“The Invisible Arab”: As Not Seen on TV

“They took everyone by surprise, including themselves,” reads the introduction to “The Invisible Arab: The Promise and Peril of the Arab Revolution,” an engaging new book by Marwan Bishara, Senior Political Analyst for Al Jazeera English. In a brisk, thoroughly reported narrative, Mr. Bishara traces decades of the social and political evolution of the nameless, invisible Arabs who dreamed and then willed the revolutions we have come to know as the Arab Spring. Acknowledging the vulnerabilities which still threaten the evolution of these movements, the writer yet declares them an irreversible break with the past.

Describing his book as an essay, Mr. Bishara—who is also the host of Al Jazeera’s “Empire,” a program on global powers and their interests—delivers a sweeping, provocative and at times entertaining tale, revolution jokes and all.

While recognizing the catapulting role of youth–60 percent of the region’s population—and their networking tools in bringing the people to the public square and toppling some of the world’s most notorious dictators in a matter of weeks, Mr. Bishara contends this is only the camera-ready part of the revolutions’ narrative.

Rising labor forces, women activists, community organizers—football teams!—and emerging Arab news networks are generously credited for their contributions to the Arab Awakening. At the same time, he scathingly exposes those who propped up, defended or cut deals with deceitful and influence-peddling rulers, allowing them to buy time with empty promises, slogans and peripheral reforms. Islamic groups—the big winners of the revolution–are also faulted for their lack of commitment to democratic principles.

International, regional and nationalistic interests and allegiances that justified and empowered repressive regimes across the birthplace of human civilization are wholly deconstructed. From Morocco to Iran, from Somalia to Turkey—skipping only the monarchy of Qatar—Mr. Bishara distills the complexity of the region into a succinct yet meaningful and insightful chronicle.

Western readers are in for an awakening of their own, as Mr. Bishara lays bare the stereotypes and misconceptions about Arabs—as people–which have kept them conveniently invisible to the world, feeding doubts about their appetite and capacity for democracy. He highlights the divide between the region and the West that he sees as amplified by Western media, and complicated by 9/11. Mr. Bishara does not hold back feelings, using strong, not-always-journalistic language to describe Western leaders, policies and world views. But for the willing reader, “The Invisible Arab” is a mind-stretching journey halfway across a cultural divide.

American readers are in for many a humbling moment throughout the book, particularly in a section titled “Manufacturing a Modern Day ‘Lawrence of Arabia.’” Former National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is quoted crediting the Bush administration’s “freedom agenda” with a role in the democratization of the Middle East. Cited in an interview with Fox News, former Vice President Dick Cheney makes a direct connection between the invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring. Needless to say, Mr. Bishara does not fail to contrast these claims with a 2004 visit to the Bush White House by Tunisian dictator, Ben Ali, and President Obama’s visit with Hosni Mubarak, six months before the Egyptian uprising.

As the Arab revolution continues to evolve and unfold–and the West gasps at the electoral wins of Islamist parties—Mr. Bishara debates the way forward, juxtaposing what he terms the “two faces of the new pan-Islamic revival”: the Turkish model of “cooperation and coordination” between the secular and the religious (favored by the revolutionaries) versus the Iranian theocratic framework where, elected parliament and president notwithstanding, all yield to the Supreme Leader.

“Fasten Your Seat Belts,” is the title of a section on the colossal difficulties ahead. Mr. Bishara’s closing thoughts include a warning about “victims becoming victimizers”; a call to Arab intellectuals to transform “the social and political revolutions into a cultural revolution that affects all aspects of Arab life”; and a strong defense of “a civic constitution that enshrines human values” and “protects the rights of secular and religious alike.”

Released on February 1 by Nation Books, “The Invisible Arab” is an insightful and absorbing read for inquiring minds, and a valuable tool for students of the Middle East. As globally resonant events continue to unfold in the region, a sequel is clearly in order.

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