Want to wear out a metaphor with me? The Arab Spring. It’s turned into Fall, or was it Winter? Or is it now raining blood? Were the leaves falling from the trees of the dictatorships or were the good men and women of the Arab world readying for holiday? Maybe it was the one with armed resistance sharpening it’s #2 pencils for winter exams. Never mind anyway because since we’ve seemingly forgotten about Tunisia, moved on from Egypt, and tired of Libya sans it’s cinema-worthy villain, most of the Western world has been more than happy to dismiss any future changes the region has in store. The revolutions within the Middle East are reaching some of their most imperative points since this entire uprising began. It’s been almost a year since Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight and launched a movement that would take down Tunisia’s Ben Ali, shoot across North Africa, into the Gulf, and up through the Eastern Mediterranean. It has inspired revolutionaries from China to New York City. Yet, the subtext is starting to change. We are no longer watching these Arabs march with hope and awe, we’re over it. We’ve moved on to condemning. Newt Gingrich was recently quoted at a Republican debate saying, “The degree to which the “˜Arab Spring’ may become an anti-Christian spring is something that bothers me a great deal.” Sure, at first they were freedom fighters, but give an average Arab real power for too long and the West can start to feel ever so slightly uncomfortable. Really, since the people of Libya took up arms against Gaddafi, the criticism began. Those who tend to think of the world in terms of Gandhi and MLK, Jr., drew back, unable to really cheer on any form of violent resistance. When Tripoli fell, and Gaddafi was finally dispatched, the world did not applaud alongside their old heroes. Instead, condemnation immediately began popping up, “Well who killed him?” “Was it sanctioned?” “He should have really gone to trial.”
Actually, no. Gaddafi didn’t need to go to trial. For most Libyans, it was entirely justified to kill him. He had destroyed a country, killed thousands, instituted rape as a weapon of war, and had flown in mercenaries from poor countries and exploited them into committing heinous acts. Yet, as soon as the wants and needs of the Libyans were realized, articles started popping up questioning if Gaddafi really was, in fact, that bad. After all, they claimed, he tried to unify Africa and stuff. Posters of him in the iconic Che pose circled Internet forums and there was talk of how it was disrespectful and undignified to have shown the picture of him dead.
Not that talk like this ever came into play when discussing or showing the thousands of dead Libyan civilians murdered under Gaddafi’s army. Not that these same accusatory questions were substantially posed when the United States took out Osama bin Laden, but never mind that. Instead of celebrating this monumental moment for Libya and the amazing rag-tag group of students, dentists, and machinists that overthrew one of the oldest dictatorships in the world, the West is criticizing them for what was essentially, a formality. They didn’t remove their shoes before entering the house of freedom, so let’s write them off as the brutes we always knew Arabs to be.
These fair-weather supporters are now cropping up again as Syria is taking up more and more headline space. For the past eight months, the people of Syria have been subjected to some of the most horrific government suppression the region has seen thus far. There have been numerous children shot to death, mass graves uncovered, shaky video of suburbs in Homs being shelled into oblivion. Whole towns have up and fled into Turkey, and midnight raids are as common as midnight itself.
Defectors from the Syrian military have told ghastly tales. They speak of how they were given orders to kill fellow soldiers who dared not shoot when ordered. They have risked their families lives, and their futures by fleeing. Regrouping in safe homes and across the Turkish border with Syria, they’ve begun to launch their own offensive. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is supposedly made up of a couple thousand defectors and a fair number of recruits. They have launched a number of offensives in Syria, which they later post to their Facebook page. One act of defiance, on a military base in a suburb of Damascus, caught international attention for it’s daring. Even more recently, there were grenade attacks on the ruling Baath party headquarters in Damascus. Which is not to say that all Syrians approve, either. There are certainly residents in Damascus (which has been spared most of the regimes brutality) who have noted they want the revolution to be peaceful. That they deplore all tactics that use violence. Which is a fair criticism to make when it’s your country in the midst of struggle.
There is this martyr’s myth that every single uprising can be violence-free if citizens are just willing to sacrifice enough. People point to India’s independence from British rule and proclaim that if non-violence can bring down an empire, it can certainly bring down one dictator. However, Indian independence encompassed a large number of violent conflicts and a broad spectrum of resistance. From peaceful marchers, to intellectuals, to armed battles. It wasn’t just Gandhi. There were hundreds of thousands involved, unparalleled infighting, and even when everything was all said and done, the country still remained fractured. I know, that makes it complicated and messy and less of a feel good story, but to deal with the reality of current revolutions, it might be helpful to start acknowledging the truth about those in our past.
When we have this all-or-nothing paradigm of what makes a revolt good or bad, just or unjust, we back ourselves into tight, immobile corners. Very few people want to pick up a gun and risk their lives, their homes, and their families. Nobody wakes up and lightly makes the decision to take on a 500,000 strong, well-funded army with the help of a few defectors. It is not an easy decision to make and, therefore, it does not deserve such easy derision from those who’d suggest it would be better for them to just lay down their weapons and die in the name of peace.
We are allowed to celebrate violent revolt. We are allowed to cheer on rebels and freedom fighters without having to mark our approval with phrases like, “Well of course I always hope for peace, however…” Of course we have all hoped for peace. None of us wanted to wake up to the news that towns filled with our cousins and sisters and brothers were being shelled. That Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain, Tahrir Square in Egypt, Benghazi in Libya, Daraa in Syria, Change Square in Yemen, and Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia were being “cleared” by government forces. We, the supporters and the families of those in conflict, have always wanted the government to acquiesce to the overwhelming wishes of the people. We have asked and petitioned and begged for them to step down and let the councils elected by the people take over and determine the next course of action.
The people did not give the orders to shoot. The people did not give the orders to rape. They did not fly their jets over towns, shelling indiscriminately. They did not punish anybody who so much as helped treat the wounds of the protesters. The people have tried and they have marched and organized and thrived despite all of these actions. So when the people decide that their prior methods are no longer working and armed resistance is the only way, I trust that they have valid reasons for doing so. I trust that they’ve exhausted other measures and feel this is the only method left for them. These are not angst-riddled kids with a death wish. These are people who feel the need to live so deeply, they are willing to sacrifice anything to make that dream come true.
There is risk when you turn a quest for freedom into a violent revolt. But throughout history, revolutions have never been easy, monolithic events. They are always fractured, always painful, and there is always infighting and debate. Instead of expecting some kind of Disneyesque movie ending, where during the final act, the bully comes to understand the humanity of the people around him, it’s time we start dealing in reality. This will not be easy, it will not be simple, and it will be bloody. It’s not a fun soundbite, and it’s not an easy tag line, but it was the chosen by the people.
Of course, we all hope for peace. The idea of bloody clashes and shock-journalism using terms like “rebels” and “civil war” can make ones skin crawl. However, this is not about our needs. This is about what the people who are in the midst of a fight for their lives have decided is best for them. As these people stare down their own mortality, the very last thing they need is the condemnation of armchair philosophers, who think that because they have access to a Wiki page, they must know better.
What we are witnessing is a fundamental shift in how Middle Eastern residents view both their hopes and their circumstances. It will continue to evolve and shift and clash and rise. It will be bloody, triumphant, terrible, and beautiful. Who knows, perhaps the ever-struggling West could actually use a reminder of what was once sacrificed by many of our own countries. Perhaps then we wouldn’t be so flippant about bartering our own freedoms away. Perhaps, just this once, instead of imposing our own Western expectations on their needs, we just listen and pay attention. Then maybe, just maybe, we let the Arab world inspire us.