Humiliation: The Catalyst for Arabs' Revolutions

02/18/2011 03:06 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

There is a voluminous literature about the causes of 1979 Iranian revolution. All aspects of social reality, from socio-economic to political and cultural, have been thoroughly examined. Marxist-oriented sociologists have obviously focused on the economic dimensions of Iranian society: the rise of rural and urban unemployment, rapid immigration, the emergence and spread of shanty towns, urbanization, inflation and the grossly uneven distribution of wealth within society. Many modernizers blame the people for being too 'backward' to sustain a super-modern, forward-moving dictator who wanted to force the country to become another Sweden within a decade. Culturalists see the emergence of revolutionary Islam functioning as a filter for a religious discourse to become a rallying point for mass mobilization.

Excepting the claims of 'backwardness' which are drummed up largely by monarchists, all the other arguments offer strong insights into the causes of the revolution. However, there is one factor still missing, which, while difficult to quantify or even qualify, has acted as a catalyst to ignite a store condensed with the fumes of discontent. This factor is humiliation. Iranians felt constantly humiliated. They were humiliated to be ruled by a king, whom everybody knew was enthroned through an American-British coup. They were humiliated by a king whom they knew was an American puppet. They felt humiliated by the systematic imposition of a shallow and basic version of 'western culture' by a regime they were forced to mimic. They felt humiliated by being associated with their own culture, by having to dissociate themselves from it in order to receive recognition from the official culture, which was beamed into everyday life through television, radio and papers. One day, I was studying in a park in central Tehran and when I decided to pray my close friends felt so embarrassed by my actions that they moved away from me, so as not to be misrecognized.

In some ways, the Iranian revolution was a rebellion against permanent humiliation. The Islamic character of the revolution could be seen as one reaction to this: the reclamation of an identity, which one was made to feel ashamed of.

Listening to various interviews, articles and blogs now being produced by Arab activists and intellectuals, there is a strong resonance with Iran's revolution. It is true that the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt initially began as expressions of economic and political grievances. There is no doubt that most Arab economies are in a desperate condition, and that this is worsened by the acts of the presidents-for life who have implemented the neo-liberal economic policies dictated by the IMF and World Bank. In Cairo, around one million people are now living in cemeteries.

But like in Iran, humiliation also plays a catalyzing role in the unravelling of revolution. Since their independence, people in the Arab countries have been constantly humiliated, not least of all by their own despots. In the words of Mohammad A. Bamyeh, "Arab state autocracies had long been accustomed to approach their people with either contempt or condescension." Yet these despots are themselves are at the mercy of the western powers who have supported them for decades. They themselves are being ridiculed by those who control them and, by default, the Arab people are humiliated for being ruled by those whom even their masters despise. But the greatest source of humiliation for the Arabs is the state of Israel, which systematically humiliates Palestinians. Not only it has robbed their land, but has also tried to rob them of dignity and human pride.

The dominant right-wing forces openly perceive themselves as superior, and portray Israel as the only land of democracy in a region surrounded by uncivilized despotic politics, cultures and peoples. The open wound of Palestine, the systematic daily humiliation of Palestinians at hundreds of border gates, the siege of Gaza, the assassination of Palestinians and the collaboration of Arab governments such as Mubarak's are constant reminders of their humiliation. No wonder the defeat of the Israeli army at the hands of a small group of Hezbollah guerrilla fighters in Lebanon produced such euphoria. After all, a small Arab army could bleed the nose of an army that used to perceives itself as invincible.

How and why is humiliation being produced? One can argue that humiliation is a tool of power as well as its effect. It is not exclusive to the Islamic world, nor to a specific form of dictatorship. The early sociologist W. E. B. Dubois wrote of being made 'speechless' by the 'ridicule and systematic humiliation' of Black people in nineteenth-century America, Martin Luther King evoked him again in the 1960s, and recently feminist intellectuals like Patricia Hill Collins have written much about the necessarily collective emotional and political struggle of 'self-valuation' in a society where you are misrecognized, excluded and despised. Frantz Fanon argued that humiliation is the condition of existence for the colonized; Simone de Beauvoir said that 'all oppressive regimes become stronger through the degradation of the oppressed.'

The proud faces of the Tunisian youth who confronted security forces with empty hands and still forced their despot out suggests that they will not easily allow themselves to be humiliated again. There are now proud faces on the Egyptian youth who confronted the attacks of thugs and security guards in Freedom Square and beat them back, who now face fears of further attack, hunger and cold, and still who are still content with nothing less than the removal of Mubarak and dismantling his regime. Here too, there is indication that will not be easily humiliated again. The Egyptians are learning fast that freedom and respect for human dignity are prime values. The emergence of thousands of local committees taking charge of their affairs and the speedy rise of solidarity among them are also indications that they are learning how 'power divides while freedom unites'. They are learning that bread and security will follow freedom and social justice, and they are learning that when revolution begins, there is no going back.