Media types like to talk about “the narrative”: News is just another form of storytelling, and certain plot lines grab you more than others.
The easiest narrative of all is anything involving young people. “I believe that children are our future,” as the late Whitney Houston once asserted. And, even if Whiney hadn’t believed it, it would still as a point of fact be true. Any media narrative involving young people presupposes that they are the forces of progress, wresting the world from the grasping clutches of mean, vengeful old men and making it a better place.
In the West, young people actually believe this. Thus, in 2008, Barack Obama, being the preferred choice of America’s youth, was by definition the candidate of progress and the future. In humdrum reality, his idea of the future doesn’t seem to be any more futuristic than the pre-Thatcher statist wasteland of Britain in the Seventies, but that didn’t stop the massed ranks of fresh-faced youth chanting “We are the Hopeychange!” in adoring if glassy-eyed unison behind him at every campaign rally. Four years later, half of recent graduates can’t find full-time employment; Americans’ college debt is now larger than credit-card debt; the number of young people with summer jobs is at a record low; and men in their late 20s and early 30s trudge upstairs every night to the same bedroom in which they slept as a kindergartner.
And that’s before they’re permanently buried by interest payments on the multitrillion-dollar debt and unfunded liabilities from Medicare. Yet in 2012 the rubes will still vote for Obama and be congratulated by the media for doing so. Because to be young is to vote for hope and change.
Likewise, halfway across the world, the Arab Spring was also hailed as the voice of youth, tweeting its universal message of hope and change. A year on, it’s proved to be rather heavier on change, and ever lighter on hope. Egypt’s first freely elected head of state is a Muslim Brotherhood man. In the parliament of the most populous Arab nation, the Muslim Brotherhood’s party and its principal rival, the Even More Muslim Brotherhood, between them won nearly three-quarters of the seats. In traditionally relaxed and secular Tunisia and Morocco, elections have been won by forces we are assured by the experts are “moderate Islamists” — which means that, unlike the lavishly bankrolled American protectorate of Afghanistan, they won’t be executing adulterous women in the street, or at any rate not just yet.
So what are they doing? In Libya, British Commonwealth war graves have been desecrated, something that never happened under Colonel Qaddafi even at the very lowest of low points in relations between him and the West. But hey, one can forgive Libya’s suddenly liberated young men a spasm of very belated anti-imperialism, right?
Meanwhile, in northern Mali, the dominant Ansar Dine group is currently engaged in destroying the ancient shrines of Timbuktu, including the famous door of the 15th-century Sidi Yahya mosque that was supposed to be left closed “until the end of the world.” Bring it on, baby!
No Britons or Europeans were involved in the creation of these shrines.
Rather, it’s a dispute between the region’s traditionally moderate Sufi Islam and the ever more assertive Wahhabist model exported worldwide by Saudi Arabia with Western petrodollars. The shrines are official UNESCO World Heritage sites, but then so were the Buddhas of Bamyan blown up by the Taliban in Afghanistan a decade ago. What’s next on the condemned list? Abd al-Latif al-Mahmoud, Bahrain’s “Sheikh of Sheikhs” (he’s like a supersized sheikh) has invited Egypt’s President Morsi to “destroy the Pyramids and accomplish what the Sahabi Amr bin al-As could not” — a reference to the Muslim conqueror of Egypt back in the seventh century.
Less controversially, Egypt’s Salafi party does not see the need to destroy the Pyramids but does favor covering them in wax. The Pyramids are the last of the Seven Wonders of the World still around in the 21st century, but that’s no reason not to destroy them, as part of the new pan-Islamic identity’s contempt for any alternative claims of allegiance — cultural, national, or historic.
The old dictators represented nobody but themselves, their cronies, and their Swiss bank accounts. The new democratic rulers embody all too well the dispositions of their people. In the years immediately after 9/11, many Western commentators argued that Islam needed a reformation. This overlooked the obvious fact that Islam had already reformed, thanks to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Iran’s revolutionary mullahs, and Saudi Arabia’s principal export — not oil, but globalized ideology. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve found myself sitting at dinner next to a Westernized Arab woman d’un certain age who was at college in the Fifties, Sixties, or Seventies, and listened to her tell me that back then “covering” was for wizened old biddies in upcountry villages, the Islamic equivalent of gnarled Russian babushkas. The future belonged to modern, uncovered women like her and her classmates.
The assumptions of her generation were off by 180 degrees: The female graduating class of Cairo University in the Fifties looked little different from Vassar. Half a century later, every woman is hijabed to the hilt. Mohammad Qayoumi, now the president of San Jose State University, recently published some photographs from the Afghanistan he grew up in: The girls in high heels and pencil skirts in the Kabul record stores of the 1960s aren’t quite up to Carnaby Street cool, but they’d fit in in any HMV store in provincial England. Half a century later, it was forbidden by law for women to feel sunlight on their face, or leave the home without male permission. Even more amazing to my female dining companions, today you see more covered women in London’s East End or the Rosengård district of Malmö, Sweden, than you do in Tunis or Amman.
The mistake made by virtually the entire Western media during the Arab Spring was to assume that social progress is like technological progress — that, like the wheel or the internal-combustion engine, women’s rights and gay rights cannot be disinvented. They can, very easily. In Egypt, the youth who voted for the Muslim Brotherhood are more fiercely Islamic than their grandparents who backed Nasser’s revolution in 1952. In Tunisia, the young are more proscriptive than the secular old-timers who turned a blind eye to the country’s bars and brothels. In the developed world, we’re told that Westernization is “inevitable.” “Just wait and see,” say the blithely complacent inevitablists. “They haven’t yet had time to Westernize.” But Westernization is every bit as resistible in Brussels and Toronto as it’s proved in Cairo and Jalalabad. In the first ever poll of Irish Muslims, 37 percent said they would like Ireland to be governed by Islamic law. When the same question was put to young Irish Muslims, it was 57 percent. In other words, the hope’n’change generation are less Westernized than their parents. Thirty-six percent of young British Muslims think the penalty for apostasy — i.e., leaving Islam — should be death. Had you asked the same question of British Muslims in 1970, I doubt the enthusiasts would have cracked double figures.
Unlike the dopes droning the halfwit slogans at the Obama rallies, these guys mean it. The children are our future. That’s the problem.