The popular mass uprising that deposed Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and the dramatic events in Tunisia, Yemen, and elsewhere have made clear inconvenient truths about the U.S. role in the region, showed the fallacy of the so-called “clash of civilizations” theory, and helped deconstruct the ignorance and fear about Islam that has fueled Islamophobia in the U.S.
The U.S. has long publicly extolled the virtues of democracy, self-determination, human rights, and economic opportunity. But for more than three decades, the autocratic, corrupt, and oppressive regime of Mubarak has been a close ally of the U.S., and second only to Israel as a recipient of foreign aid. Strong support for a “useful autocrat” like Mubarak can be linked to the peace treaty with Israel and Egypt’s role in combating international terrorism—but at what price?
The world watched the Mubarak regime employ every tactic in the police-state handbook: arresting and torturing protesters, harassing journalists, and dispatching pro-regime thugs to incite violence. Across the U.S. media spectrum—from Fox News to CNN and MSNBC—reporters acknowledged the political corruption, economic exploitation, and human rights abuses that have been hallmarks of Egypt’s rule.
Now we can see clearly what people in the Middle East have experienced for decades: the sharp disconnect between the high-minded ideals of the U.S. and its actual policies. Now the political expediency that informed U.S. support for the Shah of Iran for three decades and Saddam Hussein in the 1980s appears strikingly similar to patterns in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen.
The unmistakable quest for freedom, human rights, participatory government, and economic opportunity in Egypt also exposed the fallacy of the “clash of civilizations” mantra, which has been repeated for two decades by politicians, pundits, and preachers. The fatal flaws of this “why do they hate us?” orientation are now obvious to anyone willing to think. The values for which hundreds of thousands of Egyptians risked their lives are the values most people in the West hold dear.
Of course, it was always misleading to speak of “the Islamic world” (or “the West”) as some monolithic whole: The world’s roughly 1.5 billion Muslims are scattered over six continents, have different histories and traditions, and speak dozens of languages. Tunisia is not Afghanistan; Egypt is not Iran; Indonesia is not Iraq.
Finally, the compelling events in the Middle East help dismantle the dangerous, dead-end Islamophobia that has too often prevailed in the U.S. In my home state of Oklahoma, 70 percent of the voters last November voted to ban sharia (Islamic law) and other international law there. Self-appointed “experts” claim that the Quran teaches Muslims to convert or kill Jews and Christians and that the goal of all Muslims is world domination.
While there are still some pundits and many preachers promoting simplistic and defamatory images of Islam, the blinders are falling off the eyes of many others. We will still hear people throw around references to the Muslim Brotherhood, al Qaeda, and Iranian-style Islamic theocracy as though these were interchangeable. But the highly visible events in Egypt make it far more difficult to use such catch phrases to obscure reality.
The overwhelming majority in the approximately 50 Muslim-majority countries today do not long for a new caliphate. The movement for reform in Egypt cannot be linked generically to al Qaeda or religious leadership in Iran; it was first and foremost relevant to Egyptians.
And Egyptians are not all Muslims. Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox community of more than 10 million Arabic-speaking Christians dates itself to the apostolic ministry of Mark. Having lived in Egypt and worked closely with Christians in the Middle East for three decades, I know that problems and clashes arise—but also that Christians and Muslims have lived and worked together in Egypt, Israel/Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan for centuries. Who can forget the powerful pictures of Coptic Christian protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square linking arms to provide a human shield for their Muslim friends who were at prayer, and the footage of Muslims protecting their Egyptian Christian compatriots as they celebrated a Mass? Alongside some who shouted “Islam is the answer,” many others were heard proclaiming, “Christians and Muslims—we are all Egyptians!”
As events in the region unfold in coming months, Islam will figure prominently. Many Muslims feel strongly that Islam should provide guidance on how to shape the future of their respective nations; similar sentiments can be found among Israeli Jews and American Christians. In every setting, people are far from united on precisely how to negotiate the explosive convergence of religion and politics.
This much is clear: Constructive ways forward require an end to the corruption, exploitation, and repression that have thrived under autocratic rule in places like Egypt. Hope rests in large part on more transparent, participatory governments, freedom of the press and expression, economic opportunity, and fundamental human rights for all.
Will the world’s superpower stand with others and support the principles it cherishes as the new day dawns in the Middle East?
Charles Kimball is a Baptist minister and director of the religious studies program at the University of Oklahoma. His book When Religion Becomes Lethal: The Explosive Mix of Politics and Religion in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam will be released in April.