Stick To What You Know

I never thought it would come to this. Actually, how did it come to this?

I am about to start one of my blog posts with a quote from Donald Trump. Worse, I am about to agree with a sentence from the load of garbage that comes out of his mouth every day. I used to dismiss the guy’s significance at the beginning of his campaign. I thought the glorious country I call a second home was wise enough to brush him aside. Trump’s rise in the polls still wasn’t enough for me to take him seriously. But then he started talking about us desert people. So I started listening.

One of Donald’s latest feats of genius on all things Middle Eastern was delivered March 9th 2016 in an interview with Anderson Cooper:

“I think Islam hates us. There’s something there […] tremendous hatred… tremendous hatred… We have to get to the bottom of it…”

The following day, all hell broke loose.

Liberal commentator Joe Scarborough took aim at Donald Trump’s comment, standing up for American Muslims as an integral part of American society:

“Saying that Islam hates us […] has to be very stinging to the Muslim Americans that wake up every morning and go to work and pursue the American dream and tell their children that in this country, unlike the countries that they came from – where there was severe repression – anything’s possible.”

Aside from Trump’s ideological opponents, the self-appointed representatives of America’s Muslims took on the case. The Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) demanded nothing less than a public apology from the Republican front-runner. “The remarks from Trump do not sit well with many of the nearly 3.3 million Muslims living in America,” said CAIR’s statement.

But then this was no surprise.

Already in late 2015, Trump’s call for an American ban on all Muslims sent chills down many spines. The reactions across the ideological spectrum were as virulent. But none of them dazzled me more than Michael Moore’s. The filmmaker went all the way to the Trump tower with the following words, sparking the trendy #weareallmuslim hashtag.


(No Moore, you’re not Muslim. Also, you know who else wants you all to be Muslim? I’ll let you guess.)

Look, I understand. It’s election season in United States. Therefore anything is framed through the lens of America’s culture wars. It’s pro-choice Vs. pro-life. Gun control Vs. 2nd Amendment. Big government Vs. small government. Market regulation Vs laissez faire. Diversity Vs Xenophobia… To a non-American like myself, such ideological bipolarity is puzzling. It almost feels like whatever liberals say, Republicans just need to say the opposite – and vice versa.

But when something as contentious and complicated as Islam is discussed, being simplistic is not an option. Not at the time of the Arab Spring and ISIS. Not when Jihadi attacks take on a quasi-daily frequency around the world. No matter how well they mean, America’s liberal commentators need to sometimes get out of their American bubble and look at the world as it is. Even when it is Trump they’re trying to take down.

The debate about Islam’s perceptions of non-Muslims cannot be restricted to the place American Muslims occupy in the United States. If anything, the rights and privileges they enjoy in this country are not a function of their Muslimhood, but of the fact that they live in a secular society where freedom of religion is constitutionally guaranteed. The same constitutional guarantees allow American Muslims to be Sunni or Shia, wear whatever they want, pray or not, fast or not and still call themselves Muslim. American Muslims can live the American dream precisely because their country is not governed by Islam. Or Christianity. Or Judaism. Or any other religion.

Let me put this another way. American Muslims thrive in the United States because they are free enough to dismiss the violent and harmful aspects of their religion. Hatred of other forms of thought and belief is one of those.

Yes, liberal America. Unlike his previous business ventures, Donald Trump was right on the money when he said that Islam hated non-Muslims. Of course not all Muslims hate non-Muslims, but that is beside the point. Did Trump know what he was talking about when he answered Anderson Cooper? Probably not. That too, I’m afraid, is beside the point. Here’s something else that’s beside the point: other religions have the same problem.

In its fundamental founding documents, the religion of Islam is rife with enticements of hatred towards Christians, Jews and other “Infidels,” culminating in explicit calls of war. Such verses are held as sacred by millions of Muslims across the world. In 2016, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, ISIS, Al Shabab and the Saudi regime still reference these precepts to justify their savagery.

(I know, I sound like a broken record. I have a record of being broken by the traumas of Islamic education.)

Some of us found out the hard way. On September 12th 2001, I walked into Arabic class like a normal teenager. But then I was not a normal teenager, for my Arabic professor was already planting the seeds of hatred in my juvenile mind. According to him, America deserved what had happened to it because of its support to the Israel. Thirteen year-olds across the classroom nodded, taking such a hateful worldview for granted. Wasn’t fighting the Infidels exactly what Allah told us to do anyway? I also still have vivid memories of Bin Laden posters at local markets. The man was a rock star of sorts. Until Al Qaeda hit Morocco in 2003, so the posters were taken down.

Let’s just say yours truly is glad he also grew up with Internet, videogames and satellite television.

Now, I love America. It has given me knowledge, opportunity and freedom, three things my region of origin is still failing to provide youth with. Needless to say, bans on Muslims or patrols in Muslim neighborhoods are not worthy of such a great country. But it is also because I care that I feel the need to scold liberal pundits when they go astray. Not everything is about what the United States or the West did or might do wrong, and other cultures do have their share of evil. Islam has its share of evil. When you deny that or discard its significance as a Western commentator, you’re bordering on ethnocentrism.

I mean, think about it. Surely Trump was not the first one to have come up with the ridiculous idea of separating Muslims from non-Muslims. Right, Saudi Arabia?







Beauty & The Beast(s)

“You have to see this place.”

I recognized that smile. It was the same smile Mehdi would have on his face whenever we were up to no good at age seven. We barely kept in touch since then, and I left my hometown as soon as I could. Mehdi on the other hand stayed. So there was no doubt in my mind that he knew what he was talking about.

The entrance of the club seemed deliberately designed so that anyone with a slight touch of sophistication avoids it. Besides a red shiny logo that read Mazzika, a billboard advertised that night’s performer. A bearded, chubby guy whose album is dubbed “خطيرة خطيرة” (“She’s dangerous, so dangerous.”)

But as I was to discover soon, that creepy singer was not the night’s major performer.

The two giants guarding the entrance of Mazzika did not flinch at the sight of my backpack. One of them approached me with a determined gaze.

“-What’s in here? Open it.”

After a detailed search, he examined our faces some more.

“-It’s okay, I’m a customer,” said Mehdi.

“-Alright, but I get to keep this here until you guys get back.”

It wasn’t like I needed my laptop anyway. Observation was to be the night’s main task.

As Mehdi and I went underground, fragrant fumes caressed our faces, suggesting that obscene amounts of Shisha were being smoked inside. “I’m sold,” I thought.

And then there was the music. Mazzika didn’t seem like the place where you could dance to the tune of Drake, David Guetta or Calvin Harris. It all sounded acoustically oriental to my Westernized ears. Mehdi and I ventured into an open lounge surrounding a rectangular dancefloor. Besides the singer, an able-bodied gentleman was enthusiastically beating on a circular drum. Both were in turn surrounded by a flock of dancers. Only two of those were men.

“Long live Iraq!” shouted the singer.

I froze for a second. I too had very recurrent thoughts about Iraq, but from a rather different perspective. The country was being torn apart by sectarian strife, civil war and terrorism.

But that wasn’t what the singer meant, apparently. In Mazzika, we were in the presence of Iraqi tourists. I could not pinpoint them, but they seemed to share similar traits with the other guests of the club: Male. Overweight. Shiny watches. Despite the festive ambiance around them, these ballers did not care to dance. The many girls of Mazzika took care of that. The club’s guests of honor just smoked their Shishas, sipped on their whiskies and watched. Move over, Tony Soprano.


I quickly found myself with a beer in my right hand. Mehdi had taken care of finding a table with a strategic view. I on the hand was too fixated on the dynamics of the place to even order anything. Before switching songs, the singer exclaimed: “Greetings to the people of Saudi Arabia!” Promptly thereafter, one of the men got up and threw a handful of bills at the dance floor. They were collected instantly.

None of this was a surprise to me, but I had been away for so long that I deluded myself into believing it would go away. For as long as I could remember, my hometown Agadir cultivated quite the reputation in Moroccan consciousness. It was the place horny oil tycoons from the Persian Gulf would go on vacation. But these gentlemen’s vacations extended beyond standard norms. They stayed for months on end, sometimes years. One of them, an Al Saud prince, loved Agadir so much that he funded the construction of one of its roads. In return, he was allowed to build a palace by the city’s beach. Those who had a chance to visit the palace say there is a mosque inside. I bet you there wasn’t much praying going on there.

(Literally) fueled by petrodollars from the Gulf, the prostitution epidemic in Agadir gave rise to an underground economy. Shop owners, taxi drivers, hotel managers and night club employees would never miss a chance to curse sex tourists from the Gulf behind their backs. But they don’t mind taking their money. Nor do the underage girls who ditch school in search for that one Khaleeji prince. When I was nineteen, a high school friend volunteered at a local shelter for single mothers. Many of those were teenagers. More often than not, the father was Saudi and nowhere to be found.

Just as I was getting sick of Mazzika, Mehdi had another idea. We were to visit The Factory, where local supply met foreign demand in the country of the Commander of the Faithful.

As I picked up my backpack, I had a wish: “I hope these f$#%heads run out of oil.”

Which might just happen soon.













Of Booze And Bombs

That Friday night, I came late. As usual.

A seat was left for me at Agadir’s English Pub. The table’s occupants were already drinking. Glasses of Flag Speciale in hand, they were all smiles. A college friend duly introduced me, but I was a bit distracted.

I wanted a glass of that Flag Speciale so bad.

I started drinking at 25, which was very convenient given that I had just cleared my head of all things Islamic. In Casablanca, my early drinking was done mainly around expats. It was a safe, non-judgmental environment for someone still deemed Muslim by their countrymen. I drank the finest foreign beers, wines and liquors. But none of these could beat the symbolic irony of shitty Flag Speciale, which is produced in the Muslim Kingdom of Morocco. In the Muslim Kingdom of Morocco, those born to Muslim parents are supposed to be Muslim. It follows that they are legally barred from drinking, an “offense” punishable by jail. Bars, clubs, supermarkets, hotels and other sellers of alcohol are thus required to only serve booze to non-Muslims. Unenforceable by any measure.

You now understand how a sip of Flag Speciale can invigorate the contrarian Arab infidel in me. It’s a statement, a middle finger to a regime that thrives on inconsistency. Moroccan style. I would never, ever miss a chance to do that.



It was all I drank at the English Pub that Friday night. In less than an hour, the club was full. Europeans, Sub-Saharan Africans and of course local “foreigners,” those Moroccans who dare to drink in public. I looked around me. Two ladies braved the floor with contagious insouciance. It was karaoke time. My college buddy grabbed the mic.

“(It’s my life) 
My heart is like an open highway 
Like Frankie said 
I did it my way”

As he uttered those words, he pointed at me. I couldn’t help but laugh.

And then it hit me.

While angrily slamming the door behind Morocco a year ago, I allowed myself to forget about this side of it.

A year consuming US media coverage of the Mideast didn’t help.

Turn on cable news in America and you will be delivered quite the summary on how we desert people feel about the world around us. The story goes that Sunnis hate Shias. The feeling is unequivocally mutual. They both hate non-Muslims. Especially Jews. Kurds don’t even want to hear about this and need their own state.


Where is my young, modern and defiant Middle East in all that noise? Nowhere.

It’s out there, though. All you have to do is look for it.

Tipsy and indignant at what the world was missing of my region, I remembered the two soldiers who were standing by the English Pub at my arrival. I also remembered that my bag was thoroughly searched at the door. There is after all no denying that in today’s Middle East and North Africa, terrorism is always around the corner.

The soldiers of the Commander of the Faithful were guarding us against the army of the Caliphate. Everything was going to be okay, apparently.

Now, hold that thought. Don’t you dare suggest that ISIS has anything to do with Islam. You racist Islamophobe.










Old Habits Die Hard

“What do you do there?”

The Moroccan policeman/customs agent/intelligence officer asked that without even looking at me. He looked like he just wanted to get this over with.

“I go to school.”

I had learned my lesson from my latest encounters with Moroccan border control. I would be naïve enough to say that I am a journalist, only to be ordered to write the name of the publication I work for. But not this time. Besides, it’s not like I was lying. Last time I checked, I was still a student.

The officer hastily stamped my passport. Still no eye contact.

There were no smoking signs all over Casablanca’s main airport. Yet I could smell cigarettes burning around me. As I waited for my suitcase, I looked up. A handful of men were defying the smoking ban from the escalators. Two of those were police officers.

And that’s when I knew with absolute certainty that I was back home.

For the better part of my twenties, Morocco brought the worst – and the best – out of me. I was a smart-ass godless liberal with novel ideas on how to change the world. But my motherland kept reminding me of my limits. Bigotry, misogyny, power abuse and corruption didn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. I clashed every day with family, doormen, shop owners, cab drivers, government clerks, Islamists and even that nice waiter who knew how little foam I liked on my lattes. It was a war of ideas, and I had to have the last word. In the process, I earned my stripes as a dissident. Only a year after leaving my motherland did I realize that I did not give it the benefit of the doubt. Or as some of my American friends would put it, I didn’t “check my privilege.” So maybe, just maybe, I could call out my roots on their bullshit in a nicer, more compassionate way.



The ride from the airport to the Centre Ville was a blunt reminder of the things I missed – and the ones I didn’t. As Casablanca’s radiant sun was pumping life into my jet-lagged body, I could discern the city’s tallest buildings a couple of miles away. But not far were the same marginalized shantytowns I left a year ago. Traffic felt dangerous, a sensation compounded by the driver’s regular outbursts of anger against other drivers. There were at least two gigantic portraits of the king on the way to the city. To add a cherry on top, a Quran tape was playing in the car. Some verses about how those who doubt the word of Allah are bitter, desperate people.

I closed my eyes.

“Calm down, Zouhair.”

I was however surprisingly calm. Capitalizing on that serenity, I decided to have some private time with Morocco before seeing anybody else. A table, a chair, a terrace. Strong, potent coffee – no offense, Starbucks.

The waiter recognized me on the spot.

“-You were abroad, weren’t you?


-You look whiter.”

A couple of chuckles and high-fives later, my thoughts got serious. Sipping on the strongest cup of coffee I had had in a year, I looked on. I wondered how the Westernized Arab atheist that I am would be able to fit in the scenery before me, let alone change it. But if I was to accomplish anything during this trip, it would be to figure out just that.

Little did I know that a week later, I would connect with a vibrant, secular face of my country that I barely knew existed.


You’re Not Helping

It’s become a ritual now. After every terrorist attack perpetrated in the name of Allah, I roll my eyes and curse the darkness. And then I sit and watch, with a very anticipatory “wait for it…” attitude. I’m almost ashamed to admit it.

Your racist Western bigot goes “I told you so.” Western right-wingers don’t seem to have patience for things like nuance: “Brown people did this. Bomb’em all. What? Syrian refugees? Hell no.” Problem solved. Believe it or not, this is the type of attitude that surprises me the least as a Middle Easterner. It is as stupid as it is predictable. I have come to find it counterintuitive to argue with such simplistic reactions to terrorism. Although I expose them whenever I can, they do not define my ideological struggle.

My fight is somewhere else, against mindsets that start off as well-meaning but end up inflicting a lot of damage on how the Middle East’s struggles are viewed worldwide.

Listen to Democratic Presidential Candidate Martin O’Malley on how he thinks ISIS will be defeated:

“We are going to be able to defeat ISIS because of the Muslim Americans in our country and throughout the world who understand that this brutal and barbaric group is perverting the name of a great world religion.”

(Don’t nod, Hillary. Seriously.)

Now I don’t know where Governor O’Malley gets his knowledge on Islam, but it is safe to assume that he does not know what he’s talking about. Aside from the unsubstantiated statement that Islam is a “great” world religion (great based on what?), it is the idea that ISIS is somehow un-Islamic that is most disconcerting. Because guess what? “Perverting the name” of Islam is exactly what ISIS is accusing non-Sunnis, unveiled women, gays, Christians, Jews, atheists and everybody else of.

Making the discussion about who’s really Muslim and who’s not is what ISIS wants in the first place. And Liberal America walks into that trap. Every. Single. Time. It is following such reasoning that the Obama administration decided in February 2015 to stop using the term “Islamic extremism.” Surely made to avoid stigma against Muslims, this particular decision left a question mark in policy circles. “There’s a dangerous phenomenon out there. We’re just not going to name it.”

Capitalizing on the Liberal reluctance to offend, those with an actual Islamic agenda have now gained standing in global media. Listen to this Imam from Florida on why ISIS are not Muslim [0:30 to 1:10]:

“Islam is about love, peace, compassion. It’s about mercy. The Quran says about prophet Mohamed: “O Mohamed, we only sent you as a mercy to all creation. […] I highly encourage your viewers to go to”.

I’m sure ISIS would wholeheartedly agree that Islam is the most merciful religion and that Mohamed was a saint. And I have no doubt that ISIS too would want all of you fine people to visit so that you could know about how Islam will save your life. (Go ahead, O’Malley!)

What this handsome, well-spoken gentleman fails to do is argue with ISIS on the religious references they quote when they act like savages. I am talking about the violent, horrendous Quran and Hadith verses they referenced in their statement after the Paris attacks. I am talking about the texts they use to justify every videotaped beheading, mass shooting or live burning. I don’t even wanna go there.

Actually, never mind.

Here is some of what Allah supposedly told Muslims to do when dealing with them nasty infidels:

“Those who believe fight in the cause of Allah, and those who reject Faith Fight in the cause of Evil: So fight ye against the friends of Satan: feeble indeed is the cunning of 
Satan.” (Surat An-Nisa, verse 4.76)

“I am with you: give firmness to the believers: I will instill terror into the hearts of the unbelievers: smite ye above their necks and smite all their finger-tips off them. That is because they opposed Allah and His messenger. Whoso opposes Allah and His messenger, lo! Allah is severe in punishment….” (Surat Al-Anfal, verses 8:12-8:13)

“And they thought that their fortresses would defend them from Allah! But Allah’s (Torment) reached them from a place whereof they expected it not, and He cast terror into their hearts so that they destroyed their own dwellings with their own hands and the hands of the believers. Then take admonition, O you with eyes (to see).” [Al-Hashr: 2]

I have yet to hear an Islamic scholar say that these verses are made up by ISIS, or that they do not exist. But I know they won’t. These are holy verses in Islam. As such, they are taught to generations of Middle Easterners as the word of God. Hence the spontaneous flow of “holy warriors.” So why are so many opinion-makers bent on excommunicating ISIS from Islam? Cairo’s prestigious Al-Azhar Islamic institute certainly won’t let that fly. In a statement, Al-Azhar’s scholars set the record straight: “One cannot excommunicate a Muslim faithful […] unless they leave the religion themselves.” (Yes, Al Azhar. That would be me.)

Of course ISIS does not even remotely represent the majority of Muslims across the world. But that is irrelevant. Our reaction to ISIS’s horrors should stop to consist of shielding Islam from criticism. That leads nowhere. In fact, it tremendously hurts those of us Middle Easterners who are aspiring for open democratic societies. Because Islam is the law of the land in Middle East and North Africa, there’s no other way for me to argue for reform than to be fiercely critical of its dysfunctional aspects.

But my fellow politically correct Western Liberals won’t let me.

Even Batman over here won’t let me:

I have a feeling that If I ever meet Ben Affleck and tell him I’m from Morocco, he’ll think I’m part of his “billion people who just wanna go to school, have some sandwiches and pray five times a day.” And while I moderately enjoy my “school and sandwiches,” you’d have to ask me what I believe before assuming that I even pray. Ben Affleck did not ask these billion people what they believe in. And the pollsters who say they did could not have possibly gotten 100% honest answers. When blasphemy is a crime and police is everywhere, you will lie to a pollster to stay on the safe side. I know I would’ve.

The battle against ISIS will not be won in the West. Tens of thousands of douchebags in Toyota trucks are no match for the world’s greatest armies anyway.

What this is is a battle of ideas, and it must be fought in the Middle East by Middle Easterners themselves. Our heritage is rife with violence that can unequivocally be traced to the history of Islam. Which is why I and many other Middle Eastern reformers do not want to be solely defined by Islam. We want what Martin O’Malley, Ben Affleck and even the Florida Imam have: free speech, freedom of conscience, separation of powers and rule of law. In fact – if the Arab Spring is any indication – we want it all, and we want it now. When you assume that all a region wants to do with itself is be religious, you’re being no less racist than those governors refusing refugees. You just don’t know it.




We’re Better Than This

“Your turn.”

After Gal hands me the Hookah pipe, he and Yael watch as I attempt to suck smoke out of it. In vain. I try again three times, only to notice that I am just inhaling air. Somebody had disconnected the hose from the Hookah’s main port. I give them both a suspicious look. Then the three of us burst into laughter.

Since I met Yael and Gal three months ago at the Harvard Kennedy School, our interactions have never been void of such humor. The three of us hail from the Middle East, a region inextricably associated with violence in the collective consciousness. But we have resolved to pour our energies into shattering common perceptions of our motherlands. Because we deeply care about where we came from, that determination has never wavered.

I forgot to mention: Yael and Gal are Israeli, and yours truly is an Arab. If you don’t think that’s a big deal, think again.

About 5,500 miles away, Arabs and Israelis our age are just waiting for the slightest opportunity to kill each other. In the month of October 2015 alone, the new cycle of violence in the holy lands has claimed more than 37 lives on both sides. Following a couple of Palestinian stabbings on Israeli civilians, Hamas leader Ismael Haniyeh called for a third Intifadeh. Subsequently, hundreds of young Palestinians converged towards Israeli checkpoints. Tens were shot dead by Israeli gunfire. And now kitchen knives appear to have become the weapon of choice for lone Palestinian terrorists.

If any of this sounds all too familiar, it’s because it is.

While my generation of Middle Easterners may not have lived through the first Intifadeh, it certainly remembers how bloody the second one was. Even for those of us Arabs who were a continent away from the conflict, the idea that indiscriminate violence is the solution to Israeli occupation was commonplace. Relating harmful perceptions on the other side of the divide, Yael told me, “Today, following the two intifadas (and now a possible third one), sadly, many Israelis associate Arabs and Palestinians primarily with war and conflict.” Speaking to both Arabs and Israelis at the Kennedy School, I easily sense a tendency towards introspection. Far from solely blaming the supposed “enemy” for the conflict, these millennials recognize the obstacles to peace within their own societies.


I was for instance pleasantly surprised at the reaction of many Israelis to Ehud Barak’s latest forum talk at the Kennedy School. Rife with references of war and fear-mongering, Barak’s one-hour “crash course” on the Middle East included such shocking statements as “I don’t care about Palestine. I only care about Israel.” The first participants to call him out on this, though, were his compatriots. Rei Goffer, a dual MBA/MPP student, pushed back immediately: “I disagree with the statement that we should not care about Palestinians. We should care about them, because they are human beings just like us, and because of our Jewish values that teach us to love the other.” I could not help but clap, perhaps because deep inside me was a similar disillusionment with how Arab leaders have long exploited the plight of Palestinians.

For decades, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has defined how Arabs view themselves in the world. Eager to divert their people’s attention from a pressing need for reform, Arab rulers have championed the Palestinian cause as the one issue to care about. My schoolmates and I were taught to stand for Palestinians not out of concern for their basic human rights and dignity, but merely because as Arabs and Muslims it was the loyal thing for us to do. Such teachings were accompanied by a toxic conspiratorial mindset that blamed Israel for all Arab problems. Much of that changed after the Arab Spring. Arab millennials occupying the streets of Tunis and Cairo were well aware that most of their complaints had little to do with Israel. Corruption, nepotism, power abuse, censorship… Once that bridge is crossed, it is easy for one to deduce that Palestinians face the same obstacles to empowerment: they are represented by illegitimate rulers. If anything, Fatah’s corrupt figures and Hamas’s bigoted leaders feed off the suffering of their own people, adding another layer of oppression to Israeli occupation.

It goes without saying that a group of Arab and Israeli Kennedy Schoolers is in no way representative of all Middle Eastern youth. After all, those perpetrating the killing in Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank are also young. But here is the twist: the reason they take part in the violence is that they listened to those of their elders still trapped in a traumatic worldview. Those of us who rebelled against the latter refuse to be defined by a decades-long conflict. Our world is smaller and more connected. If you tell us that we should not talk to people from a specific background, chances are we’ll be doing just that.

My latest feat of dissent in this respect will be inviting my Israeli friends to my homeland Morocco. Will that raise eyebrows where I come from? Probably.

I couldn’t care less.

My generation, my rules.

It’s Not Over

On the morning of October 9th 2015, I woke up to the news that the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet won the Nobel Peace Prize. In a time when terrorism, political bickering and popular discontent were threatening the legacy of the Tunisian revolution, the Quartet stepped in and engineered a nationwide dialogue. It worked. Tunisia is far from perfect today. But it has duly earned its place in history as the first secular Arab democracy. That day around Cambridge, I carried the news with pride.

The next morning, I skimmed the headlines. It only took twenty-four hours for the news cycle to move on to something else. A bloody bombing killed at least 86 people in Turkey. Russian MiGs were still targeting Syrian rebels. Israeli soldiers killed 6 Palestinians in Gaza. The leader of Hamas praised the stabbing of Israelis by young Palestinians.

Spoiler alert, ladies and gentlemen. The Middle East is a bloody mess.

I understand. In global consciousness, our region of the world is associated with blood and violence. There’s no denying it is very much owning up to that reputation. But giving such little importance to this year’s Nobel Peace Prize is a grave disservice to history. Tunisian activists’ achievement holds great significance to us Arab millennials. Our generation was almost certain things could not get any better. We looked at a world of progress, technological advancement and interconnectedness. Yet many of us could barely see the fruits of it at home. In 2011, Tunisia proved us wrong.

It was a classic tale of human suffering. Humiliated, beaten by the police and prevented from making a living, a Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire. After he succumbed to his burns, his countrymen decided that enough was enough. Armed with their chants and smartphones, they occupied their country’s streets. Next thing you know, an Arab dictator chickens out and leaves everything behind. It was unheard of until then.

Other Arab countries picked up on that freedom frenzy, rather unsuccessfully. Egypt is an even worse military dictatorship. Syria is in the midst of a civil war. Yemen is quite the failed state. Libya barely fits the description of a nation. Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other Arab monarchies absorbed the revolutionary momentum very cunningly. Word on the street is that this Arab Spring thing is not working out.

Not in Tunisia.

Given its exceptional ability to establish a secular constitution, guarantee gender equality, implement representative government and protect freedom of conscience, Tunisia is spoken of as the Arab exception. But I can’t accept that. I reject the premise that Tunisia can’t be the norm. It has to be. If democratization is working over there, then the rest of us Arabs have no excuse whatsoever. Every now and then, I would attend a talk or a conference where a self-proclaimed Middle East expert would use the expression “so-called Arab Spring.” Fumes would almost come out of my ears. The peaceful toppling of ruthless despots is my generation’s crowning achievement. You can’t take this away from us. At the end of the day, success stories like Tunisia are all we have. It is what sustains our hopes.


Analyzing the Arab Spring from the outside as a failure is tantamount to silencing the oppressed voices in the Middle East. It deprives them of a global standing they are so desperately in need for. It reduces their legitimate struggles to a game of geopolitics in which anything goes. Of course Syria and Libya were better off before their revolutions than they are now, who could even refute that? Yet that is not the point. Even then they were brutal dictatorships where disagreement was cruelly punished. Surely climbing up the ladder of democracy and rule of law from there should take some time. At least more than the four years many Western analysts are using to deem the Arab Spring a failure.

The world has in myriad ways tried to “fix” the Arab world and failed. You cannot bomb your way to our hearts and minds. You cannot pick and choose allies in the region based on what’s most convenient to you. You cannot patronize a whole culture by claiming that it is not ready for democracy. But you can support the aspirations of Arab democrats. Just like the Nobel Prize committee did a week ago. And if you can’t, it’s fine. Just get out of the way. We’ll figure it out eventually.

Right, Tunisia?

This post was originally published on the Harvard Journal of Middle East Politics & Policy.