To understand the cultural, social, and political complexity of the United States thinking of North America as an “island” often helps. As I typed that statement I also wonder if another Thought Model (allegory) might be better, that of a watchtower along the perimeter of a prison yard, with the United States being the watchtower, our government being the guards, a few other developed countries being other watchtowers (Germany, France, Great Britain), and the prison yard full of prisoners, all of which have a spectrum of rights allowed to them, e.g. Iran, Iraq, Israel, Syria, etc. And, the thought also occurs to me which parents might appreciate is the notion of people telling you how to raise your kids based only on what they see while shopping at Kroger and not see the complete account of all actions throughout the day.
My point is, it’s easy for someone to tell you what to do or act when they have little to no vested interest in the outcome, and won’t bear any penalty for advice or action which goes wrong.
And, some of these people giving out advice are so far removed from their own nascent beginnings they forget how chaotic those circumstances were.
Western society, Europe plus the United States and Canada, have spent a couple hundred years hammering out the details of the Free, Fair, and Open Society. Make no mistake, this endeavor is still a work in progress. Yet, we have for the most part decided our conversations about our societal openness must occur in a non-violent way. These debates have not always been so; all one has to look at is the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, Anti-war Vietnam Protests and Kent State, or the Socialist Labor Movement of the 20th century and we have plenty of evidence that civil unrest can be met with physical violence and death.
Events in the Middle East, from the Arab Spring, the Syrian Civil War, and the September 2012 Mohammed Movie Controversy appear to the Western World as violence associated with unsophisticated, ignorant, and underdeveloped societies. And, to a large extent, this is true.
Middle Eastern societies have evolved along a different societal form than societies in Europe. Most of the Middle East societies are tribally based where alliances are between large families and not to a central government. Monarchies developed, or were encouraged to develop by Western Powers, in order for countries to conduct business with each other. It is much more convenient to negotiate an oil deal with one person than negotiate with multiple tribal leaders scattered over the wilderness, right?
Monarchies enriched by the oil trade are not likely to cede power to anyone. If anything, monarchies are more likely to condense power into a few trusted family members, brothers, uncles, nephews, and cousins. Power becomes concentrated within a cluster of a few people who are given titles, like Minister of Oil, Minister of Trade, Minister of the Military, etc., but really are representative of the strength of the monarchical family.
In order to maintain the power of the family, the Monarchy, really a Dynasty, as governing power is passed to male family members, all opposition to the monarchical rule is crushed. And, if the religious leaders can be co-opted to support the monarchy, so much the better. Then, the hearts and souls of the population are essentially captured. And, by association, the mind is then captured, as most people will make decisions based on their feelings, that is, their heart or spiritual leanings than with their mind.
With the exception of Saudi Arabia and King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud, who actively supports education, the building of universities and technical schools, and sends thousands of Saudi students abroad for education every year, the Middle East is overburdened with societal and cultural ignorance of the rest of the world.
Governments have actively suppressed education and societal openness. Governments have shutdown Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. Governments actively spy on their citizen’s cellphone conversations. Middle Easterners who use Blackberries should be aware that every single text, cellphone conversation, and voicemail is being stored and analyzed. Any comments against governments, families, or Islam run the risk of being used as a means to persecute the account holder or the account holder’s family and friends. Jordan, Syria, Iran, UAE, Bahrain have all instituted draconian policies against certain types of speech.
In fact, being able to speak freely without incident is a very recent freedom for Libyans, Egyptians, Saudis, Tunisians, and millions of others throughout the Middle East. For decades, if not centuries, people throughout the Middle East have been punished, tortured, beaten, imprisoned, or killed for voicing opposition to the government. The Arab Spring Uprising began in Tunisia when a man set himself on fire because a local government official was trying to extort money from him, a common practice at the time in Tunisia. A person had no legal recourse, no way out; pay me money to sell from your cart or I will arrest you and put you in prison.
Bahrain activates its army to end protests. Syria activates its military to end protests and punish everyone and every town involved in the protests. Jordan issues a warrant for the arrest of YouTube.
Rather than address issues of important speech and open communication, governments, out of fear and cowardice, attack their own populations. “This is the way it has always been done.” How many times have you heard that while growing up, right?
Even our own government forgets lessons it should have learned long ago, with the Occupy Wall Street movement. Forget for a moment the idea behind OWS, and focus on the idea a government will respond with police action or military action to suppress the rights of speech for large groups of people who come together out of a unifying concern or issue. Never is this a good thing to have happen. Not for a country which prides itself on the ability of sharing thoughts, ideas, and foundations of open, honest, and fair communication.
Consider for a moment those days a little over a year ago when OWS protestors in New York City were assaulted by police officers with mace and tear gas simply for protesting the egregious and wanton behavior of Wall Street investment companies wasting shareholder money on investments of dubious quality and of extremely high risk with no accountability. And, a year later, no changes to accountability have been implemented, little to no punishment and few Wall Street investment companies have altered their behavior.
Two points from all of this; one, the United States needs to get beyond the “Do as I say, not as I do” mentality. The hypocrisy of telling other countries to encourage free speech while simultaneously discouraging or shutting down speech in the United States will be lost on only the completely obtuse.
Second, countries exhibiting violence with regards to art, science, literature, and media available in other countries should be expected. These countries have been run by military or authoritarian governments, governments which have absolute control over all media, and the people living in these countries for the most part have no idea what it means to have “freedom of expression.” To these people, expression one’s self always had bad consequences, loss of job, jail time, prison time, jailing of family members, and even death.
As long as countries like Iran, Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Libya, and Bahrain continue to remain closed or resistant there will always be violent reaction to perceived insults and misunderstandings.
In a way they, too, are cultural and social islands, just like the United States.