This spring brings not only budding trees but budding revolutions sweeping across North Africa and the Middle East. The latest to join the revolutionary movement are the countries of Ivory Coast and Syria. The pattern has repeated again and again in the past weeks. Countries dominated by an entrenched dictator have seen mass crowds of ordinary citizens pouring into the highways and byways with their cell phones and laptops heating up from constant communication directing the groundswell of dissatisfaction and demand for change. The people seem genuinely fed-up with the rule of one strongman who controls everything under him through intrigue and intimidation. How far this season of revolution can carry these countries is the question most acutely felt in Libya as Gadhafi’s loyalist forces continue to bombard armed and unarmed civilians in a last stand to uphold his decades-old totalitarian regime.
This U.S. and allies have stepped into the fray hoping to curb the amount of civilian suffering and help usher in a new form of more democratic government that will better serve the people of Libya. In a moment of déjà vu the American people under the Obama’s leadership now face yet another episode of military adventurism in a Muslim majority country, the kind of international policy for which Obama endlessly criticized his predecessor. Maybe he has now rethought the validity of some of those criticisms.
Yet the painful question not easily answered is whether any kind of Western-style democracy can ever take firm hold in the societies now undergoing radical change. If Afghanistan, where U.S. troops and diplomacy have for the last ten years sought to bring stability and democracy, can be the epicenter of murderous riots against U.N. personnel killing dozens of people in reaction to an obscure pastor in Florida burning a Qur’an, what does this portend about the future of societies in North African and the Middle East allowing genuine freedoms of speech, movement, expression, and religion? Even the most optimistic must admit that there are significant obstacles built into centuries of these cultures that work to curb said freedoms. What Westerners, particularly Americans, take as “self-evident” truths, other cultures hardly find self-evident and often consider repugnant, even blasphemous.
Perhaps the greatest hope now is that while many countries are casting off their oppressive leadership, the free flow of information will allow them to evaluate new ideas that their leaders have kept them from knowing. The window has opened. Open windows can be risky things. Any manner of things could come in: light, air, the breeze, a bird, wasps, flies. Everything might come in at once. The lands currently undergoing revolution and their global neighbors should do what they can to keep the windows open while staying alert for any harm.