The Middle East isn’t as alien as you think it is

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The Middle Eastern protests took the world by surprise. Nobody, even the wisest sages in international politics, could foresee the events that are happening now in the Islamic world. Suddenly, President Ben Ali in Tunisia had been overthrown, sending shock waves throughout the Middle East, causing ordinary people in Egypt to dare to ask themselves “Could what has happened in Tunisia, happen here?” And, as we know, it did. The success of the Egyptian protesters has further inspired people in Jordan, Yemen and Iran to take the streets and bring and end to political tyranny and the beginning of economic prosperity.

The rest of the world watches with interest, many of us are no doubt hopeful that the protesters are successful and the Middle Eastern dictators are overthrown- but others are more worried about what will come next. They remember the Iranian revolution of 1979, which brought about a regime where women can be hung for adultery, denies the holocaust and may or may not be seeking to acquire nuclear weapons. Will Egypt turn into the next Iran? We’re all too familiar with the images surrounding 9/11 and the “War on Terror”- Islamic fundamentalism, terrorism, persecution, suicide bombing, the Taliban, Shi’ite and Sunni Militia’s, death squads and the like causing death and misery to others in what they think is in the name of God. In some circles, the Muslim Brotherhood was painted as some sort of “regime in waiting” that will assume control Egypt and turn it into the Islamic theocracy that the Western world fears so much. These protests will herald the creation of new despotic regimes who will turn the Middle East into a quagmire of religious violence and a breeding ground for terrorists who will strike against “us” in the Western world.

But aren’t we losing sight of reality here? It’s as if the ordinary, real Muslims have been lost beneath all the news reports that come out of the Middle East. We read stories about how women are stoned to death and how Muslims kill one another because they have a slightly different interpretation of the Islamic faith. To an uncritical mind, it almost seems as if all Muslims “over there” are like this and completely alien to “us” because that is what the media implicitly tells us. You certainly get the impression that a lot of people actually believe in this false picture: The EDL, Nick Griffin and the Park 51 protesters all come to mind. It is these kind of people who should meet the families of those killed by car bombs and suicide bombers- their grieving mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, lovers and friends. Nobody is more sick of the violence in the Middle East than they are, yet we seldom hear their testimonies on the news.

In Tahrir Square, we saw Christians form a protective ring around Muslims whilst they prayed, and in turn Muslims protected the Christians in their churches whilst they too prayed. In the Middle East there is tolerance and respect for others of different faiths. In the streets of Cairo the protesters chanted ‘tanmiyya’ (development) and ‘hurriya’ (freedom), wouldn’t we be doing the same if we where in their shoes? They want democracy, they want jobs and money- in essence, they want happiness.

Are these concepts alien to us? No, because at the end of the day, no matter what your creed, race or religion we are all human and all have similar wants and desires. The protesters in the Middle East don’t want to trade a secular dictatorship for an Islamic one any more than we do. If we are to learn anything from these protests, it is that behind all the negative news reports we are all to painfully familiar with, the ordinary people of the Middle East aren’t that different to us.

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