If you’ve ever been through New York’s Museum of Natural History, and you’re a person of color, conscience, or a student of critical race theory, I’m sure you walked out feeling deeply offended. The museum organizes human populations as if they’re animals along a Darwinian ladder of civilizational evolution. All sorts of “exotic” — the right word here, with all the right implications, might be “ethnic” — populations are represented in their native costumes, excepting, of course, white Westerners.
Why aren’t they also present? Because the “ethnic” populations are dropped into motionless display cases, showcasing how red, yellow, brown, and black peoples have worked, eaten, and mated from time immemorial—apparently doing so for generations until white Westerners discovered progress, swept in, and forcibly liberated them. Then these same folks learned a) they have no ability to change unless it’s through Western civilization or b) they are incapable of modernization because of who and what they are.
This worldview, namely that the Westerner, coextensive with a certain type of Christianity and a certain type of whiteness, creates the progress of history is so shockingly pervasive that persons who do not fit within this privileged category can find themselves negatively disposed toward their own race, culture and religion — usually without realizing it. I’m sure you’ve heard of the famous experiments asking black children whether they preferred white dolls or black dolls. That’s what I mean.
The same kind of race consciousness (it also doubles as religion consciousness; read Gil Anidjar’s Semites for more) feeds into politics across the Third World, as people who are not white doubt whether they can develop their societies in any meaningful way, and begin to wonder if their negative circumstances are not the product of mutable historical realities but instead their lacking an irreproducible cultural, religious (or non-religious—civilized peoples being those who have either tamed religion, or transcended it altogether) and racial essence.
Then Japan Beat Up Russia Twice
Around 1908, a wave of revolutions swept across the Middle East, but a major influence on these revolutions was actually distant Japan. Because, in 1904, Japan went to war with Russia. The world powers’ consensus was that the white European power would handily defeat the Asian nation, as had been the case across the world for the previous century. But Japan did something its race and continent was not supposed to allow it to. Japan won.
For the first time in a very long time, a non-white power had handed it to a white one. Not only had Japan won, but decisively so. Japan defeated Russia in East Asia, then sat around waiting for Russia’s European navy to show up (it took many months to navigate around Africa), and then, once that showed up, they sunk all of that, too. People across the Middle East found inspiration in a non-white, non-Christian, non-European power, thinking: If they can do it, why can’t we?
The tyranny of low expectations, of longstanding assumptions of inherent cultural inferiority, was shaken, but not overthrown. During today’s Arab revolutions, we heard elites argue that their populations were not ready for democracy. In other words, while a frequently slave-owning, patriarchal, racially exclusive elite in 18th century America could birth a tremendously vigorous democracy and achieve world power, somehow Arabness and Muslimness is too static, violent, backwards, and irrational to handle a vote.
I’m Not Thomas Friedman
The inexplicably popular Times columnist recently published a frankly weird list of influences on the Arab revolutions. Check the tyranny of the paradigm: Most of his influences were Western and American, like Barack Obama, alternate side parking, Google Earth, Subway’s $5 foot-longs, and our tremendous fiscal discipline.
Friedman likely made a list of 50 things that could possibly explain the Arab revolutions and was too uncritical of his own consciousness to realize his own bias. He then pulled as many of these reasons as he could fit into his regular column. But Friedman shortchanged China (he sort of got that), and missed both Turkey and MTV’s Jersey Shore.
In the last 10 years, as we’ve been bogged down in wars and economic crises, China’s become a global power. Much like Japan a century ago, here’s an Asian power capable of competing on a global stage. If an ancient civilization such as China can rapidly modernize, why not an ancient civilization such as Egypt?
Maybe there was nothing to the myths — and there’s nothing to them — that Islam is resistant to change, Arabs are unsuited to democracy, and only certain types of people can enjoy certain success. Educated young professionals like Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who helped organize the Egyptian revolution, were deeply aware of China’s rise, and began to look to their own country with dissatisfaction.
Turkey brings it even closer to home. In the last few decades, the average Egyptian has barely seen his salary rise, while Turkey’s GDP rose by 300 percent. Turkey has raced past Iran to become dominant in the Middle East, and has done so with a curious blend of secularization and an originally Islamist party repeatedly elected to power.
In short: Egypt watched its star dim, while watching a close neighbor, of similar size and religious composition, become a regional power. Turkey is largely Sunni Muslim, it is a democracy and it is part of Western security architecture. The Turkish Navy is now off the coast of Libya; I’m sure perceptive Libyans notes the awkward anniversary: 100 years ago, in 1911, the Ottoman Empire lost its last African territory, Libya, to Italy.
I met my first “ethnic” white person when I was well into my third decade, after I’d spent some years in New York City. The experience still confuses me.
Because where I grew up, I was one of the few minorities. My white friends, classmates and pretty much every white person around me had no specific ethnic identity. They often claimed that they were this percentage Irish or that percentage Lithuanian, but these differences seemed perfunctory. They were just white Americans, to me and to themselves. Their subcultures were formed by class, music, sports, and other local criteria, and rarely by either faith or ethnicity.
Here’s a secret, white people: For us brown people, you were long part of a magical, all-powerful civilization, and we had no idea how in the hell you did it (these days, it seems, you’re desperately wondering the same thing). Everywhere whites went, they prospered, dominated, succeeded, kicked butt, took names and persuaded lots of people to change their names. You can go to the bottom of the world and find glittering skyscrapers in a vibrant Australian democracy.
But travel the Muslim world and it seems each country is a variation of the other in all the wrong ways: corruption, instability, underperformance. It’s depressing. It makes you doubt yourself. It makes you think that the current malaise lasted backwards through time, like you really do belong in that static museum display. It makes you think there’s something wrong with your faith and culture, and that these cannot provide any resources for reform or change.
But along comes Jersey Shore with its cast of self-described Italians. These are not the magical white folks of world-conquering, democracy-building myth-but they’re still “white”. They behave like the Museum assumes only people of my color behaved. (Then again, they are my color, suggesting that Italy’s inclusion in the European continent is the consequence of unavoidable plate tectonics.) The sum total of their television life is a kind of late-capitalist tragic anthropology: doing laundry to go to parties, in order to have sex.
They’re kind of like a savage tribe, except they do not admit to any interest in higher values or realities. They exist to reproduce, but they use birth control, so it’s not really clear what primitive instinct compels them to wash their clothes and get not merely some, but a lot. They exist to consume (goods and people), and their consumption generates massive profits. As well as pride: For me, it’s been tremendously liberating to know that people of my color and faith are not the only people who are embarrassing to watch on television.
And the same goes for people who are classified, like me, in the “other” category. I’m sure that for the youth of Tunisia, this show felt like Japan’s victory in 1905. Maybe Western civilization — which, for many in the region, remains a “white” phenomenon, and therefore inaccessible and irreproducible — isn’t all that. Maybe, they’re thinking, we’ve been too hard on ourselves — and for the wrong reasons. The next thing you know Libyan civilians are storming army bases.
Gym, (Already) Tanned, Liberation
When pundits debate whether or not to support Libya’s rebels, they annoyingly use the same trope: Even if these rebels aren’t “Jeffersonian Democrats,” we should support them. Perhaps we would prefer they be staunch elitists, who fight for and sustain a brilliant political structure that nevertheless excludes women and unpropertied members of the allegedly privileged racial group from the vote and keeps people of color in chains.
Much of the democracy we enjoy in the West today was formed in dialogue with minorities and marginalized peoples: Black Americans, women and, of course, the colonized peoples of the Third World. (Would Martin Luther King happen without Gandhi?) Democracy is not the product of one part of the world, nor did it emerge spontaneously and perfectly, so that it can be described as the product of a peculiar culture’s genius, inaccessible to people of other cultures, colors, or religions.
But this is often how history is told, and how we sell ourselves to the world. So it’s not hard to see how people in the Arab world might lose hope that their regimes, and their societies, facing myriad problems, could ever change. They would believe that white folks were somehow just superior. And then they watch some guy punch Snooki in the face, and they know in their heart: Yes, we can, too.
The magic power of white culture is taken away, revealed to be human, the product of historical events and decisions, and thus susceptible to change, transformation, failures and successes. Just like any other culture. So too Arab cultures, and so too Muslim cultures, and Arabs and Muslims now know that the way is open to them to build their own democracies and their own modernities. Forget Facebook. It’s Jersey Shore that’s keeping Bashar Assad up at night, as he wonders what in this goofy cycle of gyms, tanning, and laundry, shakes the foundations of his regime.
Haroon Moghul, Executive Director of The Maydan Institute and fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, teaches at Adelphi University. Mr. Moghul holds a B.A. from NYU in Philosophy and Middle Eastern Studies and an M.A. from Columbia University in Middle Eastern Studies, where he is a doctoral candidate. His first novel, The Order of Light was published by Penguin in 2006 and his work has appeared or he has been otherwise featured on CNN, BBC, The History Channel, The New Yorker, and Tikkun. This article was previously published at Religion Dispatches