Lesson From the Arab Uprisings: Don’t be Realistic!

Protesters gather to demand democracy in Egypt.

Over the course of the past five weeks, billions of people on our planet have allowed themselves to feel the joy of liberation as we watched, read, or heard about the uprisings in the Arab world.

Few expected it.


Because most of us have internalized the dominant message of those who shape and control our lives: the message that if we want to be taken seriously, we must be “realistic.” And that means we must shape our understanding of what is possible within the economic, political, social, psychological, and spiritual contours of what is actual.

So we look at any given situation and almost automatically think “within the box” of “what is.” We have learned to “ride the horse in the direction it is going” rather than attempt to change directions. And we assume that everyone else will do the same. As liberals, we sometimes allow ourselves to imagine some minimal changes within the existing frameworks, but rarely are we able to conceive of what a fundamentally different, love-oriented, liberation-oriented, generosity-oriented, spiritually sensitive, environmentally sane world could look like, much less engage in sustained struggle to achieve such a world.

It’s not just the media and the politicians who enforce the injunction to “be realistic.” We do it to ourselves and to each other all the time. We assume that others will think that we’ve stepped outside the circle of the rational, the cool, the hip, the savvy, the grounded, and the sane if we start talking about a fundamentally different reality than the one in which we live.

No wonder, then, we were unprepared for people to step outside that universe of discourse defined by “being realistic” — all the less ready when it was Arabs, primarily Muslims, who did so. Ever since September 11, we’ve been receiving a steady dose of societal Islamophobia and racism against Arabs. The right wing in Israel and in the Jewish community in the United States has steadily sought to popularize the notion that Arabs are not like real human beings. Arabs and Muslims, they sought to convince us, don’t value life, don’t value the lives of their children, only understand violence, and have no capacity to understand much less adopt strategies of nonviolence. These lies were used by some in the right wing of the Jewish world to justify their demand for the United States to go to war against Iraq and Afghanistan, and some are still trying to drag us into a war against Iran.

We may not know for several years what the real impact of the Arab uprising will be and how much it will deliver a democratic process that is lasting and liberatory. The more people believe they have already won their victories and therefore go back to “ordinary life,” the more possible it becomes for reactionary forces to reassert themselves and grab back the power they have temporarily lost. What the Arab uprisings have already shown, however, is that the hunger to live in a world based on democracy, equality of respect, freedom, nonviolence, and human solidarity will flourish wherever it can push through the countless barriers of our economic and social systems. The uprisings have also shown that the internalized oppression that to some degree shapes much of our thinking can be transcended as people reach for a more loving reality in our lives.

This is what we mean when we call ourselves practical and love-oriented utopians. We know that the best way to achieve what is possible is to struggle for what is desirable. Those who caution that politics is “the art of the possible” fail to understand that we never know what is possible until we strive for what is desirable.

For those of the spiritual or religious persuasion, we say it this way: To believe in God is to believe that there is something in the universe, an ingredient in every ounce of being that makes possible the transformation from that which is to that which ought to be. If you don’t like the word “God,” call it Yud Hey Vav Hey, Allah, the Cosmic Christ, the dharma, Torah, Shechinah, Goddess, Krishna, or whatever… as long as what you mean is the Transformative Power. To be an idolator, then, is to be a realist — someone who doesn’t believe in the possibility of fundamental transformation from that which is to that which ought to be.

To the extent we are idolators, we never expected the uprisings in Tunisia or Egypt, much less those in Bahrain and Yemen, or the civil war in Libya.

Tikkun is committed to the possibility of possibility. And one way we help strengthen the chances for a global liberation is to challenge those around us who seek to entice us into their discourse of “being realistic.” So, don’t let those remarks pass. Challenge them — tell them you are part of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, or a regular reader of tikkun.org, and that our community has a very different approach that seeks to teach others a very important message: Don’t Be Realistic.


One thought on “Lesson From the Arab Uprisings: Don’t be Realistic!

  1. This is a wonderful article on the uprisings in the Arab world. Very true and thought provoking. It really made me sit back and think about all the challenges that you are throughing out there to complacency.

    Thanking for taking the veil off our eyes and drawing a much “more informative” picture.


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