Skip to main content

Arab Spring nations don't yet grasp freedom of dissent

By Ed Husain, Special to CNN
September 14, 2012 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Attackers set the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, on fire on September 11, 2012. The U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and three other U.S. nationals were killed during the attack. The Obama administration initially thought the attack was carried out by an angry mob responding to a video, made in the United States, that mocked Islam and the Prophet Mohammed. But the storming of the mission was later determined to have been a terrorist attack. Attackers set the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, on fire on September 11, 2012. The U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and three other U.S. nationals were killed during the attack. The Obama administration initially thought the attack was carried out by an angry mob responding to a video, made in the United States, that mocked Islam and the Prophet Mohammed. But the storming of the mission was later determined to have been a terrorist attack.
HIDE CAPTION
Attack on U.S. mission in Benghazi
Attack on U.S. mission in Benghazi
Attack on U.S. mission in Benghazi
Attack on U.S. mission in Benghazi
Attack on U.S. mission in Benghazi
Attack on U.S. mission in Benghazi
Attack on U.S. mission in Benghazi
Attack on U.S. mission in Benghazi
Attack on U.S. mission in Benghazi
Attack on U.S. mission in Benghazi
Attack on U.S. mission in Benghazi
Attack on U.S. mission in Benghazi
Attack on U.S. mission in Benghazi
Attack on U.S. mission in Benghazi
Attack on U.S. mission in Benghazi
Attack on U.S. mission in Benghazi
Attack on U.S. mission in Benghazi
Attack on U.S. mission in Benghazi
Attack on U.S. mission in Benghazi
Attack on U.S. mission in Benghazi
Attack on U.S. mission in Benghazi
Attack on U.S. mission in Benghazi
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ed Husain: Arab uprisings have ousted tyrants, but citizens still don't fully grasp democracy
  • He says intolerance can endure among people reared under dictatorships
  • He says they could learn from Europe's 17th century religious battles
  • Husain: Mohammed taught mildness, forgiveness. Where is that amid Islamists today?

Editor's note: Ed Husain is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "The Islamist." He can be followed on Twitter via @Ed_Husain

(CNN) -- The fall of dictatorships does not guarantee the creation of free societies. There is often a period in which we witness the legacy of tyranny. The Arab uprisings have overthrown tyrants in Egypt and Libya, but the populations and lawmakers have yet to grasp that democracy is not only about free elections but creating free societies.

When sexual harassment of women increases on the streets of Egypt, when centuries-old shrines of Muslim saints are destroyed with explosives in Libya, when screenings of films such as "Persepolis" trigger riots in Tunisia and Christian minorities across the Middle East feel under siege, then we must stop pretending that all is well with the Arab Spring. But all is not lost either.

Arab societies are on a journey. They can easily take the wrong turn. The attacks on the American embassies in Libya, Egypt and Yemen are examples of the ongoing presence of intolerant, tyrannical actors in Arab societies.

Ed Husain
Ed Husain

These are people who were born and raised in dictatorships. They are accustomed to thinking that a government controls its citizens -- that a film or documentary cannot be produced without government approval. For decades, this has been the reality of their lives, and they strongly believe that the Western world and its citizens have a similarly controlling relationship between individuals and government.

In light of this assumption, they hold the U.S. government responsible for the tacky and distasteful film produced by a right-wing Muslimphobe.

News: Who is responsible for film at the heart of protests?

World destabilized after 'Arab Spring'?
Does U.S. need to up security abroad?
Where is the 'Arab Spring' heading?
Morsy violence response 'four days late'

Little wonder, then, that Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy has called for the prosecution by the U.S government of the filmmakers, and Egypt's top cleric, Mufti Ali Goma, has called on the United Nations to forbid denigration of faiths. Morsy studied in the United States and Ali Goma regularly visits the West on the interfaith circuit, yet both men don't yet grasp that religious freedom and the freedom of expression are inextricably linked in America.

It is hard for younger Arabs not born into freedom to understand how individual liberty works in real life.

The freedom to proselytize also guarantees the right to apostatize. Heresy and blasphemy are essential parts of free and democratic societies. Arab activists cannot seek to emulate the West's political and social achievements by looking at the United States and Europe today, but must observe and learn from the religious battles of 17th-century Europe, the smashing of the tyranny of the Roman Catholic Church, the ending of burning witches and the forbidding of hanging heretics.

It is this history of unbolting the doors of dissent that led to the conditions in which John Locke and John Stuart Mill could write and think freely and then influence Thomas Jefferson and the other U.S. Founding Fathers. There are no shortcuts to freedom, except to learn from the mistakes of the West in the past.

The Arab uprisings are not over yet. They are still unfolding and shaping the future. This culture of shouting and killing those with whom Muslims disagree must end. When the Prophet Mohammed's companions shouted "Allahu Akbar," (meaning "God is Greatest," a popular slogan for those yelling outside embassies today) the prophet reprimanded them saying "Our Lord is not deaf."

Bergen: Extremists and leaders incite violent protests

When a Bedouin Arab entered the most sacred mosque of the prophet in Medina and violated its sanctity by urinating in this place of divinity, the prophet cleansed the mosque himself and forbade anybody from even reprimanding the Bedouin, let alone attacking the man. This is the way of the Prophet Mohammed. Where is this spirit of mildness, forgiveness and compassion amid Islamist activists today?

The millions of protestors last year in Arab capitals that chanted "hurriyah, karamah, adala ijtima'iyya" or "freedom, dignity and social justice" cannot allow for the emotions of bigots to derail their revolution.

Freedom is not only about majority rule, but ensuring that women, religious minorities and intellectual dissenters are able to flourish without fear.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ed Husain.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1818 GMT (0218 HKT)
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1209 GMT (2009 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT