Protesters marching with signs denigrating the president, appeals to democracy and liberty, claims of oppression, a desire for real freedom. What’s the difference between the protests in Egypt and the Tea Party protests we’ve seen in the past two years?
Obviously, the differences are numerous—but there are plenty of similarities. Enough, in fact, that it seems somehow dissonant to hear Tea Party favorites like Mike Huckabee worried about the fall of a dictator and the rise of a democratic system influenced by traditional religion. Yesterday on Fox & Friends, Huckabee offered a mild defense of beleaguered Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak:
HUCKABEE: There’s been a long-time concern from the part of Americans as to some of the heavy-handed ruling of Mubarak. I don’t think anyone was expecting there to be a wholesale endorsement or even an indication that they hope he stayed. But just simply an acknowledgement that he had, in fact, not done everything wrong, and had brought stability, and had kept a strong even keel to the peaceful nature of the border between Israel and Egypt.
When he talks about America Huckabee’s emphasis is always on values, freedom, liberty and democracy but, when he shifts to Egypt, “stability” and an “even keel” seem to suffice. Sarah already pointed to Reza Aslan’s piece at the Washington Post that highlighted how Huckabee and the Muslim Brotherhood share similar ideas about the role of religion in government.
Whereas, in America, religion ought to influence government and enhance liberty, in Egypt, according to Huckabee, it can only lead to despotism. There is something inherently different about Egypt—something inherently different about the Arab world. Democracy won’t work there and we should just settle for stability, or so the narrative goes.
The late Edward Said labeled this notion of inherent difference between the West and the East/Middle East “Orientalism.” In his groundbreaking study, aptly titled Orientalism, he wrote, “the Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience.”
This contrast has taken many forms in American culture like the image of the mystical and magical Orient represented in popular culture through films such as Disney’s Aladdin; or there’s the ascetic and contemplative East represented by popular images of Gandhi and the popularity of Rumi’s poetry; or, most notably, there’s the violent image of the Orient represented by images of terrorists and wars.
Whatever the representation, these are always American representations of the Orient. The Orient, in this way, only exists within American culture and works to tell Americans who they are by portraying who they are not: Americans are not magical, ascetic, or violent. Americans are rational, industrious, and peaceful. Americans are not Muslim. Americans are Christian.
This difference makes it possible for Mike Huckabee or other Tea Party members to ignore the call for democracy in Egypt and maintain their rhetoric about liberty and democracy in America. This difference is why the Right has tried to argue that the protests are an “Islamist revolt” (which it is not). For the right, these protests can’t possibly be truly democratic. This difference, this American Orientalism, is about the maintenance of American exceptionalism through the misrepresentation of Egypt as a place where democracy cannot work and Islam cannot be trusted.