far East.
The truth as British historian Timothy Garton Ash puts it is that:
One might suggest that the best chances are to be found in semiauthoritarian states that depend to a significant degree, politically, economically and, so to speak, psychologically, on more democratic ones — and most especially when the foreign states with the most passive influence or active leverage on them are Western democracies.
NATO states gave their best efforts to influence the elites of the Central and Eastern European states during the Cold War. Propaganda and subversion activities aside, even if very few of these intellectuals actually visited the West, Western books and culture were predominant in the world and therefore also, to a degree, behind the Iron Curtain. It is no surprise that Western influence continued to be felt in spite of Soviet censure since that had always been the case prior to the Cold War. Russian, Polish or Serb elites had always drifted westward in search of inspiration and that did not change with the old continent’s division in ideological blocs.
The same holds true for the color revolutions in Russia’s “Near Abroad.”
What to make of the Arab Spring? Unfortunately the same. It is not just a matter of European neighbors being demographically bigger and economically stronger; it is also the fact that the international narrative is dominated by European encultured states and societies: Europeans have colonized most of the world and the cultural standard is today a socially liberal, free-market economy-oriented, democratically-ruled nation state.
Phenomena such as brain drain and soft power only further emphasize this tendency. Where do the wealthiest and brightest Arabs study and obtain their entertainment if not in Europe and America? Sayyid Qutb sensed this very phenomenon and called it Jahiliyyah — referring to the prevalent “ignorance” prior to Islamic rule to categorize a contemporary prevalent corruption from within which hinders Islamic values.
What is important to understand is not that Western values are wrong but that they aren’t absolute. They may make sense to Westerners but not necessarily to other cultures and it is wrong to frame every political struggle as a conflict aiming at emulating the West. This has been done before by the Orientalists who analyzed Eastern cultures only by holding them to a Western standard.
The consequence of this narrative is a growing décalage between the perception of reality and reality itself. Al Jazeera is a perfect example of a corporate culture which is embedded with graduates of European and American universities and which covered the Arab Spring — and the terminology here is telling — as a struggle for democracy and liberalism, as if the values of the nonsecular protesters who prayed in Tahrir Square were reason for shame.
The mishaps of this décalage are evident in all of these cycles of revolution with socially conservative and illiberal parties and politicians “surprisingly” emerging in Central and Eastern Europe and the Arab world. Who knew that the same people who toppled dictators were prejudiced against homosexuals and Jews? Antisemitism, Euroskepticism, homophobia or misogeny are just some of the most depressing gifts that media such as Al Azhar magazine or the Polish Radio Maria bring us from these revolutions.
The most direct effect is counterrevolution and reactionary movements which view Western intervention and influence as intrusion in domestic affairs and turn to Moscow or Beijing for investment, trade and strategic relations.
Liberal elites are frequently the vanguard of revolutions in the West’s periphery but the people these intellectuals claim to speak for and liberate don’t often identify themselves with their Washington Consensus agendas. The Arab revolts cannot be Twitter or Facebook revolutions when most Arabs don’t use the Internet, much less in English, and they should never have been portrayed as liberal democratic revolutions when those values are indigenous only to Europe and European colonized territories.