May 2, 2011

If al-Qaeda followers turn to Yemen to pursue the work of Osama bin Laden’s network, they will be in for a surprise. The people of Yemen, like most of the Arab world, have long since divorced themselves from bin Laden and his ideology, as they are showing in the youth-led Arab uprising. For the past few months, hundreds of thousands of Yemenis — young and old, men and women — have been carrying out a nonviolent revolt with sit-ins, demonstrations and civil disobedience. Although the ruling party and its proxies have done everything they can to induce Yemenis to take up arms, the demonstrators have shown resilience, discipline and a determination to keep protests peaceful.

This is not merely tactical. Religious leaders speaking at Yemen’s own Tahrir Square in the capital of Sanaa have cited the Koran and Islamic tradition to back their pacifist arguments.

In fact, nonviolence and the absence of fundamentalist Islamic ideology have been hallmarks of the Arab Spring, dictators’ claims to the contrary.

The demographics of the demonstrators across the Middle East also show a turn away from Islamic fundamentalism. Christians and Muslims together struggled and celebrated the end of Hosni Mubarak’s regime. In Syria, demonstrators dubbed the protests on the Friday before Easter with the Christian Arabic name al juma’a al athima (Good Friday) to distance themselves from Islamic extremists, and Christians were reported among those killed by Syrian forces. Arab Christians and secular Muslims also have joined the protests in Egypt, Syria and Jordan.

In many parts of the Arab world, Islamists have showed political maturity, tolerance and inclusiveness. When pressed by a television reporter, Essam el-Erian, a senior Muslim Brotherhood leader in Egypt, refused to publicly denounce the decision of Egypt’s Supreme Military Committee to honor regional and international agreements, including the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

Despite the peaceful protests, Arab dictators continue to appeal for international support for their crackdowns with the lame excuse that they are fighting al-Qaeda. Many in the West have unfortunately accepted this justification and have hesitated to defend the rights of the people to oust leaders who have delegitimized themselves by killing peaceful protesters. Democratic countries that support authoritarian regimes are exemplifying the opposite of the values they purport to stand for.

The Arab peoples’ public break from bin Laden’s brutal ideology, and the al-Qaeda leader’s death, should close a sad chapter in international relations and put an end to the stereotyping of a entire people, a religion and a region as a result of one group’s criminal acts.

In Yemen, Syria, Bahrain and Libya, it is time to embrace the desire of Arabs, and youth in particular, to share power through governments that reflect the Arab world’s diversity and plurality.

Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian journalist and a former professor of journalism at Princeton University.

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