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)
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.
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.