Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Conservative Spin Machine Targets Egyptian Protesters

The conservative establishment in the United States is predictably nervous about the pro-democracy movement in Egypt, as it features many traits known to make conservatives squeamish, namely brown people, religions they don't understand, and genuine populist anger over the sort of unjust policies that the US has promoted in the region for decades. So, predictably, conservatives have taken to the airwaves this week in an effort to force Egypt's pro-democracy movement into boxes which will allow them to more effectively understand and wholly revile the protesters' on-going efforts to secure a more just and democratic government in Egypt. Here are just a few examples of conservatives trying to spin the movement into some sort of arch-leftist Marxist communist socialist Islamic terror party. And if you're having trouble reconciling how all of these ideologies can supposedly be making common cause, don't worry, these are the same commentators who think that fascism and communism share the same end of the political spectrum.

For starters, consider Ann Coulter's appearance on Sean Hannity's program this week. Coulter repeatedly refers to the pro-democracy protesters as "a dangerous mob" and "extremists," and accuses the protesters of vandalizing the Egyptian Museum, despite reports of up to three thousand protesters forming a human chain around the museum to prevent damage to Egypt's priceless artifacts.

Additionally, and aside from Coulter's bizarre obsession with Obama's response to the 2009 election protests in Iran, in her claim that "nothing good has ever come from riots like this in the street," Coulter (perhaps willfully) forgets the legacy of nonviolent popular revolution that swept across Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and the host of nonviolent revolutions since then that have succeeded in promoting democracy precisely because of this sort of popular outrage and demand for gereater democracy and freedom. The Velvet Revolution of Czechoslovakia, the Solidarity movement in Poland, and the Singing Revolution across the Baltic states all relied on massive public protests and strikes as a means of overthrowing communist regimes. The Carnation Revolution of Portugal and the People Power Revolution in the Philippines featured similar pro-democratic protests in the streets during the 70s and 80s, and even more recently the Bulldozer Revolution, which forced Slobodan Milošević out of power, the Rose Revolution in Georgia, and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine all featured pro-democracy protests like those currently taking place on the streets of Egypt. This is what democracy looks like.

Next, consider this bizarre and bizarrely fascinating exchange between Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly about the situation in Egypt. There are moments of what seem like actual clarity in this interview, like Beck's apparent rejection of US hegemony (around 1:10) and seemingly passionate exclamation of "[Mubarak] is torturing people with our money" (6:33), but the wild historical inaccuracies and ultimate conclusions peddled by both commentators end up as nothing more than classic conservative talking points. O'Reilly continues to trumpet the "devil we know" line that we have discussed previously, insisting that an autocrat with a penchant for human rights abuses is still vastly preferable to another violently anti-Western Islamist state ala Iran, as if these two extremes represent the only viable options for governance in the Arab world.

Beck, true to form, comes out with some real gems, including the claim that the US didn't engage in imperialistic brinkmanship "before the progressive movement," and that the protests in Egypt are "not about freedom" as they are being "orchestrated by the Marxist communists and primarily also the Muslim Brotherhood" (3:50). Beck and O'Reilly ultimately agree on the danger of a new "jihadist" government rising to replace Mubarak, and both agree that "the jihad," whatever the hell that means, represents "the main threat in the world today," particularly, in Beck's mind, when "coupled with the communist socialist movement" (5:43).

Beck and O'Reilly's conclusions demonstrate not only a fundamental lack of understanding of the historical, political, and religious contexts in which the events in Egypt are taking place, but a resolute willingness to misconstrue whatever factoids they can muster to further their conservative understandings of international affairs and their repercussions here in the US. Now, contrast the fevered prognostications of the talking heads discussed above with a recent article by Dalia Mogahed, the senior analyst and executive director at the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, on the role of religion in Egypt's pro-democracy movement. Mogahed draws from the rich history of progressive religious activism in the US in stressing the need for constructive engagement between US policy-makers and the religious underpinnings of Egypt's democratic aspirations. Mogahed's article refutes the claims by Coulter, Beck, and O'Reilly that the protests have somehow been 'hi-jacked' by radical Islamists, explaining instead:
The protesters represent a wide cross section of Egyptian society who demand justice, as they call for Muslim-Christian solidarity. They wave Egyptian flags, not specific opposition party banners or sectarian symbols.

At the same time, Egyptians' rising religiosity may very well play a role in this development, just as faith often animated our own civil rights struggle. If Tunisia's success story was the match that ignited Egypt's popular uprising, decreased tolerance for injustice -- in some cases born out of a religious awakening -- provided the fuel.
Active engagement with the constructive, peace-building potential of the world's religions represents the pinnacle of progressive religious foreign policy aspirations. Mogahed's article provides a poignant reminder of the inextricable bond between progressive religion and the desire for justice, and offers a compelling call to our nation's leaders and policy-makers to recognize the democratic aspirations finding expression in the voices of Egyptians from all of that nation's different religious backgrounds. Mogahed concludes:
From abolitionists to the civil rights movement, American leaders have drawn inspiration from their faith in their pursuit of justice...Our country's unique history and passion for social justice makes us natural partners to the Egyptian people in their struggle for a better future. Moreover, there is hunger on both sides for greater cooperation. Gallup surveys found that the majority of both Americans and Egyptians say greater interaction between Muslims and the West is a benefit not a threat, despite Egyptian disapproval of U.S. policies in their region.

The continuing popular protests in the most influential and populated Arab country may represent the future of the Middle East. U.S. policy makers cannot afford to alienate this movement by failing to understand its intricacies. Faith is a part of Egypt, but most Egyptians do not support the rule of clerics. They seek the rule of law.
As the government response to the protests in Egypt appears to be increasing in violence, we continue to hold the freedom-loving people of Egypt, as well as those who labor for justice the world over, in our thoughts and prayers.

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