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Column: Significant cultural change takes time

Americans have deep concerns over developments in the Arab world. There was an initial burst of optimism that events in Tunisia, Yemen, Libya, Egypt and the Gulf region would lead to a rapid democratization of heretofore-repressive societies, both politically and socially.

Disappointment has set in. There are grave doubts as to whether free elections will lead to functioning democracies or countries ruled by extremist Islamist fundamentalists every bit as repressive as what they’ve replaced. Egypt’s presidential election led to a Muslim Brotherhood president.

Yemen is torn by an al-Qaeda insurgency. Reform has been slow and marked by violence in the Gulf States. The murder of four Americans, including our ambassador last September, in Libya indicates grave political instability. Assassinations plague Lebanon, and Syria is a slaughterhouse with 35,000 dead and more than 100 civilians killed daily by a blood-thirsty tyrant.

Nevertheless, there are grounds for optimism about the Arab world if we reflect and compare it to our nation’s experience during the Civil War of 1861-1865. Americans expect societies and culture to change overnight. The Arab world will not change into a civil society like New Hampshire, but, over time, it will evolve into something better than it was and is.

We should first compare the level of violence in the Arab world with our past. In 1861 there were 31 million Americans. Our Civil War cost the lives of 650,000 of them. In parts of the South, 50 percent of the adult white male population died. Almost total economic devastation existed throughout the South. The level of violence in the Arab world, except for Syria, is below that of our Civil War.

Again, other than Syria, the economies of the 2012 Arab world are better than that of the 1865 American South. Oil is being produced. Iraq, now a democracy, is producing one million barrels of oil per day. Iraq until 2003 was ruled by a sociopathic dictator who killed hundreds of thousands of his own people.

The recent assassination of a pro-western Lebanese general was tragic. However, a terrorist conspiracy led to the murder of President Lincoln in 1865 by the terrorist John Wilkes Booth.

When we examine the consequences of our Civil War, it is clear that it took a very long time for anything good to come out of it. The post-Civil War period was terrible in the South. The executive and legislative branches of the federal government battled over the nature of southern reconstruction. The radical Republican House of Representatives impeached President Andrew Johnson. He was barely acquitted by the Senate.

The Reconstruction period, 1867-1877, was initially marked by a sincere attempt of the federal government to help African-Americans participate in state governments by enforcing the Civil War amendments to the Constitution. Amendment 13 (1865) abolished slavery, Amendment 14 (1868) gave equal protection of the laws to all citizens, and Amendment 15 (1870) extended the right to vote to all citizens.

The federal government sent thousands of troops to occupy the South and enforce those amendments. That effort failed when most federal troops were withdrawn from the South as a result of a political deal made by the Republican candidate for president in 1876 Rutherford B. Hayes with southern Democrats. In return for their support over a disputed Electoral College vote, he promised to end Reconstruction and he did.

High levels of violence marked the Reconstruction period. Whites attempted to prevent African-Americans and their Republican allies from exercising their constitutional rights. Corruption, massive tax and debt increases and extravagance in southern state governments marked Reconstruction. Slavery was abolished, but it was replaced by sharecropping, which affected African-Americans and poor whites.

The South was in the grip of a terrorist organization, the Ku Klux Klan, which originated in Tennessee in 1867. It used violence to deny African-Americans rights. The Klan’s “Invisible Empire of the South” and its sister secret terrorist organization, the “Knights of the White Camellia,” were successful in re-establishing white supremacy despite the Civil War and constitutional amendments. Later Jim Crow laws were enacted, which reduced African-Americans to a repressed status like women in Arab countries.

The Supreme Court further eroded African-American rights through a series of decisions from 1875-1883 that placed limits on Amendments 14 and 15. This culminated in the court’s 1896 decision in Plessey v. Ferguson, which legalized segregation.

It was not until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that segregation was outlawed. The 1965 24th Amendment abolished the poll tax, and the Voting Rights Act the same year outlawed literacy tests. Thus it took 100 years after the Civil War for African-Americans to achieve full legal equality.

Due to modern communications and technology, it should take less time for the Arab world to develop civil societies based on toleration and respect for the rights of religious minorities and women. Lynching of African-Americans and the “honor killing” of women both enforced repressive systems based on terror and violence.

What is also necessary, for my optimistic view of the Arab world’s future, is for their societies to develop political, religiou, and cultural leaders who will work for peace with Israel. Just as pre-1861 Southern religious leaders used the Bible to justify slavery, sermons in Arab countries preach hatred of Jews based on the Koran.

Letting go of anti-Semitism and male supremacy are preconditions for Arab political democratization. Democracy takes time.

Rick Sirvint is a resident of Rindge.

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