As we enthusiastically follow the “Arab Spring” overthrow of Arab tyrants and dictators, we think, and hope, that “the Arab street” is calling out for democracy and human rights, and that Arab societies are becoming more humane civil societies. But our enthusiasm and expectations are based less on an understanding of the Middle East and North Africa than on a sense of what we would do if we were members of “the Arab street.” This benevolent projection of our own values and understandings is in practice ethnocentric, for we assume that our views are also held by Arab actors, whereas in fact they have their own distinct views, motives, and goals.
A Doonesbury cartoon about Iraq pictures an American officer and an Iraqi officer in a Humvee driving to arrest an Iraqi. “Intel wants us to capture the guy alive,” the American says. “This will not be possible. I am sworn to vengeance!” says the Iraqi officer. “A member of his family killed a member of mine!” “What?” says the American, “When did this happen?” “1387,” says the Iraqi. “What is the matter with you people?” says the American.