For a free night at the local Hilton, an exclusive interview, and a chilled bottle of wine, the New York Times' Thomas L. Friedman will come to your country and portray you as a beacon of reason or freedom in a dark world. He's done this for Saudi Arabia, for China, for Iran. Now he's doing it for the Arab Spring.
The Arab Spring, says Friedman, "leaves me with a smile on my face and a pit in my stomach." The smile comes from "witnessing a whole swath of humanity losing its fear and regaining its dignity." The pit comes from "a rising worry that the Arab Spring may have been both inevitable and too late." Friedman believes that the Arab Spring is a flourishing of freedom throughout the Middle East, an "existential" awakening. How does he know that? Because one of his Libyan friends told him so: "A Libyan friend remarked to me the other day that he was watching Arab satellite TV out of Benghazi, Libya, and a sign held aloft at one demonstration caught his eye. It said in Arabic: 'Ana Rajul' -- which translates to 'I am a man.' If there is one sign that sums up the whole Arab uprising, it's that one."
Well, no. If there's one sign that sums up the entire Arab uprising, it's this one: a picture of Mubarak with a Jewish star across his forehead. This is an anti-tyrant movement, yes -- it's driven by anger over poor living standards and lack of economic opportunity. But it's much more than that -- it's a pan-Islamic, anti-Semitic, anti-Christian movement based on a Nasser-esque Pan-Arabism.
Friedman misses the point of the "I am a man" sign. Being a man in the Muslim world is not about acting as a free agent. It is about taking your place amongst your fathers in the pantheon of Islamism. When you become a man in Islam, certain obligations fall upon you: the obligation of circumcision, the obligation to pray five times a day, the obligation to undergo ritual washing. When you become a man in Islamism, certain attendant obligations fall upon you as well: you must hate Israel with all your heart and all your soul; you must despise Christians; you must believe that America is responsible for the world's ills. The same protesters who claim they are men rape Lara Logan while shouting "Jew, Jew!" They burn down Coptic Christian churches in Cairo. They embrace the Muslim Brotherhood.
Republicans and Democrats both buy into the starry-eyed Woodrow Wilson philosophy that all human beings yearn to be free in the Western, liberal fashion. George W. Bush stated in his second inaugural address, "Eventually, the call of freedom comes to every mind and every soul." Barack Obama has said much the same thing.
There is no doubt that every human being wants to be free. But free to do what? Western freedom is based on the notion of individualism -- the idea that we should each make our own choices. But Islamic freedom denounces such freedom as impure and problematic. Essentially, Islam contends that submission to Islam is the source of freedom -- freedom from the un-Islamic parts of human nature.
Many in the West wonder why so many would embrace such a restrictive notion of freedom, but the answer is simple: while the human heart desperately wants freedom, it also desperately wants group identity. We all want to be members of a community: a religious community, an ethnic community, or a national community. Our deep and abiding need for group identity leads us to join churches and synagogues, to go to group schools, and even to go to movies with others and follow sports teams. We would rather be part of an arbitrary group -- of, say, Lakers fans -- than to be part of no group at all.
This is why American nationalism -- patriotism -- is important and unique: it unifies us in individualism. We can all feel like part of something larger while pursuing our own individual goals. American nationalism recognizes our desire for group identity while making individualism an intrinsic part of that group identity. That is why American exceptionalism is exceptional, and not like Greek exceptionalism or German exceptionalism.
The Islamic world, by contrast, seeks unity in submission. Individualism is not a part of Islamic exceptionalism as a general rule. Whereas in America, individualism and community work in tandem to promote a unity of purpose geared toward freedom, in the Arab and Muslim world, individualism and community are directly opposed to one another. In this world, becoming a "man" -- an individual -- requires you to surrender the possibility of independent thoughts about Israel, Christians, Western rights and liberties. Community trumps individualism.
Hence the dramatic misreading of the Arab Spring by people such as Friedman. oie. The Arab Spring is not about substitution of individual liberty for tyrannical control -- it is about the substitution of one version of tyrannical control for another version.