According to Kamal Jumblat, a Lebanese politician and thinker from the mid-20th century, the Arab world and the East as a whole feel a sense of inferiority towards the West. This, he says, is due to the differences between the present world and the past, when the subject used to be more valued than the object.
Back then, the East was more developed than the West. The industrial revolution however changed this, and the object started to be worshiped, not the subject behind it. According to Jumblat, Arab society can prove that it has finally caught up with the West by believing in itself and winning its freedom.
If these words sounded powerful in 1955, when they were first spoken, what can we say about our present day, as we are witnessing unprecedented events in the Arab world? Since the Arab protests rocked the Middle East and North Africa, there have been countless debates addressing their nature. I've heard a number of such discussions in universities, the media and other institutions, and behind each lies a quiet fear of the future and the changes it might bring. It starts with the initial question: “Is there foreign interference in the Arab events”? Not “How do we assist the people in their attempt to change the status quo”, or “What about the right to freedom”, but rather: “Who's behind the demonstrations and who will come out first after the fall of the dictators?”
There will always be fear of the future, and it will inevitably colour every major event in the Arab world. This region seems to have been marked out for western scrutiny a hundred years ago, and so the aspirations of the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa are questioned: “Are they a grass roots movement, or did somebody show them the path”?
This approach to the debate is totally wrong. It dismisses the possibility that these people can achieve something on their own, without the intervention of a foreign power. For all other countries, except Syria and Libya, it's clear that the whole of society has been disillusioned with the system for a long time and wanted change. But even these facts shouldn't cast doubt on the power and capabilities of the Arab peoples, who throughout the region are still ruled by anachronistic regimes. In European society this lack of confidence in the Arab peoples roots back in the late 1980s, when the Arab world remained isolated from the wave of geopolitical changes happening all across the world.
For many, the Middle East is still a dark spot on a map, whose concepts, places, countries and peoples are often confused. In the minds of many, this region is completely devoid of opportunity for democratic governance. For decades, the stereotypes have been piling up – that this is a society not yet fit for anything other than dictatorship; that in this part of the world people have become accustomed to the horrors of autocracy, and it's unlikely that they desire anything different; and that after all the Arab people are religious extremists in the habit of hitting their heads on the ground five or more times a day. The Arab protests have shattered those concepts. Maybe that's why the debates have been framed in such an absurd way – because of a disbelief that Arab societies could ever achieve change without foreign intervention.
The concept that some nations deserve freedom and democracy, while others don't, is just as preposterous. A stable Middle East will gain the trust of Western societies and bring economic benefits. From this point of view, there will always be doubts about who is behind the protests. But in a debate with so many wrong questions we could lose the essence of the discussion: “What do these people desire, and how can we help them to finally close this dark chapter in history?”
Ruslan Khaled Trad is a Syrian-Bulgarian political analyst, activist and blogger about the Middle East. He lives in Bulgaria and is president of the Forum for Arab Culture Now and an author for Foreign Policy Bulgaria and Global Voices.