On "Free Arabs"

An ambitious website speaks for a real and legitimate group of Arabs. But it’s less consequential than it likes to believe.

It didn’t take long after Free Arabs launched for the critics to pounce: It wasn’t “authentic” enough. It is too “westernised”. It’s a plot by “zionist normalisers” and atheists. The whole nine yards of a classic Arab tradition in intellectual bullying, where leftists bash their opponents as “zionists” and islamists bash their opponents as “atheists”, denying them recognition and legitimacy.

The reality is that there are many Arabs out there who really believe in what the west calls “universal values”: Freedom of thought, freedom from oppression, freedom of religious belief, minority rights..etc. They are looking with horror at how the promise of the Arab Spring is turning into a winter of non-inclusive Islamists and close-minded demagogues. The “Free Arabs” website is the result of these people pooling their efforts together in response. Some of the people working really hard on that website are acquaintances and friends of mine.

The two faces of the West

At the heart of the criticism of projects like Free Arabs is a potent and classic deceptive trick that deliberately confounds two aspects of the “West”. The first is that of the West as a collection of old colonial powers and polities that seek to advance their economic interests today. The second is the West as a birthplace of ideas like individual rights, freedom of expression and civil rights through historical movements like the age of enlightenment, the french revolution and the American civil rights movement.

When activists in Egypt call for “freedom” and people in Lebanon demand civil marriage, their opponents immediately accuse them of bringing “western ideas” to their societies, “the same west that invaded Iraq, divided the Arab world and supported Israel”. One of the Free Arabs’ greatest challenges in the medium and long run is to decouple these two aspects of the west in people’s minds (and from their own minds)

“Westernised Elites”

Free Arabs are comfortable with the idea that they’re “westernised”. In their minds that doesn’t make them any less “Arab” because they associate the west with the collection of emancipative ideals mentioned above. They blast “hypocrites” who accuse them of being westernised while driving western cars, wearing western cloths and listening to western music. They are comfortable with writing in french and english, and they don’t mind employing western forms of communication like straight-faced satire and intimate vlogging.

What they don’t like being called however is “Elites”. That’s because they believe in their hearts that the poor and helpless benefit from their ideas more than the rich. An empowered and free individual can hold her leaders accountable for their actions, unlike those who follow religious leaders and dictators. This, in my opinion is where the shortcomings of Free Arabs begin to appear.

Talk shop

Free Arabs, with their irreverent critiques of religious figures and cavalier dismissal of social norms are still out of the mainstream in many Arab and Muslim countries. The website is more likely to end up as a place for discussion (and fun) of like-minded people than one that influences the nature of the region. Discussions and open debate are good things, but we may have to live with the reality that conservative populations will never listen to people like us.

→ Respond to this post On Twitter
  • http://wizardofil.wordpress.com wizardofil

    I’ve been following your blog and other Lebanese blogs for some time now, and what always confounds me is the fact that you write about, and through, “Western glasses” and believe in the same Western values as I do, and yet when it comes to the issue of Israel (where I live) the views expressed by you and other bloggers are always negative.

    You have finally supplied me with a possible explanation, with your theory of “two faces of the West”. There is the face of the “old colonial West” and there is the face of the modern, progressive West. While you identify Western values with one, you identify Israel with the “old colonial West”. However, the root of anti-Israel sentiment comes from Israel representing “the West” without differentiating between the two faces. Israel was always seen as part of the “old colonial West”, even though it actually represents the new. If enough Arabs start identifying with the new Western values, perhaps they will start seeing Israel for what it really is, thus diffusing a century-old conflict.

    Thank you for an enlightening post!

    • romeo

      @wizardofil, as an atheist Arab, I see Israelis as just another group of humans with the same needs and aspirations as other Arab humans. No big aha moment here.

      On the other hand, I am still struggling with Israel as a group of people with “Judaism” as their raison-d’etre. A society that separates itself based on Religion is mind-boggling in this day and age.

      NO ONE did that in the Middle-East, until Israel came into the picture (I was born Christian…just to clarify where I come from).

      It is of course much more complicated than that, but one has to start somewhere.

      Please do not take this as a generalization. I believe the majority of Israelis will one day live in peace with Arabs. And vice-versa. It is just a matter of time.

      I am wondering how we can hasten the process.



      PS. Mustapha: dude…you have to stop writing intersting posts…you are consuming too much of my time :-) Just kidding of course. Keep up the good work!

    • http://muddleast.wordpress.com Elizabeth

      I think Israel’s actions (as opposed to ideals) very much represent the old colonial racist West. Our declaration of independence and Hertzl’s writings may speak about racial and religious equality, but Israel practices racial and religious discrimination all the while oppressing of millions of people who are denied of the most basic rights.

  • Mustapha

    Huh… So the first two comments on this post are by an atheist and a jew..
    I wonder if that breaks or makes my point :)

    • maidenrose

      1st who’s free ok w have the will but not the choice and even choices are now banned under globalisation shifting. 2nd evolution is sick in modern liberal countries pple are hurled into targeted ways of thinking. Even the word Elites means thiefs of humanity resources now and not the society cast rich bourgeois with visionary thinking who led revolutions as in France. FreeArabs is another downfall of a general global disease where survival is for powerful oppressors. In my above statement I refined the word Elite t its original cultural enhance…

  • Ayah harfouch

    I would just like to say that your blog is informative and interesting. Politics is not something I enjoy reading about usually but you are clear and concise. Do you have anymore interesting blogs I can take a look at.

    • Mustapha

      I suggest you take a look at http://lebaneseblogs.com , it’s a website I created to gather the latest posts from the best Lebanese blogs..