The Beginnings of an Arab Enlightenment?

I’ve written recently about the vicious, dispiriting murders of human-rights advocates in Pakistan and Uganda. I’m an optimist by temperament, but stories like these are enough to drive me to the edge of despair. In my worst moments, it makes me wonder: is it possible for liberal, secular democracies to survive over the long term? Can free and enlightened nations ever endure, or are they nothing more than a momentary flicker in the dark?

No republic can survive if its people don’t value it, if they’re not willing to defend it – and in so many cases, the people have proven all too eager to listen, instead, to religious demagogues who preach that free speech is blasphemy, that women are divinely ordained to be slaves, and that the role of the state is to compel faith and enforce ancient dogma. Even in modern, advanced states, those hard-won freedoms seem to be slipping away.

So yes, I do have moments when despair creeps up on me. But then, a few weeks ago, the Arab world exploded, and we’re suddenly glimpsing the possibility that everything may change.

Tunisia was the first: a small but well-educated secular Arab state, run by a kleptocratic dictator. A few weeks ago, a street vendor immolated himself in a cry of protest when the government denied him his last chance to make a living, and his final despairing act became the catalyst for a vast, spontaneous uprising that drove the dictator out with amazing swiftness. Almost as quickly as that, Egypt became the next domino to fall. Seemingly overnight, the country erupted in massive protests airing long-pent-up grievances over its rampant corruption, appalling poverty, widespread police brutality, and an absolute ruler with designs on monarchy. And now there are tentative reports of protests in Syria, in Jordan, in Yemen… And I think, too, of Iran’s embryonic Green Revolution, stopped for now by a brutal show of state power but, I have no doubt, still simmering beneath the surface.

What I find most inspiring, and most incredible, is that the protesters in these countries aren’t rising in support of Islam, aren’t marching to demand a theocracy. They’re marching for liberty, for a society free of corrupt dictatorships and presidents-for-life, for the right to self-determination and democratic representation. (Egypt’s largest opposition party, the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, was taken by surprise by the protests and has been scrambling to keep up.) And both in Tunisia and in Egypt, the protesters have been amazingly peaceful. There were even reports of ordinary people forming human chains to protect the country’s museums.

So far, the marchers aren’t looking to the United States, and I don’t blame them. We’ve spent so much money for so long propping up tyrannies and arming dictators that they’re right not to trust us. They’re working out their destiny on their own, and the best thing we can do is stay out of the way. Nevertheless, this is a dramatic confirmation that America’s founders were right. Their assessment of human nature isn’t just a pleasantly naive fantasy or a self-serving pipe dream: people the world over really do want freedom, independence, human rights. And given the right set of circumstances and the right spark, they’ll arise and fight for them, just as our patriots did over two hundred years ago.

That said, it’s much too early to tell what will come of these revolutions. Egypt is poised on a knife edge, and the Egyptian streets could still explode into an all-out bloodbath (there are already scattered reports of police brutality and killings, difficult to confirm or disprove under a government-imposed media blackout). Even if the protesters are successful and governments fall, new dictatorships could replace the old. The Islamists may yet find a way to subvert the revolutions to their advantage. Still, these uprisings are dramatic evidence for the hypothesis that tyranny never lasts forever, that the people will always rise up and throw off dictatorships eventually. In the face of so much evidence to the contrary, it’s a dramatic reconfirmation of the great, soaring potential inherent in the human spirit.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • L.Long

    Yes I too am glad to hear that a couple of places are having somewhat peaceful revolt from dictators supported by the US. And they are right not to trust the US because despite what the far right republicans think or say the US has only one g0d and that is Mammon (money).
    But I too feel that these are holes that will be filled with IsLameic Schite pile.
    But I hope for the best for them.

  • Emburii

    I really hope that any ruling body that emerges from this is secular (truly secular, not ‘the US funding this corrupt dictator just doesn’t want him to be Muslim but would be dandy with Christian misbehavior), but I’m not holding my breath.

    Unfortunately I’ve seen people on liberal websites, feminist websites even, have more of a positive response to a ‘religiously influenced government, so long as it’s by the people’. The worst part is that if I tried to point out why this is a bad thing, I’d be called a bigot or there’d be some ‘no true Scotsman’ stuff being throw around. As a proponent of social justice I have some tenents in common with feminism, but their soft spot for religion so as not to appear ‘intolerant’ is not one of those ideas.

    (Cue BBK ranting about how all feminists are dumb and evil creatures who just want to insult men or something…)

  • Katie M

    “When I despair, I remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it-always.”-Mohandas Gandhi

  • mikespeir

    I actually began writing a story, never finished, in which hundreds of years from now it was Muslims who were peaceful, fighting for human rights. They justified their then current stance by insisting Mohammad had simply been read wrong in times past, and that those who truly understood his teachings had always been peaceful. (Rings a bell, huh?) It’s a nice dream; but, frankly, it’s hard to imagine how it could ever materialize. Still, if it doesn’t somehow, I fear for the prospects of the human race.

  • Bionic Hips

    Much as I would like to be optimistic, I fear the radicals Muslims will emerge more powerful and stronger after this. We will have new brutal Islamic theocracies.

    I too fear for the prospects of the human race.

  • DSimon

    I’d prefer like everyone else here for any new states that emerge to be secular… but I’d still consider the situation to be somewhat better if the new states were theocratic but less corrupt. If the lesson that governments in the Middle East get out of this is “oppress your citizens too much and they will revolt successfully”, then that would be a step in the right direction. Not one a huge stride, but hopefully one which can set up some momentum…

  • Andrew

    Maybe my mood currently on the dysphoric side, and maybe that’s why I am not optimistic. Consider our own country (the U.S.): Liberalism is considered weak, conservatism strong. Who has more muscle in government? Okay, maybe it’s actually about the money. Yet inside and outside of government more objective stances and worldviews seem less motivating in general than the more subjective and personal. That could spell trouble.

  • Brian M

    the pessimist side. One of the reasons the Islamists in Tunisia were so weak is due to decades of brutal repression. Tunisia may yet see a resurgency in Islamism if (when, I fear) the various reform governments and coalitions collapse. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is the main organized political opposition. Sure, they may be caught flat footed right now…but they offer an ideology and a structure that may be appealing after six months of chaos.

    I am also pessimistic when people start using vague terms like “The People”. what does that really mean, even? Nations are collections of diverse interests, often colliding or contradictory. Is a small shopkeeper in a traditional bazarre in Tehran part of “The People”? Because if so, the bazarre merchants are some of the biggest supporters of the Iranian regime, and it is a small, educated, affluent North tehran minority that protested in the streets. Sometimes “the people” are repressive and are not a “moral” force. I’m sure “the people” are all in favor of slaughtering gays in Uganda, for instance.

    Plus…what is the agenda here? “Give us” “jobs” seems to be one cry. (Liberty is the vaguer cry we hear played up in the media, but economics is a big factor here too.) What does this mean during a deep global depression with huge levels of over capacity in economic production and a looming ecological cirsis/peak oil situation? How can any State meet this demand? Who is going to get these jobs? At what cost? Are the protests in the streets really so universally wonderful, or is some of this along the lines of the Tea Party movement's “Get the government out of my Medicare”? I’m not so sure.

    So…while I firmly dislike American foreign policy, I have a lot of trepidation. Fundamentally, though…why is a bankrupt government (what is the current deficit, 1.5 trillion?) spending a billion dollars+ per year propping up Mubarek (or Israel). We need to leave things be…even if the result is not to our liking. And…I do find the protests thrilling in and of themselves. The photo of the woman kissing the riot policeman is my current bakcground screen.

  • Brock

    I’m old enough to remember the Iranian revolution, which was welcomed by the left and even the middle in this country as a popular revolution against a US backed dictator. I even remember a complimentary piece in Newsweek (I think) about an obscure Ayatollah Khomeini in exile in Paris as being the hope of a new Iran. Going back beyond my memory, France in 1789, Russia in 1917, Spain in 1933(?. the list of popular revolutions which degenerated into dictatorships is almost endless. Why did we escape? Because the Founding Fathers were largely middle class merchants and agrarian aristocrats who were essentially grafting the ideals of the Enlightenment onto an economically based rebellion. I am betting on Islamist regimes within a few years. I think Muslim fundamentalism is a dead issue in the long run, but like the Catholic Church, when a giant falls, it has to fall a long way.

  • Leum

    I actually began writing a story, never finished, in which hundreds of years from now it was Muslims who were peaceful, fighting for human rights. They justified their then current stance by insisting Mohammad had simply been read wrong in times past, and that those who truly understood his teachings had always been peaceful. (Rings a bell, huh?) It’s a nice dream; but, frankly, it’s hard to imagine how it could ever materialize. Still, if it doesn’t somehow, I fear for the prospects of the human race.

    This is already what moderate Muslims claim. Some of it has qur’anic support. The Qur’an is, for its time and compared to the hadith, fairly pro-woman among other things.

  • Brian M

    for interesting foreign policy perspectives which I find more convincing than neo conservative fantasies and their “cruise missile liberal” counterparts, it’s hard to beat the Old Right. The website Eunomia is awesome.

  • NoAstronomer


    I’ve often considered that the greatest achievement, perhaps the only worthwhile benefit, of democracy is the orderly transition of power.

    Watching the latest developments I am both hopeful and fearful at the same time. Will Egypt become another Poland? Or another Somalia?

  • kennypo65

    I am hopeful that the sea change going on in the arab world will result in a more secular and democratic world, but I’m not holding my breath. The radical islamists could very well fill the void left by the ouster of these autocrats. This would result in a far more dangerous world, because, quite frankly those people are nucking futs. I also agree that the US should stay the hell out of it. We have done enough damage already. If new democracies arise from the current chaos, then the role of the US should be limited. This may serve as a valuable lesson to the US in terms of foreign policy, but I think that the standard of “money talks, bullshit walks” will remain the norm.

  • Brian M

    kennyp: I agree with you.

    But I have a bit caveat or response: America and its economic and political elites are far, far more nuts. An American population that believes three cars per household and forty mile commutes each way and t-bone steaks for every meal is nuts. An American State that spends more for “defense” (while selling more than half the world’s weapons to the rest of the world) on the rest of the world combined is nuts. So…we do need to retain some perspective here, no?

  • Richard P.

    The problem is these rebellions have no organization. No one to take the mantle and deliver. The Muslim brotherhood is a radical arm. In the countries that are currently rebelling this political wing are most organized. If they come in to fill the gap were screwed.

    This is what happened in Iran and can happen now in these other countries. Look where it got Iran.

  • kogo

    *The Qur’an is, for its time and compared to the hadith, fairly pro-woman among other things.*

    The first time I heard this, it struck me as not quite right and every time since then that I’ve heard it said, I’ve found it less and less convincing. It strikes me as much less likely to be something that is true than something a certain group of westerners and a very small group of progressive Muslims would *like* to be true.

    I took multiple Islamic studies courses in college and even traveled to Morocco to study. Can’t say my Arabic ever got good but suffice it to say that the “Nice Islam” of Richard Wright, Nicholas Kristof, Tariq Ramadan and such has . . . *fragile* historical provenance.

    Sometimes things that *seem* like brutal medieval misogynist superstition are, in fact, exactly that.

  • gamba

    If thou seest the oppression of the poor, and violent perverting of judgement and justice in a province, marvel at the matter; for he that is saith to be higher than the highest regardeth and doth nothing:
    For out of evil he cometh to reign; whereas also he that is fought for the kingdom becometh prisoner.
    May tis not be the portion of our Egyptian brethrens; Amen and amen!

  • Rollingforest

    @mikespeir #4 : Four hundred years ago, Christianity was exactly like Islam is today. While Christianity still causes problems, it is not nearly as bad as Islam and there is hope that Islam will one day reach the moderation that Christianity has.

    @Brian M #8: Well, the sad fact is that sometimes propping up dictatorships is better than battling with Islamic Fundamentalist run governments. Yes, that might make us seem like hypocrites, but given that our safety is at stake, who can honestly expect different? We should, however seek to teach democracy wherever we can. This does not necessarily mean more invasions such as happened in Iraq unless we can be sure that the people will set up a friendly democracy. But whether it is through radio broadcasts, foreign exchange students, television, or other mediums, the idea of democracy has to be taught.

    In the movie “V for Vendetta” the main character says, “Beneath this mask, there is more than flesh. There is an idea, Mr. Creedy, and ideas are bulletproof.” The three main ideas that motivate politics around the world, according to Fareed Zakaria, are democracy, religion, and nationalism. We need to make sure that it is democracy that wins out in the end.

  • FuzzyDuck

    “No dictator, no invader, can hold an imprisoned population by the force of arms forever. There is no greater power in the universe than the need for freedom. Against that power governments, and tyrants, and armies can not stand.”

  • mikespeir

    Four hundred years ago, Christianity was exactly like Islam is today. While Christianity still causes problems, it is not nearly as bad as Islam and there is hope that Islam will one day reach the moderation that Christianity has.

    And that is just what I was alluding to. However, I don’t share your hope of Islam being able to moderate itself. No sense betting, though. I won’t be alive to collect or pay up.


    I’m not sure how applicable that quote is to the situation in Egypt. It’s been pointed out before that democracy doesn’t necessarily imply liberty for all. There’s evidence that, given democracy, the Egyptians would just vote to impose Islam. ( Look here: ) If “the people” vote to go backward (or, at least, not forward), there will be no progress toward individual liberty.

  • Brian M


    It is not our business to run the world. It’s that simple. Arguably, we can’t even run our own affaris and we certainly don’t do a very good job at trying to control and manipulate and steer other nations. What gives us that right? Especially when we screw it up time and time again, leading to the blowback which exacerbates problems and directly contributes to nasty alternativers like the Taliban and the Iranian regime. Did you know that the dictatorial “communist” regime in Afghanistan guaranteed women’s rights far better than our feeble puppet regime has ever even tried to do? Let alone the Taliban regime we helped bring into power through our meddling.

    Be careful, as well, of your language. You used the term “we”. Unless you are the CEO of a large bank, a military weapons manufacturer, or the like…you are not “we”. American foreign policy is run for the benefit of a very small interet group.

    Islamic fundamentalism is a horrific system. But you know what, cossetted here in the (still) comfortable west, the modern neoliberal capitalist ideology is not very nice for most people in the world, either. I’m sure Nigerian peasants whose families have been murdered at the behest of Shell or British Petroleum would be happy to learn that at least they are not living under Islamic fundamentalism! Or Bolivian peasants who found out their water bills would quadruple.

    So…again…I object to the arrogance exhibited here.

  • Brian M

    Gosh…I am a terrible typist, no? And the comment editing software works poorly on my browser.

  • Brian M


    Even granted your point…does that give the United States the right to impose a dictatorial system that most Egyptians find unsuitable?

    Given that logic, I wonder if you would support an invasion of the United States by the European Community, which would impose a decent social welfare system, quarrantine toxic religiosity from the State, and slash our military budget by 75%…even if the American voters have repeatedly and to their own detriment refused to demand these policies and actions for themselves?

    Heck…such an imposition would be better than the Kleptocracy we’ve imposed on Egypt for 30 years.

  • mikespeir

    Even granted your point…does that give the United States the right to impose a dictatorial system that most Egyptians find unsuitable?

    I’m surprised to learn I was arguing for that. ;-)

    On the other hand, I do doubt that democracy in Egypt, supposing it happens, will be much more than a way station along the path to theocracy. Better expressed, it’ll be a conduit leading to theocracy. Given an overwhelming majority that believes society should be ordered according to the Koran, how do you suppose they’ll vote? In any case, I’m certainly not advocating our involvement in the process beyond diplomacy.

  • Brian M

    Don’t get me wrong…I think theocracy is a horrible idea. But the alternative WE’VE imposed is not exactly savory.

    This is pretty joyful.

  • mikespeir

    “Hard To Know Which Side To Root For”

    Yep. Sometimes.

  • Brian M

    Oh…I have no problem knowing which side to root for. Vague fears of Islam and how untrustworthy those Ay-rabs are


    a corrupt octogenarian dictator who gladly assists the CIA in its torture programs and helps Israel starve out Gaza?

    does not seem like a difficult choice at all.

  • Zietlos

    The question is this: Who would you prefer, a dictator put in place by AH-MAH-RII-KAH! or a dictator put in place by Egyptians? I think a lot of people would prefer their country rules over other countries. It makes them feel “safe”. Because the one thing people can’t stand is when someone else doesn’t follow the same rules they follow. It actually can be a difficult choice, Brian, in terms of self-interest. As a Canadian, I am indirectly effected because US attacks hit our economy, as well as our politics, and I say that in my best interest is a stable nation. If its democratic, sure, just take the guy out and have an immediate election. If its autocratic, sure, just quell the masses. Either way, unstable areas is not good for the world. Also, vandalism is pretty bad there right now, some museums HAVE been vandalized, relics and mummies destroyed. That would not have happened had status quo remained. Everything has its costs, there is no such thing as a simple choice if you know ALL the variables ahead of time.

    The real query is why Aljezera (sp?) gets such in-depth covereage while the USA’s coverage is lacklustre at best (well, beyond the obvious reason that the USAires can’t be ignorant sheep if you let them know what their country does).

  • bbk

    Having dated an Egyptian woman who taught me a lot about their culture, cuisine, and language, I know that they are truly unique people. For a Muslim woman, she was very strong and independent… her sisters wore traditional outfits, but she refused… she would not only refuse to let me pay for her, she would pay for me as well, sometimes by inviting me to places where she knew the owner who would refuse to take my money. We made plans to open up a cafe together, but I got deployed to Iraq and we parted ways. When I came back, she had already opened up a place on her own and was doing great. During my time in the Middle East, any time I met an Egyptian, I was invited to visit their country, to meet their families, and offered to be taken on multi-day sightseeing tours. They are that hospitable, pretty much all of them. If anyone’s got a shot at Democracy in the Arab world, it’s them. Whatever fears people have about this turning into a theocracy, I’m placing my hopes on what I hear about some of them calling this their Berlin Wall. That sounds about as democratic as anything I can think of. And I’m proud that they are looking to how the people in Eastern Europe peacefully overthrew their oppressors, because some of the people who led those protests are my own family.

  • Rollingforest

    @Brian M #21: It’s not America’s business to ignore the world either. Americans have the same right as any other nation to deal in world affairs. No, Americans do not have a special right to be the world’s police. EVERYONE is the world’s police. Yes, America should promote democracy wherever possible. But stopping the spread of Fundamentalist Islam is the major issue just as stopping the spread of Communism was 20 years ago. American’s can’t fight for democracy if they don’t have democracy themselves (granted, in the short term, Islamic Fundamentalism is of less danger than Communism was because there are fewer Muslims now than there were poor people back then. But with Fundamentalist Islamic Fundamentalists immigrating to Europe, I fear that their power might be growing in the birthplace of the Enlightenment, something Americans should be very wary about)

    CEOs of large banks and military weapons manufacturers may have an undue influence on US foreign, but democracy does still matter in America. Americans want a foreign policy that’s main goal is keeping Americans safe. Any president who doesn’t do this will be voted out.

    I am not a Neoconservative in that I don’t think Americans can just invade any country, set up a democracy, and everything will be peachy. The verdict on the Iraq war is still out. Whether it was worth it or not probably won’t become clear for another 50 years. At the same time, I am not an antiwar Liberal or isolationist Libertarian. Do nothing to fight an organized enemy and they will eventually become stronger and threaten your shores anyway. Republican isolationism in the late 1930s led to America staying out of World War II for too long, giving Hitler more time to build his army. Even if the US bought into Hitler’s “all German’s want to live in Germany” ideology, his conquest of Czechoslovakia should have warranted a declaration of war. The war would have been less bloody if the Allies had caught Hitler when he was less prepared for battle. (this might seem like Godwin’s law, but it is actually a legitimate historical point ;) )

    I think Americans should be foreign policy realists. Don’t declare war as often as the Neocons want you to, but don’t have war phobia like the antiwar liberals do. Work to fight Islamic Fundamentalism where you can and work to promote democracy where you can. Results are what matter, not ideology.
    Democratic capitalism may not be perfect, but at least under this system Americans can promote fair trade or foreign aid. No such hope will ever come under Islamic Fundamentalism.

    @ Brian M #23: To give another example, if the US president declared martial law and suspended elections, as an American citizen I would absolutely expect the European countries to invade and reinstate a Democracy if they thought that the American citizens wanted one. I remember a speaker from Iran coming to my college and saying that she wanted to end the Islamisist rule in Iran, but that if America invaded Iran, she would fight with the Islamic Fundamentalists. This makes no sense to me. If the American army is helping you achieve the goals that she wanted anyway, why would she join with her enemies out of a meaningless show of nationalism? She’s only hurting her own cause.

    @mikespeir #24: Well, yes, a foreign policy realist would argue that it is pointless to push for democracy until the people have adopted some degree of Western values. That’s why propping up dictatorships is often better than letting the country fall into the grips of Islamists.

    @Brian M #25: The only reason that plot worked is because the Islamic Fundamentalists imposed death for homosexual activity. So while what the Egyptian government did evil, I’m not sure that it is an argument that America should ignore the Islamic Fundamentalists who would do as badly or worse.
    @Brian M #27: Fear of Islamic Fundamentalists isn’t very vague in this world. I think it is very real and justified. (by the way, Gaza’s not exactly a utopia of freedom either)

    @Zietlos #28: The difference is that any American can go to Al Jezeera’s website while in much of the Islamic world or for example China the people don’t have the option to go to an American news website.

  • bbk

    stopping the spread of Fundamentalist Islam is the major issue just as stopping the spread of Communism was 20 years ago

    The USA and their allies caused Communism in many of the places where it has existed. For instance, Poland, a democratic country that was a pivotal ally during WW2, was thrown like a bone to the Russians by world leaders from democratic nations. Before that, Americans backed the Russian Czar and the White Army. Our diplomacy has always been stupid – we’re always siding with the future losers of the world instead of betting on the people. I hope that Americans realize how hypocritical the decades-long Cold War era really was. We support unpopular dictators for political expediency, throw democracies under the bus whenever it’s convenient, and then wonder why people would side with repressive regimes rather than have Americans intervene in their affairs. So then we get put in a position where American support for something can immediately kill an entire reform movement, so we do all these back room politics to not be caught supporting actual democracy – but that’s because nobody believes we ever support democracy.

  • Em

    the list of popular revolutions which degenerated into dictatorships is almost endless. Why did we escape? Because the Founding Fathers were largely middle class merchants and agrarian aristocrats who were essentially grafting the ideals of the Enlightenment onto an economically based rebellion

    And sadly, even that was pretty limited, since millions of slaves were living in plantation-based dictatorships both before and well after the revolution. It looks like it’s improved now… but after propping up other people’s dictators for a century, maybe we really just outsourced dictatorship? I don’t know.