The Middle East and the West have a lot of bridges to build when it comes to truly understanding each other. Yet one area which has seen substantial growth lies in the most abstract of principals. It’s something most Americans rarely contemplate but is seen as a revolutionary concept to much of the world: The pursuit of happiness. For most people living outside the States or Western Europe, pleasure is not expected and happiness is not something one is owed.
It can be difficult to explain this concept to somebody who never grew up with it. Most cultures around the globe expect their fair share (and then some) of tough breaks. Death, famine, revolution, disease, and tyrannical forces are synonymous with life itself. To rebel against one is to rebel against all, as pointless as a gnat in a windstorm. Of course this isn’t to suggest that existence outside the States is a joyless affair. No doubt good times are taken as they come and pain is felt just as poignantly as ever. But there isn’t that same feeling of indignation or personal injustice that accompanies tragedy in America.
In most dictatorships throughout the Middle East, human rights violations are so common they are sometimes met with shrugs and yawns. There is no insulting the President-King and doing so can land a person in jail. Attempts at independent news media are almost always met with broken out office windows and orders to desist. Every family I’ve ever met can recount stories of the disappeared, tortured or wrongfully imprisoned. Add to this midnight searches, internet restrictions, limited travel, and voter fraud as predictable as the seasons themselves.
Things are, however, starting to shift in the strangest of directions. There isn’t one particular culprit to blame, although media certainly carries its fair share of culpability. But education, mobility, globalization and the economic downturn have all played into creating a new self-awareness throughout the Middle East.
Nowhere has this recently become as stunningly obvious as Tunisia. Where a life of economic deprivation might be expected a decade or so ago, the number of college graduates, coupled with the free exchange of information brought about by the internet has made fermenting and organizing social discontent easier than ever. What’s truly awe-inspiring about this brave new world is the relative immediacy of its results.
After it became clear the protesters weren’t dissipating concessions from the government of Tunisia began rolling in. They pledged more money for new employment programs and tried to quell the shouts of discontent. But it didn’t stop there: after realizing the protesters weren’t sated, the government opened up once-blocked internet sites and upped the ante with promises of new government redistribution by 2014. The Arab world looked on in awe as Tunisians balked and demanded the complete removal of the President himself.
As the Tunisian President Zine El Abdine Ben Ali fled the country, cheers rose up across the Middle East. The man who sparked the protests after a desperate and tragic self-immolation, Mohamed Bouazizi, instantly achieved rock-star like status as his name was spoken from Pakistan to San Francisco. But nowhere was he more revered than in coffee shops from Rabat to Damascus.
Now talk about a ripple effect is on almost every news outlet. Will the rest of the Middle East seize this wave of excitement as some pan-Arab revitalization takes place? If I was a betting woman (and I am) my guess would be yes. But be prepared for the backlash. Dictatorships across the Middle East are currently facing a precarious fork in the road: open up a bit more and possibly forestall a coup d’Ã©tat or buckle down and quash any protests in preemptive strikes at dissent.
Yet revolution may only be a secondary symptom which completely ignores a monumental shift in overall attitude. If the Middle East successfully co-opts this concept on any widespread level, this radical idea that life can and should be the pursuit of happiness, then the democratization of the region is all but guaranteed. The Kings, Sultanates, and 10 term Presidents cannot and will not survive their stranglehold on the region. And with fervor so high any anticipatory crackdowns could bring about an uprising faster than a simple loosening of daily restrictions.
There is no telling of where this new tide will leave the region in the upcoming decade. It may, however, startle many in the West to realize Democracy can bring about some unintended results. Mosaddegh and Hamas are both good examples of Middle Eastern Democracy not benefiting the US or European narrative of freedom. But for a moment we need to forget that point. We need to stop speculating on just how fortuitous Middle Eastern activism may or may not be to the West and focus on every human’s right to fight for personal dignity. To consider their needs, their hopes, their dreams, and support, if nothing else, their right to the pursuit of happiness.