Choose your meteorological metaphor disparaging the Arab Spring of 2011 — chilly autumn, bitter winter, even scorching summer — and chances are some earnest FoPo pundit has already trademarked it.
One of the most overanalyzed phenomena of the last decade, the Arab Spring, offered an enigmatic Rorschach Test. Want to find hope and inspiration in Tahrir Square? You’ll see it. Looking for evidence of an Islamist takeover? It’s there too! Truth is, we probably won’t be able to discern the movement’s lasting implications for many years.
Emblematic of this tumult is “Arab Spring Dreams,” a moving collection of submissions by Middle Eastern youth to an essay contest on civil rights in the region.
Edited by liberal activist Nasser Weddady and journalist Sohrab Ahmari, the essays are, by turns and sometimes all at once, hopeful, poignant, disturbing, depressing, infuriating, and inspiring. The pieces are well-written, compelling, and diverse, and the editors are to be commended for pulling them together in a coherent, well-organized fashion.
As Weddady and Ahmari note, “the emphasis [of the compilation] is on subjective experiences — both tangible and intangible — that engender a set of powerful emotions directed against illegitimate power and irrational authority.”
The entries encompass everything from political corruption to gender oppression to religious intolerance.
For instance, Abd al-Rahman Khalil, a 20-year-old Egyptian, waxes indignant about a (pre-Tahrir) election in which votes were sold off to haggling vote brokers. “When the outcome of an election is pre-ordained,” Khalil reluctantly concludes, “people anywhere will seek to cash in on the corruption.”’
“M.D.,” an anonymous Mauritanian blogger, had to curtail her online activism after her identity became known. “I might be accused of being a coward for not doing more,” she muses, “but every evening I go to bed with a clear conscience for having at least tried to fight with my weapons — my words — for the rights of women in Mauritania.”
And “T.T.,” a promising Iranian student, writes of her family’s exclusion from a prestigious Tehran school simply because they practiced the Baha’i faith: “I still hope that someday my dream of ending the discrimination, fanaticism, and bigotry will come true because — despite all the hardships — I still believe that where there is faith, hope never dies.”
The context and timing of the compilation, of course, is more than a bit anachronistic, as the Arab Spring has seemingly managed to simultaneously fulfill, supplant, and render obsolete most if not all of the essays, all of which were written pre-2010. While the editors strive to place them into context anyway, the reader sometimes senses he’s reading yesterday’s news.
Weddady and Ahmari are upfront about this, lambasting the “naïve optimism and euphoric politics” that attended the advent of the Arab Spring. Ahmari, in fact, goes even further in a recent Commentary article, entitled “The Failure of Arab Liberals,” in which he bemoans the “state of practical and ideological disarray” into which the Middle East’s pro-democracy activists have plummeted. Indeed, as the post-revolutionary rift between liberals and Islamists has widened, Arabs and Muslims across the spectrum have fallen back on their common denominator: anti-Israel virulence.
“If liberal values are worth fighting and dying for when it comes to confronting autocracy,” Ahmari writes in Commentary, “they must be guarded more jealously against Islamists, who hate liberalism even more than” the autocrats they’ve supplanted.
And yet, even so, the message of hope, striving, and frustration emanating from the essays in “Arab Spring Dreams” in many ways transcends time, place, and context. That message is as penetrating now — as the Muslim Brotherhood has consolidated power in Egypt, as Syria’s Assad literally gets away with murder, and as Iran’s clerics remain as powerful as ever — as it was a few years ago, and is as fitting in the milieu of Arab-Islamic totalitarianism as it was in the context of Soviet authoritarianism several decades earlier. Global elites must hear, heed, and use this message especially because it has been so egregiously, if predictably, hijacked by rank Islamist opportunism.
“For these budding thinkers,” Weddady and Ahmari write in their introduction, “cursed to grow under dictatorships…designed to crush dissent — simply writing down their thoughts meant risking their personal safety.” The failure of Arab liberals aside, these courageous dissidents are every bit as deserving of our respect and support — moral, material, even martial — as earlier generations who struggled against authoritarian evil.
And while it may be generations before a truly pluralistic, democratic order takes root in the arid Middle Eastern soil, we in the West owe it to those standing up for freedom to stand with them — winter, spring, summer, or fall.
“Arab Spring Dreams: The Next Generation Speaks Out for Freedom and Justice from North Africa to Iran,” Edited by Nasser Weddady & Sohrab Ahmari. Palgrave MacMillan, 231 pages, $17.00
Michael M. Rosen is an attorney and writer in San Diego. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.