Thursday, November 25, 2010

The artifice of the Arab flag-waver

The patriotic displays I saw on a trip to the US reminded me of the Arab world. But in America they really seem to be serious


Nesrine Malik
, Thursday 25 November 2010

".....In contrast, in most of the Arab countries in which I have lived or visited, the hyperbolic slogans and images of presidents assail your vision before you even leave the airport. Whether it is Sudan's Omar al-Bashir ("The Leader of the State and Symbol of its Sovereignty"), King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia ("The Servant of the Two Holy Mosques") or Egypt's Hosni Mubarak ("Leader and the Bridge to the Future") – posters that would put Big Brother himself to shame – they are the first indication that you have travelled to a less civilised and less free political culture.

Public glorification of the leader and the nation is a classic case of protesting too much. The messaging is imposed from above, inspired by lack of confidence. The more despotic this leader is, the more venerated he is in public. The more a country's concord seems fragile, the more national unity is amplified. The more a president is maligned by the west, the more the country's sovereignty is affirmed....

Political discord, oppression of minorities and an absence of democratic representation render the definition of a country's characteristic values an increasingly lean one. Hence the resort to cliches and outdated views of the nation. Egypt is still the "mother of the world" – a proud reference to its pharaonic civilisation which is a far cry from the Egypt of today. Sudan is "Africa's food basket" due to its untapped agricultural potential, despite barely being capable of feeding itself. Saudi Arabia via its royal family is the humble "custodian of the two holy mosques" in spite of its arrogance and discrimination against Muslim minorities.

This is where my discomfort with the exhibitionism I saw in the US originates. While there is a heritage of saccharine patriotism in America, there is also an aggressive defensiveness to it, perhaps betraying a lack of conviction fed by the fact that the nation, by its own definition the guardian of freedom, is mired in protracted wars abroad and under attack for its interrogation methods and suspension of due process. As in the Arab world, it projects an outdated view of the United States, one wrapped in cliches and a provocative moral superiority......"

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