Have you seen the interactive timeline tool The Guardian recently posted as a primer for the Arab Spring? It’s an informative and beautiful tool, but the fact that the time frame started just 13 months ago gave me pause. It’s not just The Guardian—the prevailing questions across the media are: where did this come from?, is this over? and how is it going to impact us? It’s a bit like asking Great Britain if they have recovered from the American Revolution, or the American South if the Civil Rights Movement is over. Answers like it was always coming, it’s never over, and the impact is immeasurable are not settling--but one of the lessons from the Arab Spring is that there was too high a premium on that which was comfortable rather than that which was consistent with our highest ideals. Understanding how our trade and foreign policy objectives impact the human rights and basic operating systems of other nations is critical, and it is a hopeful sign that young people in school today will learn fulsome lessons about a rich and varied region as despots and dictators begin to fade in to history—replaced by what is the question.
When I was coming of age, the Islamic revolution in Iran, the Iran/Iraq war, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon stood out dramatically because for decades, the middle east was a place governed by regal elites and mysterious military men, keeping our oil flowing and our encounters with Islam, Arab culture, and the concerns of their societies apart from the American mainstream. Over time globalization revealed a complex array of agreements and circumstances creating untold desperation and suffering in a huge part of the world home to millions of people, giving rise to a host of new problems and extreme consequences we barely guessed at in the 1970s and 80s. Preserving the status quo, like so many other times in history, came at great cost, and was ultimately unsustainable because it was not consistent with human desires for self-determination.
To really understand the Arab Spring, you must go back further than 13 months—at least until the end of World War II and the imperialist allocations of land and power. The real lessons come from observing how a seemingly sound policy decision at a moment in history, when made not fully embracing the dignity and agency of the other, plants the seeds of discord. When that discord arrives, power grappling, silencing, and avoidance lead to bloodshed. It’s true over and over in history, and if today’s headlines are an indication, it’s true again. Flaming graphics and somber predictions aside, there is great opportunity in this moment. A whole region of the world has shifted a perceived reality and now we are waiting to see how events emerge from the impulse to revolt, to the responsibility to rebuild something better.
These are the moments to use the Center, and I hope you will. On February 9th CNN Dialogues returns with a discussion of the Arab Spring featuring a distinguished panel of journalists and activists joining us from the region. Their lived experiences will enrich all of our perspectives, and the opportunity to pose direct questions is not available anywhere else. Join us at Emory University’s Glenn Auditorium at 7pm, tickets are free and available here.