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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Summarizing Rashid Khalidi

Khalidi, a leading scholar of Mideast Studies, visited AUB to discuss preliminary observations about the Arab revolutions. He called the revolutions in Egypt et al "unprecedented" because the movement on the ground has been peaceful and inward-looking. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, revolutionary movements in the region resisted colonialism. Recent movements are fighting oppressors who are Arab, though backed by outsiders (look with shame, for instance, at the American tear gas cannisters used against peaceful protestors).

Young protestors, Khalidi observed, assert democracy but also individual and collective dignity. Police state repression of civil rights assaults individual dignity, of course, but also had resulted in a collective malaise and defeatism in places like Egypt. The entire Mideast saw no democratic revolutions, no toppling of monarchies, no liberalization from within during recent decades. "Arab" identity, though not monolithic, has reasserted itself as a meaningful marker, he said. In the abstract, Arab revolutions have the same goals as liberal revolutions in the West: democracy and freedom; they echo the French and American revolutions. Although he acknowledged that we don't yet know whether sustainable change is occuring, Khalidi argued that the moment is fresh. And he pointed out the reactionary, not peaceful status quo is mobilizing--successfully in Libya.

Regarding the West, he suggested that the U.S. (and by extension Israel, to whom the U.S. gives money, weaponry, and support on the UN Security Council) is left wondering how the revolutions will affect its own interests. American foreign policy has long been torn between "ideals" (democracy) and "interests" (oil, support for Israel). Khalidi mentioned American knowledge of geography, history, and foriegn languages and the audience laughed before he could complete his thought. Interesting and telling moment. The rest of his thought: All that America doesn't know about the region and, by virtue of our singular ignorance of foriegn languages for example, world culture and geography ultimately benefit the status quo. Insular attitudes--Khalidi said most members of the House of Representatives don't have a passport--benefit the status quo. But, inescapable images of Arabs peacefully organizing for democracy and freedom threaten that status quo, he said. Business-as-usual and hegemony-as-usual in Washington becomes more difficult when Americans are at last exposed to positive images of Arabs.

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