Monday, June 26, 2006

How about something more that just symbolism self-analysis, then?

A few weeks ago, Beirut Daily Star commentator Rami Khouri had a panel on the BBC World Service nodding their hypothetical heads when he said that the Arab World (whoever that specifically is) would “hug America” if it closed down the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. It’s obvious that this will never happen. The “Arab world” if there is such a conglomeration is characterized by too much hubris to admit any flaw if there is the opportunity to over-emotionally project responsibility for internal matters on others, especially contrived ones.

Today he’s making another specious appeal to U.S. Secretary of State Rice about being aware of “symbols” evident in Abu Ghreib (a story the press is desperate to paint as a matter of geopolitical magnitude and policy) – without addressing one simple matter – the equanimity of doing the same, either as symbol or substance.

When the citizens of states that are the recipients of U.S. criticism on human rights, voting rights, and basic rights to free speech can’t create a single example of the success that doesn’t find itself hijacked by either zealous imposition of state power over people, or the imposition of a religion on the public, I have to wonder what a lecture about “symbols” can be based on.

You should be careful about using the imagery of the civil rights movement to promote Arab freedom, because your government and its policies look to many of us like Bull Connor, complete with the dogs. You simply are not credible when you evoke the civil rights struggle to inspire us, and then send police dogs to torment us. We love your inspirational exhortations, but we despise and reject your dogs.

The dogs are symbols, of course, of a wider policy and a larger reality. But the images of the dogs - in Birmingham and Baghdad - remain the most sharply etched in my own mind. Many other images and symbols come to mind, too.
There are indeed a great many brave souls challenging your friendly local Mukhabarat, Deuxième Bureaux, or what have you, but primarily for their own sake, not for America’s or Europe’s, sometimes not even for anyone other than themselves.
But his attempt at comparisons with the American Civil rights movement is charming, don’t you think? The Bull Connors and attack dogs in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, etc. are still out there provide for an oppressive reality more potent than any symbolism that anyone could ever gin up, and Khouri fails to judge the two for comparative relevance and scale. In fact all he’s doing is continuing a grand tradition of providing “The Arab Street” with reasons to resent the foreigner for the horrible things an Arab society does to itself. On the other hand, the U.S. Civil Rights movement led to actual, tangible change.

Keep that up and the word “civil” as it applies to Arabic speaking societies will be even more of a joke than it is today.
The individual and collective quest for freedom and dignity may be the strongest force on earth. It pushes ordinary people to do extraordinary things, as happened in Birmingham when young children marched into the fire hoses and stood their ground before Bull Connor's police dogs. The spirit of Birmingham is about transcending fear, and affirming humanity. It takes special courage and moral certitude to stand one's ground in front of the violent, intemperate hatred and ignorance that Bull Connor represented.

I see that same spirit around me in the Arab world today. I have many courageous Arab friends and colleagues who similarly stand up today to their own violent, intolerant governments, or foreign military occupiers, knowing they may be killed, injured or imprisoned. They stand up and resist fearlessly, defying danger and intimidation, because they are fired by the same passions that fueled the civil-rights movement in your country.
No pandering or redistribution of responsibility there, eh? Foreign occupiers trying to short circuit violent, intolerant governments are no better than them, you see.

I used to respect the guy. Now I wonder just what his game is.

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