The political and social change brought about by the “Arab Spring” presents an historic opportunity for the West to recalibrate its relationship with the Middle East. To do so, the Western world—particularly the United States and the former European colonial powers—should try to understand the causes of these uprisings and carefully examine the evolution of Arab identity, particularly since the period of decolonization in the 1960s.
To better understand this evolution, we need to revisit the “Arab Revolt” against Ottoman rule, which occurred from 1916 to 1918. During this time, the Arabs living in the empire understood cultural identity mainly in ethnic, not religious, terms. Pan-Arab nationalism remained the dominant paradigm in discourses about the political future of the region in 1947, when the United Nations passed the Palestine partition resolution. The paradigm thrived in the periods after the Six-Day War of 1967 and the October (or Yom Kippur) War of 1973.
In the wake of these successive defeats by Israel, the Arab people increasingly shifted towards Islam as the source of their dignity and self-esteem and away from the secular ideologies of nationalism and socialism. The annexation of East Jerusalem in 1980 further solidified this Islamic bond and provoked anger among Muslims in the Middle East and beyond. This not only resulted in the Arab loss of Haram al-Sharif, the third holiest site in Islam, but also solidified the perception that the West, judging by their acquiescence to the take-over, favored Israel.
Another factor that helped shift Arab identity from nationalism to political Islam was the collapse of communism and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. For the first time since the start of the Cold War, Arab governments could no longer benefit from the legitimacy the two superpowers had given them, as Washington and Moscow no longer needed their support for containment. As Arabs realized this, the resulting fragmentation of nationalism created a vacuum that Islam quickly filled. During the 1990s, this rise of political Islam in Arab civil society mirrored the deep disillusionment of the masses, not only with the failure of their governments to do anything about the situation in Palestine, but also with the refusal of those regimes to respond to the desire for democratic change as the communist systems in Eastern Europe collapsed.
Against this background, the Western attitude towards the Islamic revival has been ambiguous and largely determined by power politics. During the 1980s, the United States, in close cooperation with Saudi intelligence, secretly propped up Muslim “mujahideen” fighting groups in Afghanistan with the goal of defeating the Soviet occupation army, but without paying attention to the “unintended consequences” of such a strategy. To a large extent, the Afghan operation—which aimed to change the global power equation—triggered the very Muslim revival the United States had been eager to “contain.”
In the last two decades, the complicated relationship between the Western world and Islam has taken another turn. The West—in particular the United States and the European Union—actively supported democratic elections in the Middle East, but acted as an arbiter of the results by openly taking sides in situations where they considered the people’s choice to be unacceptable. This was the case with the aborted second round of elections in Algeria in 1992, and with the elections in the occupied Palestinian territories in 2006, which gave Hamas a majority.
This dilemma has become most obvious in the course of the uprisings collectively dubbed the “Arab Spring.” While the revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, and Syria were, or continue to be, fuelled by social grievances and political despair—not by religious fervor—a majority of citizens in the countries where free elections were held nonetheless voted for Islamic parties. In the cases of Libya and Syria, outside military interference by the West, whether open or covert, has risked strengthening some of the most intransigent Muslim factions.
If history is a guide, Western attempts to “patronize” the new Islamic-inspired movements may be futile. Only time will tell whether “Arab Spring” or “Islamic Awakening” is the proper characterization of the Middle East’s social and political transformation. Irrespective of the final outcome, the West should avoid a “policy of double standards,” or supporting social revolts in certain countries while effectively siding with the government in others. It should also strive to develop a more balanced position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which remains one of the main concerns of Muslims in the region. Finally, after decades of “authoritarian stagnation” in the Middle East, for which the Western partners of Arab regimes bear some of the responsibility, the United States and Europe should renew their relationship with the Arab world on the basis of mutual respect. Ultimately, the West must realize embracing democratic change means accepting the people’s choice.