Melani McAlister: For a New Moral Map of the Middle East

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Melani McAlister. (36 minutes, 18 mb mp3)

Melani McAlister’s book is Epic Encounters

Imagine Professor Melani McAlister at home in North Carolina, breaking down this Arab spring for a grandmother who’s not entirely convinced that President Obama is not Muslim.

Professor McAlister, an American studies anthropologist at George Washington University, is talking out Edward Said’s premise that we Westerners are trapped in the old moral map defined by an exotic Orient and a rational Occident. Our understanding of 9.11 and Egypt, Melani McAlister tells us, is filtered through the sexy sheikh films of the 20s and the terrorist hostage flicks of the 80s. Not to mention the theology of race in America – that old liberation crossover between the civil rights movement and decolonization overseas – and the rise of a President whose middle name means a lot of things to a lot of people, from American backwaters to Tahrir Square.

As Said would say, there’s an intertwining of culture and Empire that we cannot shake and we rarely recognize. Professor McAlister does say that movies like The Kingdom, Syriana and Hurt Locker mark a changing cultural topography, but our mis-labeling of the uprising in Egypt as a “Facebook revolution” reveals the persistence of our need to find ourselves at the root of all freedoms. Look instead, McAlister says, to the whole networks of Egyptian civil society that predate the social media age – the women’s groups, the labor unions, and yes, the Islamists.

For Americans, a new moral map of the Middle East would be one that stopped looking for simple notions of friends and enemies, that stopped asking friends to be those people who embrace all of American foreign policy objectives, but instead started supporting and imagining a world in which Arab democracy is standing on its own. It’s looking different, sometimes, than American democracy, but that as long as we are standing firmly on the side of peoples’ right to democratic change, we will find friends that are not based just on political expediency.

We’re going to have to stop seeing people as friends only when they do what we want, and instead to say that the most important thing is to support people taking control of their own destiny, wherever that happens. It doesn’t have to be military support, but it must be moral support.

Melani McAlister with Chris Lydon, March 31, 2011.

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