Ever since the Arab Spring began videos have been making the rounds of massacres in Syria and Bahrain, photos of violent protests in Egypt, excited tweets, bloodied faces, Molotov cocktails and all the rest of the revolutionary chatter.
It is tempting to side with the people battling tanks, even when you don’t know why they are battling them. That was how Americans ended up cheering an alliance between the anti-American leftist Kifaya movement and the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo against the Egyptian government. Or backing an Al-Qaeda linked Islamist group against Gaddafi in Libya.
America was built on revolution and sympathy for the underdog is in our national DNA. But it can also lead us to mistake a difference in force for a difference in moral standing. Just because one man has a Molotov cocktail and the other man has a tank, doesn’t mean that the man with the burning bottle in his hand is any more right than he is.
In a conflict there are two possibilities. Either one side is more moral than the other, or both sides are equally repugnant. Or close enough that it makes no real difference. Looking at the disproportion in force is not a useful guide and provides no relevant answers.
Just because a regime is repressing a populist faction does mean that we should feel sorry for them. The Nazis and Communists both started out as populist factions being repressed by the authorities, and when they took power, they made the abuses that had come before them look like spring flowers and sunshine.
Revolutions often begin with the oppressed and end with repression. The true test of whether a faction deserves our support is not the dramatic photos of protesters waving flags and darting through the flames or the government responding with clubs and bullets. (It is doubtful that even the most bleeding heart liberal would have retrospectively opposed putting down the Nazis by any means possible.) The only meaningful test is what the protesters actually stand for.
Drama is cheap and what looks like a cry for justice often becomes a mandate for oppression. When a Tunisian vendor was slapped by a policewoman, he touched off a chain of events that ended with the Islamists coming to power, bringing about a Tunisia where few women will serve in the place or enjoy civil and legal rights. Who really deserves sympathy in that encounter, the illegal fruit vendor or the policewomen of Tunisia?
It is only when you look at the bigger picture that the consequences can be seen.
Right off the bat we can disregard slogans calling for“democracy” or “power to the people”, these are so ubiquitous that they have virtually no meaning. Populism is all well and good, but what matters are the details of their agenda. The populism of a totalitarian ideology such as Islam, Nazism or Communism has no value or worth. Totalitarian ideologies exploit populism, but only abide by it so long as the will of the people comes out their way. When the public mood shifts, then the bayonets are fixed and the prisons open up.
Whether it’s Occupy Wall Street or Tahrir Square, protests are calculated to create the image of a popular uprising supported by the people. Whether or not the people actually support it and whether even those who are dissatisfied with the government share their agenda are questions that fall by the wayside in the media’s coverage. And even if a movement does represent the majority, will it also disenfranchise the minority?
The failure to ask those questions has transferred the Middle East out of the hands of one set of tyrants and into the hands of another set of tyrants who represent a totalitarian ideology that will not only repress the people inside their country, but are engaged in a war against the entire free world.
That is the danger of atrocity without context and protest without purpose. Scenes of mobs fired on in Syria or Bahrain have no meaning unless you understand what is going on. In Bahrain, the struggle is not some abstract revolutionary “Power to the People” nonsense, but a fight between Saudi backed Sunnis and Iranian backed Shiites. In Syria it’s another sectarian struggle, this time between the Sunni brotherhood along with its associated socialist useful idiots and the Iranian backed Alawis, a controversial Shiite splinter sect. Do you really feel like taking sides in that no matter how many dead bodies show up on the news?
Nor is “unarmed protester” the same thing as peaceful protester. The way to determine that is not by checking arsenals, but by checking ideologies. The protesters who want to set up a state under which women will have few rights and religious minorities will be even more persecuted than they are now are not peaceful. And any use of the word in relation to them is a complete distortion of its meaning, much like applying democratic to Islamist movements who are confident of winning at the polls.
The goal of a genuinely peaceful protester is a peaceful society. Not an Islamic society, but a society where men and women, Muslims and Christians, Sunnis and Shiites enjoy equal rights and freedoms without interference from the government. A peaceful society does not seek to be at war with anyone or to persecute anyone. And such a society is not the goal of the Arab Spring protesters in any country which is why they cannot be described with such a term. Whether they happen to be marching peacefully at a given moment or staging a riot, they are the cannon fodder of a violent ideology. A non-violent protest is a tactic that tells us about the strategy of their leaders, not about their ultimate intentions when they take power.
The bloody photos and videos can be heartrending, but even more so once you stop to consider that they are part of a regional cycle that cannot be ended with a change of government. This sectarian violence will not end simply by taking out one government and bringing in another. Giving the Arab Sunni or Shiite majority the power to trample the minority will only lead to more bloody photos that will receive less publicity because the media will no longer be interested in covering them.
Intervening over genocide, as we did in Iraq, is one thing. Intervening over violent clashes is another. That’s the difference between Iraq and Libya. If we intervene every time a Middle Eastern country has flashes of sectarian violence, then we might as well remain on standby. The real test of armed force or even sanctions should be whether this intervention meets our interests. If it doesn’t, then intervening because of some bloody photos is misplaced humanitarianism. In a region where ethnic and religious conflicts are settled with bullets, there will always be bloody photos.
The myth of the underdog captured the attention of the West, but the underdog in the Arab Spring actually turned out to be the majority and its totalitarian agenda. Sympathizing with them was like treating Muhammad Ali as the underdog. When faced with a country at war between a ruling minority that hates us and a majority of the population that also hates us, nothing we do is going to make things any better.
Syria is a prime example. Choosing between a Syria that acts as an Iranian puppet and a Brotherhood run country that’s in hock to an Islamist Turkey is like choosing between cholera and the Plague. Either we give Sunni Islamists or Shiite Islamists more power and regional influence, and when all is said and done, there really is no right choice except to stand back and let them fight it out.
We already did everything wrong in the Arab Spring. We should have backed Saleh, Ben Ali and Mubarak. We should have also backed Gaddafi in exchange for wresting concessions from him. We should have gotten something from the Saudis in exchange for letting them go into Bahrain. And now we need to stay out of Syria.
The Arab League has come out against Assad. Which is only natural since the League is mainly Sunni and the Assads are Alawites and tools of the Shiites in Iran. Turning Syria into a Sunni Islamist state may be in their interest, but it isn’t in ours, and Turkey has already made sure that this is what the outcome will be. If Obama decides to do to Assad what he did to Gaddafi, then the Brotherhood will rack up another win. On the other hand if we do nothing then Iran keeps its prize. Is there is a right choice? No there isn’t.
Do we back the underdog that happens to be the overdog? What’s in it for us except playing referee in a fight between Sunni and Shiite Islamists, two groups of people who hate our guts and want to see us dead?
But “people are dying” is the response? And it’s true, they are dying. Sometimes courageously. As they have been dying on and off for one reason or another. But their deaths have nothing in common with our values, anymore than the deaths of the Bolsheviks or the SS, some of whom fought and died courageously as well.
That is where the Islamists and their leftist enablers are wrong. It’s not the willingness to die that matters, but the cause which you are fighting for. Everyone dies sooner or later. It’s what we live for that matters.
The cult of martyrdom in the Muslim world means that there are no shortage of people eager to die in order to become a symbol. But before we accept them as symbols, we should ask what it is they symbolize and to whom.