Conflicts in the West and the Arab Spring

Joaquina Pires-O`Brien

In this issue of PortVitoria Fernando da Mota Lima, a Brazilian poet, essayist, critic and retired lecturer, contrasts universalism with relativism and uses the example of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, the Iranian woman who in 2010 was found guilty of the crime of adultery and sentenced to death by stoning, to explain why he believes universalism to be superior to cultural relativism. He explains that his preference for universalism is made in spite of recognising it as a product of European hegemony with an American extension and the caveat that it may be a myth. ‘Myth by myth I prefer the one with universal ideals to any particularistic myth such as that of nationalism or any other expression of cultural relativism’, he states. Mota Lima’s article describes a conflict faced by the peripheral West, where radical-minded intellectuals reject the Western liberal-democratic values, believing them to be an expression of American or European hegemony and a form of post-colonialism.

Western Europe and the United States has a similar conflict to that which Mota Lima describes for the peripheral West, in the need to integrate their large population of immigrants, especially those that came from outside the West. According with Fernando Rodríguez Genovés, a Spanish writer, essayist and philosophy professor, the multicultural approach to this problem, which exhorts that other cultures should be judged on their own terms, can never work in the West due to lack of reciprocity. In his 2005 article entitled ‘Multiculturalismo, universalismo y reciprocidad’, originally published in the internet magazine El Catoblebas, he discusses the situation in Europe and lists some of the issues underlying the existing conflicts linked with the Muslim population such as the demand for sectoral (religious) schools, the announcement in Islamic centres inside the United Kingdom of the fatwa imposed by an Iranian imam on the writer Salman Rushdie, and the murder of the Dutch movie maker Theo van Gogh and the omission by the mainstream Islamic groups to manifest their disapproval of Islamic terrorism. The alternative that he suggests to this antidemocratic multiculturalism, is the ‘liberal-democratic’ approach based on the principles and values of equity, the fostering of individual excellence and the incontestable priority of individual liberty. The difficulty of this approach resides in creating the right conditions for other nations to consider themselves members of the world community and to embrace the principles of universalism.

The conflicts of the West cannot be dissociated from those of the rest of the world. The civil unrest which started in Tunisia in January 2011 and then spread to the Middle East and Northern African (MENA) countries were deemed to be awakenings to democracy and referred to as the Arab Spring. The strategic importance of the region has captured the interest of the West over the unfolding events such as the elections already held and their results. So far the ballots have given victory not to the secularly-orientated parties that claim to have started the upsurge but to Islamist ones. One of the concerns of the West is that instead of an awakening to democracy the Arab Spring may turn out to be an awakening of Arab nationalism cum religion. The results of the Egyptian elections gave 60 percent of the votes to two Islamic parties, being 40 percent to the Muslim Brotherhood and 20 percent to the Salafists. In spite of these concerns some observers have remained optimist to the expectation that the moderate Islamists will prevail over their radical counterparts. The future of the MENA countries will depend on how their new governments will be built and what kind of policies they will pursue.

Given the expectations of the Arab Spring in terms of rebuilding of the existing states, I opted to review Francis Fukuyama’s book The Origins of Political Order, published in 2011, the first of a two volume set that covers the period up to the eve of the French and the American revolutions. Fukuyama’s book describes the painstaking process of social evolution, from kin-based to state-based societies. The latter range from the state whose sovereignty Thomas Hobbes equated with tyranny to the Modern State, that which characterised by the rule of law and government accountability. One of the conclusions of this book is that although each country has a unique path of development rooted in their historical past, countries are not necessarily locked into it. An awareness of such past events could help to free their societies from their existing constraints.
Jan 2012

Pires-O’Brien, J. Conflicts in the West and the Arab Spring. Editorial. PortVitoria, UK, v. 4, Jan-Jun, 2012. ISSN 2044-8236.