A Brief Synopsis of the Events in Libya

People of Libya! In response to your own will, fulfilling your most heartfelt wishes, answering your incessant demands for change and regeneration … have undertaken the overthrow of the reactionary and corrupt regime, the stench of which has sickened and horrified us all. At a single blow your gallant army has toppled these idols and has destroyed their images … From this day forward, Libya is a free, self-governing republic.

That was Muammar Gaddafi, following his coup against the monarchy of Libya on September 1st, 1969. As I witness the events unfolding in Libya, I’m saddened by the thought that Libyans have gone down this road before, and – were they to succeed – could once again tragically end up gaining false freedom.  Disturbingly, Ben Ali of Tunisia and Mubarak of Egypt came to power under similar circumstances and with presumably similar noble aims. In fact, many of the world’s most noxious and venal dictators started off as populist warriors who aimed to overthrow the oppressive regimes of the time – only to become the very monsters they claimed to have destroyed.

In any case, the situation in Libya has been unfolding very differently from uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world. No other country has yet reached the scale of violence and brutality that has thus far occurred (though Bahrain looked as if it came very close). Indeed, Libya’s protests have now escalated into what I would consider a full-fledged civil war. Several Libyan officials have resigned or defected, and many Libyan soldiers – reportedly including entire military units – have actually joined the ranks of the protesters, along with several tribes from the East and South.

The National Conference for the Libyan Opposition, an organization formed in London several years ago by Libyan exiles, has been credited with playing a titular role in  fomenting and leading these protests, and is the only organized representative of an otherwise ragtag alliance of numerous different factions all united under one goal: the ousting of Muammar Qaddafi. Otherwise, the opposition – as diverse as that of other protesters elsewhere in the region  - lacks a unifying figure or recognizable leader (more so than in Tunisia and Egypt, each of which at least saw a number of prominent figured involved, even if none were predominant).

Meanwhile, Libya’s noxious and murderous autocrat, who has stubbornly but unsurprisingly refused to budge, has resorted to using mercenaries to shore up his lack of support among the military (and the country as a whole for that matter).  Indeed, Qaddafi’s brutal suppression and inane attempts at rallying supporters strongly hint at his powerlessness and desperation. Even Mubarak and Ben Ali fell rather quickly without having their own state apparatuses turn against them or flee ( although comparing countries, even when they share similar circumstances, is always a difficult endeavor, given the multiple dynamics unique to each of them).

The turning tides of the rebellion certainly helps to reinforce the inevitability of his fall. As of the most recent updates, Libyan opposition forces control most of the country, especially the east, where rebel tribes in particular have a strong foothold.  I personally did not think the rebels would’ve been so successful, so quickly. I’ve seen and studied my fair share of revolts, and rarely do they go down well or last very long, especially against regimes as oppressive and entrenched as Libya’s. They’ve even managed to repel Qaddafi’s forces during an assault on their strongholds very close to the ruler’s seat of power.

That a diverse and leaderless collection of people – among them unemployed youths, the secular and  the religious, tribesmen, defecting troops, and other still others – could score such resounding victories against a four-decade-old regime is astounding, and reveals two things: the tenacity, bravery, and discipline of the rebels and the stupidity, corruption, and venality of Qaddafi and his increasingly frail regime. Though long believed to be one of the toughest regimes to crack, and the least likely to have ever changed let alone fallen, Libya now seems poised for a successful revolution. If the momentum continues, there is little doubt that Qaddafi may fall or flee within the coming week (despite what Qaddafi’s own son has to say about the situation).

In any case, my views on the events are ambivalent. On the one hand, I am inspired and taken aback by the courage and will of the people of Libya, who’ve defied all odds as they give one of the most intractable regimes in the world a run for it’s money. As I remarked somewhat romantically in my previous post concerning the unrest in the greater Arab world, I find it gratifying and enlightening to see a people long considered untouched by the values of freedom facing certain death in the name of it. Hundreds and perhaps thousands of Libyans are said to have perished in just these past few days, and more will likely lose their lives as the fighting intensifies.

On the other hand, Libya’s revolution is also taking a far more grimmer tone than any other so far. Aside from the virtual state of civil war that it is enduring, there are reports of much brutality on both sides. Mercenaries and loyalists have terrorized the population with attacks against civilians, households, and mosques. Secret prisons have reportedly been uncovered by rebels, as have mass graves that likely date back to the horrific acts of state terrorism under Qaddafi’s rule. Troops refusing to crackdown on rebels have been tortured or executed. Meanwhile, several rebel factions have taken to lynching police officers and other security personnel, and killing mercenaries after they’ve been taken prisoner.

It’s a grim reminder that even the most seemingly romantic events, whatever their idealized aims, are as tainted by the worst of human nature as they are inspired by it’s greatest machinations. While I’m tempted to be excited about the seeming wave of democratization that is sweeping the region, I can’t help but feel both guilty and cautious; the former for allowing myself to get caught up in the romance of revolution without considering the moral ambiguity and bloody cost; and the latter for realizing that things are far from certain to improve from here on out. The quote from the beginning of this post cruelly sums up the precedent of past fights for freedom.

The bitter infighting that has characterized Libya’s rebellion may brew a lot of bad blood that could mire the country in instability and polarization for some time, even if Qaddafi were to fall. And the status of Egypt and Tunisia, the initial “victories” of the freedom fighters, remain ambiguous and concerning. Ultimately, there is no telling whether these revolutions will match those of Eastern Europe circa 1989, or resemble a long and tragic history of false positives that have bedeviled the region one too many times.

For what it’s worth, I still remain hopeful.

The Unrest in the Middle-East

Unfortunately,  I don’t have as much time to devote to this topic as it deserves. But I believe it merits at least a brief mention, given the remarkable nature of what is transpiring in the region.

What’s happening in the Arab world right now is unprecedented in a lot of ways. For one thing, there is the scale of protests, both within the respective countries involved and in the region as a whole. While there has been a long history of revolutions and social unrest throughout the region (particularly in each of the nations that are currently facing the most civil unrest), none of them have ever involved so many people, or occurred simultaneously in a regional and transnational manner. The protesters have mostly represented a broad cross-section of their respective societies: rich and poor, secular and religious, jobless and employed, and so on.

When a diverse number of people can come together and agree on common values – of representation, clean and accountable government, economic and social reform, and so on – the spirit of democracy becomes tangible and validated. Whatever their respective differences, the peoples of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Bahrain, and other nations can agree on the same universal basics: that they should all be entitled to speak their minds, elect their leaders, and have a say in their own futures. Granted, many differences will likely emerge as time passes; everyone has a different idea about what democracy should look like, for example. But it certainly represents a great start, since Arabs are acknowledging the plurality of their political and ideological beliefs, a necessary precondition to any democratic society.

The transcendent nature of these protests is another tangential case in point. Despite national differences, included interstate conflicts, all the people of the Middle-East seem to be united together in their mutual calls for freedom and reform. The protests that are sweeping the entire region were triggered by national unrest in the small country of Tunisia. Middle-Easterners everywhere looked to that event with sympathy and understanding; they knew too well what the Tunisians were angry about and what they wanted, because they had the same experiences and the same desires . Thus, the unrest has begun to take a pan-regional character. Protesters from across both continents are united for the same goals and the same struggles. They’re communicating and assisting one another’s efforts, and looking to one other’s struggles for support and inspiration. Much as with Eastern Europe in 1989, the entire region is trying to collectively free itself from the same shackles.

And they’re doing it on their own. That is another high point in all these revolutions. Beyond a few perfunctory statements  from world leaders calling for peace and reform, these people are taking matters in their own hands. They’re not receiving international assistance, nor are they asking for it. They’re doing what we expect adherents to democratic values to do: take charge of their own fates. This speaks volume in a region that has long been influenced and intervened upon by foreign powers, particularly the United States, which had allied itself with many of these noxious regimes.

So far, America has (rightly) avoided being too involved in any of the protests, beyond making the usual calls for peace and freedom. While some have argued that it should play a larger role in supporting the Arab (and Iranian) public, I believe that America should limit it’s support to nothing more than it’s current diplomatic gestures, for two reasons:

1) The US has a bad reputation in much of the region, which is not entirely undeserved, given it’s closeness to the oppressive regimes of Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia (among others).  Any US involvement, even with good intentions, would be seen as perverse and hypocritical, and would likely taint the vital grassroots nature of these civil actions.

2) Jumping off from my first point, these events are the makings of the people, and should remain as such. It’s not our’s or anyone else’s place but theirs to decide their own future. The fact that these calls for freedom and reform are being cultivated by the public as a whole is something to be encouraged and supported, but not infringed upon. By their very nature, the goals of liberty and democracy are best achieved by the people.

To reiterate, I’m not saying the US should be completely uninvolved. Some would argue that by nature of  our considerable presence in the region, we should have some sort of role. Furthermore, one can argue that we should atone to the Arab people for being complicit in their oppression by deciding to take a stand against these tyrannies. I whole heartedly agree with both sentiments: if these regimes continue to murder more of their people, as Libya and Bahrain have, then the US lead international efforts to weight in on their cruel leaders and demand they – at the very least – cease the crackdown. I’m merely suggesting that outside nations restrain themselves from trying to play too much of a role in shaping these countries’ future.

I’ll end this report by discussing what is by far the most important and enlightening lesson from these protests: that the values of democracy, liberty, and general freedom, while often nuanced, are more universal than we realize. For years we were believed, and we even taught, that democracy wasn’t compatible with Arab culture and society; that the people of the Middle-East weren’t keen on representative government or political freedoms; that Islamic values were inherently hostile to those of democracy. Yet now, as I write this, we’re seeing millions of these people risk their lives in the name of these things we long thought were alien or unimportant to them.

Granted, I’m well aware that it’s too soon to tell what sort of regimes will emerge from those that have been – and might still be – overthrown. I know that democracy, if it does come, will take a lot of time, and likely be nothing like what the average American would envision to be ideal form. Democracy is quite a broad concept, and it has many different forms, mechanisms, and societal influences from country to country.

But when millions of people start calling for the same things we all would – job opportunities, better education, political empowerment, less corruption, representation – I think it’s a very good start.

The Case of the Missing Martyrs

Since 9/11, there have been around 161 Muslim Americans that were suspects or perpetrators of domestic terrorism – out of a community of 2.5 to 7 million.

About 120 of these individuals were foiled with the help of tips or other assistance offered to law enforcement by fellow Muslims.

Also since 9/11, at least 11 Muslim Americans have killed 33 people – out of a total 150,000 Americans that have been murdered in that same span of time.

To read more on the subject, check out this rather in-depth study.

Granted, out of a community that represents 1% to almost 3% of the American population, the rate of terrorism is still higher than average, and thus something to be concerned about (though it’s declined precipitously since 2009). Furthermore, there is still the matter of Islamic extremism in other parts of the world, particularly in Pakistan, Iraq, the Persian Gulf, and Afghanistan.

But domestically speaking, the reality of the situation doesn’t mesh with the public perception. Most Americans still believe that Muslim Americans are generally a major threat to the United States, including some of our congressmen. But the data makes it clear Muslims are far from a significant contributor to public safety issues. There are many more factors that are contributing to the deaths of nearly 15,000 Americans a year.

A Casual Update on My Life

I figured I’d take a break from talking about politics and society and just discuss some of the musings and missives about my life. I hope this doesn’t strike anyone as self-indulgent or narccisitic. I just want to see if anyone can relate or has any meaningful input. I find it wonderful how many people ultimately relate with me about a lot of experiences, concerns, and beliefs. I think most people would realize they’re more connected – and thus have more affinity for each other – if they took to talking a little more about themselves, albeit in an honest and frank way.

In any case, I find myself very dissappointed in my writing ability lately. There’s so much I’ve wanted to write about, but as usual I find it difficult to structure my thoughts and opinions in a readeable way – or at least to do so often. I think my previous note was decently written, but those sorts are too few and far inbetween, as well as too long. I’m not sure why I can’t seem to share all these things I am so enthusiastic about to other people.

Perhaps my mind is on overdrive and my cognition is too spread thin. I quite literally have a stack of periodicals and books that I’m trying to read, and it keeps growing every day. I bombard myself with way too much news and current events, in addition to scholarly articles about a lot of topics that aren’t timely but that I still want to read as soon as possible. Basically, I get seem to give my mind a rest, and I think it’s starting to affect me.

Remember that insomnia I complained about? Well I’ve largely resolved it, but I’m starting to think my inability to quiet my mind is what contributed to it. Just recently I’ve had nights where I’m thinking about the most random things – life, the future, politics, science, scences from a movie – all while lying in bed.

I honestly can’t figure out why I’m so obsessed with knowledge. I feel like I want to know every thing, at every time, in every way, without realizing that, realistically, I can’t possibily do that. It sounds a lot like an addiction, now that I write this all out. I crave something I know is not reasonable. Could it be that all this reading and self-saturation is some sort of coping method? Does it get my mind off of other, personal concerns? Or maybe I’m looking to into all this and ultimately I’m just really, really into scholarly pursuits?

In any case, I feel like I have way too much to do and way too little time, which is probably a good thing, given how a lot of people out there are unemployed and bored. I’m quite grateful to have a job and to still be living rather comfortably, especially given my dire circumstances financially. But I’m getting impatient. I want a better job and I want it now. I want to get on the path to my Masters, and to my career as a diplomat (or at least as a humanitarian aid administrator). I’m so full of energy about this that I think I’m burning myself out…or worse still, misapplying it. Should I really be on here ranting about all this when I need work urgently? Should I really be reading so much all the time?

I’m starting to think that wanting a job is only cool to think about hypothetically. Looking for it, and coming to terms with the difficulty and ucnertainy of the future, is a different story entirely. Perhaps that’s why I’m so anxious, and why I’m so keen to read and live life with such enthusiasm. Maybe I’m just making the most of the here and now while I can, because deep down I know things will be far tougher to face up to in the future.

I can speculate and rant about this all I want. But in the end, I’m just going to have to stop deliberating and starting doing. I’m way too indecisivie and uncertain about a lot of things, ideologically and in terms of my personal actions. It’s about time I start seriously deling with the obstacles and concerns that I face.

But alas, that’s all easier said than done. It’s going to take a lot more than writig it all down to make me act. I’m going to have to tap into good old fashioned willpower, in all it’s simplicity and intangibility.

The Zogby Conference and the Danger of Willful Ignorance

For the first time in a while, and since I’ve graduated for that matter, I finally had the opportunity to get back into one of my favorite pastimes at FIU: attending a public conference. This one was centered around the esteemed James Zogby, a pretty influential individual within the IR field who heads the Arab American Institute, as well as a major polling organization – Zogby International – that polls Arabs across the Mideast on a number of topics.

The lecture was largely centered around his recently published book, Arab Voices, which is predicated around the considerable amount of data he has drawn from his polling of the Arab world. The premise of the book, and for that matter his life’s work, is to present the ideas, concerns, and sentiments of the Arab world, and broaden Americans’ limited knowledge of a region that has nonetheless been of unparalleled strategic importance.

Most importantly, Mr. Zogby’s book touched on one of the things I’ve long been passionate about: the universality of the human condition. He couldn’t emphasize enough about how much American and Arab societies ultimately share in common: concerns about employment, political corruption, healthcare, job prospects for the youth, and education.

Furthermore, his data found that, contrary to popular belief, Arabs are hardly the visceral and bloodthirsty anti-Americans they are often perceived to be by the West (or that their louder and extreme voices may make it seem). Indeed, most Arabs are quite regularly exposed to American values and culture, and tend to admire both. For most of them the issue is, and has always been, American involvement in the affairs of their country and region. Most specifically, the problem concerns American policies that are detrimental to the region, such as support for autocratic regimes and our lopsided backing of Israel.

Most pressing is the lack of American soft power when compared to our strategic investments; we put far more money into military hardware and aid to dictators than we do to poverty alleviation, educational programs, and humanitarian aid. This could be said about the status of American foreign policy in general, reduced the investment and utilization of institutions like the State Department, USAID, and the Peace Corp in favor of strengthening military and strategic interests  (and while the military can and does serve a humanitarian role rather effectively, that is not it’s central purpose). Granted, there is far more to share on the matter of American foreign policy than I care to discuss in this note, but I do plan to devote an entire post to it.

Anyway, as the title makes clear, it was the other pillar of Zogby’s message what struck a much more sensitive cord with me: the pervasiveness of willful ignorance in our society. Given the topic of the book and the conference, this was of course focused mostly with respect to the Arab world and the Middle-East: the fact that barely a third of Americans could find Iraq on a map, even though we’ve been involved in the region for nearly a decade (and lost over 4,000 soldiers there); the fact that until just a decade ago, Arabs were almost exclusively portrayed in media as either terrorists or oil sheiks; that Pakistan and Iran are considered Arab countries; and that a study of history in almost any public school invariably leaves out or marginalizes the world outside of Europe.

Indeed, it is the last point that I most sympathized with, not only because I am international relations major but because I’ve noticed it first hand. I’ve only ever been to public schools. I barely recall learning much of anything about the world outside of Europe. I was introduced to South American and African civilizations in the context of European discovery and colonization, as if they had no history before then; China didn’t really exist into Marco Polo made his famous journey there. The Mideast was referenced as merely the silk road, and viewed largely in that context.

Basically, world history was either European history or Europeanized history (Western and Westernized can be used as well). Every other civilization revolved around us and only came to significance upon our interactions with them. Their introduction tended to be token or superficial; what is perhaps worse than not knowing about other cultures and regions is knowing about them only by stereotypes.

Granted, this problem isn’t unique to the United States, to be certain. But as a globalized country with much involvement and influence in the rest of the world (and with a multicultural heritage), one would think our society would have at least a slightly-above average understanding of the world around us. How is it that after decade of war in the Middle-East, we still know only marginally more about it? How is it that we can export so much of our culture across the world, yet take in so little of others? How can a nation built by so many peoples from across the world (though mostly Europe), still fail to appreciate its origins?

And that is where the willful aspect of the ignorance comes in. As Zogby himself said, the only think worse than ignorance is ignorance coupled with certitude. That sentiment reflected a very similar comment I made not long ago on my status: that arrogance was the greatest detriment to education and knowledge. The people that are most ignorant tend to be those that are most sure of themselves and their scope of knowledge – they don’t need to learn more because they’ve learned enough. Not only people devoid of curiosity, but they’re devoid of humility. Apathy and hubris reinforce our ignorance and make it far more damaging.

Just witness the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, led and supported by people who knew little to nothing about the culture, politics, and history of the region, and who consciously ignored or dismissed the warnings of those snobbish academics. Witness the growing anxiety (often manifested as blatant xenophobia) about Islam, the growth of Hispanic America, and a rising China. Granted, all these things pose legitimate challenges and are potentially threatening, but our lack of any substantive knowledge about any of them only makes things worse.

It’s one thing if someone doesn’t know something. It’s a completely different thing if they don’t care to know. And that is the most pressing problem facing this country, not only in the Middle-East and the rest of the world, but in general. Our in ability to form an opinion of something based on actual facts, or at least a sincere attempt at research, is setting us back on almost every front. No one wants to doubt or reflect or analyze. We would rather hold on to our convictions based on noting more than a cognitive bias, because of ego, insecurity, and basic familiarity. But how will face the many challenges that await us if we don’t know much about any of them? How will we be responsible stewards of this nation, and our entire planet for that matter, if we don’t even care to know about the issues?

And before anyone jumps to the conclusion that I am conflating ignorance with any views I disagree with, keep this in mind: if people disagree with each other because they interpret a different set of facts – or the same facts differently – that is fine and well. I’ve had many an opponent debate with me based on their own sources and their own application of sincere critical thinking; while I may find them wrong (and not always mind you; I do change my mind), I acknowledge that they didn’t make their case lightly or in ignorance. Part of the reason I take a rather centrist approach to most topics, or at least try to, is because of my exposure to honest and integritous individuals like this.

It is when we confront deliberate ignorance that problems arise. How can one argue with someone who doesn’t know the topic in question? How can one make a case to someone who doesn’t even want to sincerely know that topic either? Wise, inquisitive, and sincere knowledge-seekers of differing opinions can eventually come together, at least about some pressing issues, or can borrow or implement one another’s ideas. In other words, disagreements and differences can be superseded by a sincere pursuit of what is right and true. But if we have a large element of society that is neither educated or inquisitive, than we have stagnation or, worse still, misguided policies.

In short, as with all things that afflict, the problem falls back down to education. But it is not merely the institutional form of education that is the issue – after all, people don’t need school to learn, especially nowadays. It is something much more disturbingly deep-seated: a lack of appreciation for knowledge and the absence of educational values. We don’t know, don’t want to know, and don’t need to know. That’s a problem that has ramifications for more than just the Middle-East.