‘The Protester’

‘The Protester’

The faceless “protester” has been chosen as “the person of the year” by Time magazine. Protesters from all over the world, from Arab countries to the streets of Washington and London, shook the world and that is why they deserve to be addressed as such, it has been said.

I cannot yet decide how “the protesters” changed the world and history. Nevertheless, it seems that this is a historic moment in the sense that this is the first time in history that the protesters are being cherished by “the protested.” Especially in the case of the Arab countries, the mainstream Western media rushed to greet the so-called “Arab Spring” as a “revolution.” The uprisings are presented as reactions against the secular Arab dictators “which are backed by Western powers.”

Yet the mainstream Western media was also the first to get ecstatic that Arabs were revolting against the so-called “Western-backed dictators.” Could it be seen as the global victory of “protest culture?” Or could it be seen as a sudden shift to radical politics by the mainstream media? Or could it be seen as some sort of simulation of “radicalism, of change, of revolt” or of “challenge” in general? 

The answer to this question could be key to understanding why such an attitude is not limited to the media reaction, as Western governments also seemed to be very happy to be challenged, so much so that they decided to support the cause of the Arab protesters immediately.

As for the protests in Western streets, the attitude was rather different. They, too, have been received with understanding if not with greetings. Nevertheless, the reasons for the protests in the West have been scrutinized carefully, and the social, political and psychological dimensions are still being analyzed and discussed whereas the protests in Arab countries were quickly labeled as “revolutions.” The “Western protester” has been seen more as “a troubled person” who is the product of some social and political problems, whereas the Arab “protester” has been portrayed more as “the enlightened youth” of a frozen society.

In fact, the talk of “revolt against dictators” or “the awakening” first sounds flattering but, in fact, it reflects a new version of Orientalist discourse which portrays Arab countries as “ahistorical” and “static” societies. As for the rise of Islamism, this discourse chose to adopt a mix of wishful thinking and the idea of “Democracy bon pour l’Orient.”

Finally, there has been neither common ground nor a common prospect for the future among the protesters in the Arab countries and those in the Western streets. The Western protesters’ revolt was more the product of discontent with neoliberalism and targeted neo-liberal politics rather than any other political goals like freedom, democracy and human rights. On the other hand, Arab protesters have not only been motivated by diverse reasons, but have also had diverse views of the future. The so-called “secular liberal Arabs” of the revolutions were more motivated by political demands of freedom and by aspirations for a neoliberal economy, whereas Islamists’ understanding of freedom was rather different and their aspiration for economic liberalism was mixed with a popular demand for social justice.

In short, “the faceless protester” of Time magazine has, in fact, many faces. At best, the choice of the protester as “the person of the year” is another expression of radical chic; at worst, it’s another example of the manipulation of political discourse.