A changing Middle East: Leaving Saladin behind

Looking forward together

President George W. Bush’s use of the word “crusade” in the days after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks triggered a passionate response from Muslim communities all over the world. Many Muslims believed Mr. Bush used this word to broadcast his intentions to wage war on Islam and Muslims. This reaction shocked many Westerners, for whom the impact of The Crusades was long forgotten.

But it didn’t surprise me.

Growing up in a tight-knit Muslim community outside of Chicago, I’d always heard lamentations about the dire state of the global Muslim community (genocide in Bosnia, war in Kashmir, crisis in Somalia and Palestine, always Palestine). And they often ended with the plea: “Where is today’s Salahaddin?” For many Muslims, The Crusades had never faded from collective memory. They awaited a modern-day Salahaddin al-Ayubi, the Muslim hero of The Crusades; the Kurdish general who led Muslim armies into victory and recaptured Jerusalem, to come and lead them out of post-colonial decay.

Many contemporary Muslims desire to return to the “Golden Age” of Islam, which began after Salahaddin’s victory; an age that gave rise to Muslim mathematicians, physicians, and philosophers who changed the course of human history. Those centuries represent a “Muslim feel-good” era. They are viewed as a time when Muslims commanded respect as great scientists, healers and teachers and not despised as backwards or feared as bloodthirsty terrorists. Feeling oppressed by their own governments and disempowered by Western supremacy, many Muslims hoped to wish into existence a miracle savior to lead them out of centuries of civilizational decline.

During the last eight weeks, the world watched as millions of Arabs rose up against their authoritarian regimes. First in Tunisia, then Egypt, young people people demanded the downfall of their unelected governments – and got what they wished for. Freedom fever has spread across the region from the bloody uprisings in Libya, Bahrain and Yemen, to the more muted protests in Morocco, Algeria, Iran, Jordan and Oman. People across the Middle East and North Africa have long yearned for self-representation and the end of state-sponsored brutality.

What’s different now is that the young people of the Middle East stopped dreaming of that better day and took charge of their own destiny through action, grassroots mobilization, and modern communications know-how. The populace of the Arab world is overwhelmingly young – people under the age of 25 accounts for more than half of the populations of Arab countries. These young people face dim job prospects and live in societies where free speech is muzzled and transparent political processes are essentially nonexistent. Frustration over the dearth of opportunity catalyzed a youth-led protest movement that embodied Gandhian non-violence techniques, overtly referenced the US civil rights movement and displayed the social media savvy of a generation of jobless, educated young people.

These young people changed the course of their own history and left Salahaddin behind.

Eight weeks ago, one desperate young man from a remote Tunisian town, having had enough of the daily humiliations he faced as a humble vegetable seller at the hands of the state, set himself alight outside the local police station. The tepid response by President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to Mohammad Bouazizi’s self-immolation outraged Tunisians who suffered under his authoritarian regime for decades. Weeks later, Bouazizi’s death dealt the final blow to Ben Ali; millions of Tunisians took to the streets, protesting his brutal security apparatus and close-knit circle of corrupt governing elite. 24 years old, unmarried and bearing the sole responsibility of financially taking care of his aged mother, ailing step-father and 6 siblings, Bouazizi personified the stifled dreams of young Arabs across the region. After offering half-hearted concessions to the popular uprisings by his people in the days after Bouazizi’s death, Ben Ali stepped down from the presidency on January 14 and fled the country.

The Tunisian people’s victory stoked the flames of freedom in the Arab world.

First, there were copycat self-immolations by desperate Arabs in the region. Then, in Egypt, young people used Facebook to mobilize non-violent protests against their fearsome state security apparatus. They picked up rocks and defended Liberation Square. They picked up mobile phones and Tweeted their revolution to the world. Muslims and Christians, they were killed by their hundreds. The Arab world waited with baited breath to see whether the 30-year regime of Egyptian strongman Husni Mubarak would survive this unprecedented uprising. Powerful stories of interfaith cooperation came out of Liberation Square. People of all faiths were inspired by images such as this one of young Christian men forming a human shield to protect Muslims from police attack as they offered their evening prayers.

A nascent civic identity was conceived in the Middle East; one in which young people, women and religious minorities had a seat at the table. In the days after Ben Ali fled and Mubarak stepped down, hundreds of young people swarmed onto the streets of Tunis and Cairo armed with broomsticks, cleaning solvent and towels. In the Eastern Libyan town of Benghazi, young people formed sanitation and protection committees on their own volition. A new sense of civic responsibility and national pride emerged among the youth of the Arab world. An Arab narrative that had passively awaited its hero suddenly found itself inundated with heroes from Tunis to Cairo, from Aden to Manama.

Through his famously chivalrous behavior on and off the battle field, Salahaddin al-Ayubi earned the respect of his Christian adversary King Richard the Lionheart and immortality in Muslim history. As we witness new waves of interfaith cooperation and youth civic engagement in the Arab world, it becomes clear that even though the Arab world is no longer be content to merely wish for a savior from the annals of history, Salahaddin’s legacy endures.

Hind Makki has been inspired by a belief in human rights, the power of young people and the potential of pluralism to work within the American Muslim community since the attacks of 9/11/2001. She holds a degree in International Relations from Brown University, where she concentrated in global security and diplomacy. She is often found tweeting about Muslims in the West, the media as news, the politics of poverty in contemporary Africa and figure skating (one of these things is not like the other).


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