Power To The People: The ‘Arab Spring’ and the Civil Rights Movement

Chuck Kaakarli sits at the table in the dining room of his Rochester Hills home scrolling through his Facebook page on a laptop.

Nibbling on pastries and sipping coffee, he leans into the bright screen of his computer squinting slightly as he carefully reads in Arabic the array of messages filling the different Facebook sites dedicated to Syrians fighting for their freedom against the violently oppressive government of President Bashar al-Assad.

Pointing to the tiny photos on his computer of young men and women confronting tanks, heavily armed soldiers and snipers, on the streets of Damascus armed with little more than protest signs, Kaakarli, who moved to the United States in 1983 as an 18-year-old student, spoke of his admiration for the young protesters’ courage.

“At first I was reluctant to even read the Facebook pages for the Syrian Arab Spring, or respond to messages on the pages,” said the 47-year-old father of three.

“But then after thinking about it for a while, I asked myself what kind of man would I be if I couldn’t offer words of encouragement and show support for the people struggling over there putting their lives on the line, while I’m reading about it in the comfort of my dining room?”


About a year ago, a revolutionary wave of largely non-violent mass protests broke out in many countries in the Middle East and Northern Africa. What started with one man protesting police brutality by setting himself on fire in Tunisia in December 2010 soon spread like wildfire.

Protesters also targeted repressive governmental regimes in Yemen, Egypt, Libya, Syria and to a lesser degree Algeria, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco and other countries.  The widespread protests became known as the Arab Spring.

Like the Civil Rights Movement, the campaigns in these various countries share strategies of civil resistance including non-violent protests and mass strikes.

But the modern-day revolutionaries also use social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

They can instantly share their messages, coordinate support across regions and raise international awareness of the often-violent efforts to repress their push for democracy.

Kaakarli said the young Arab protesters consciously embracing the non-violent tactics of U.S. Civil Rights Movement as the model for their struggle motivated him to move from being a passive observer of the Arab Spring to an ardent supporter.

He now attends fundraisers for the protesters and even has participated with his family and others in symbolic acts of solidarity such as a flash mob at the Tel-Twelve Mall in Southfield to draw attention to their struggle.

“The young people of the region had heard stories of democracy in other countries from their parents,” he said. “And when they saw on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter how the young people of Tunisia were able to stand up for their freedom and get their freedom, they realized that Pharaoh was just a man.

“It brought back memories to me of the days of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King and those folks who engaged in peaceful protests. These people are heroes to students organizing for freedom in Egypt and other countries.”

The Rev. Horace Sheffield III, executive of director of the Detroit Association of Black Organizations (DABO) , said a logical connection exists between the human rights struggles of people of color anywhere in the world and the struggle of African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement.

“There is a universal awareness of some of the people who led the fight against oppression here,” he said. “Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X are international icons.

“Even though Malcolm did not enjoy the iconic stature of Martin, they are symbols of what can happen when the will of people foments and is combined with the courage of unabashed and courageous leadership.”

Sheffield, who has been at the center of vigorous debates over the relationships between Metro Detroit Arabs and Chaldean Americans, and Black Detroiters, said he was impressed by so many young Arabs involved in the Arab Spring.

“I think it is heartening, quite frankly, that they have embraced such examples. It goes to show the enduring power of these iconic figures-that people who are willing to risk everything for their freedom continue to look to them for their inspiration.”

Cherine Abdalla, a Detroiter and graduate student at the University of Detroit Mercy is Egyptian-American. She agreed that the tactics and success of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement resonates strongly among young participants of the Arab Spring – even if that angle has not been reported on very well in mainstream American media.

“I definitely saw very liberal sprinklings of commentary relating the Arab Spring to the Civil Rights Movement in America,” said Abdalla, 45. “I follow what’s going on in Egypt closely, and it wasn’t in the televised media. It was on the blogosphere and social media mostly Twitter. It’s not necessarily the revolution being televised in the visual media.”

Abdalla, 45, who came to the U.S. with her family as a child in 1969, said connections being made were largely by young people through the “commentary of the streets.”

“They were using Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere; all of the new technology so in play by the youth,” she said. “Those were the people who made the historical connections.”

Still, Dawud Walid, 40, the executive director of CAIR-Michigan, has been following the Arab Spring on Arabic satellite television and reading about it on the Internet, but could not recall many references to the American Civil Rights Movement.

Ironically, the Detroiter said a more organic connection can be made between the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Arab Spring. However, the U.S. protesters found their inspiration in the Arab Spring.

“I heard first hand that the Arab Spring was an inspiration for many people in the Occupy Wall Street movement,” Walid said. “I actually was a participant in Occupy Wall Street, and many of the speakers made references to the Arab Spring in Egypt.”

How directly linked the modern day freedom movement in the Arab world is to the American Civil Rights Movement is a matter for debate.

But there is no denying that there are some very significant parallels, says Pakistani-American Saeed Khan, 45, and expert on ethnic identity politics and Muslim and Islamic history in the United States, Europe and throughout the Diaspora.

Yet, Khan, who lectures on ethnic identity politics and Muslin and Islamic history in the U.S. at Wayne State University, notes the significant parallels.

Many Egyptian protesters specifically cited Malcolm X as a source of inspiration.

“He had much resonance within the Arab Spring consciousness because he was in fact a Muslim and had visited many places in the Middle East including Egypt and Tahrir Square in Cairo, which was the epicenter of the [Arab Spring] movement,” Khan said.

“There were definitely protest signs that referenced Malcolm X. Some even had his photo, and some quoted him.”

Even still, he acknowledged some African Americans, including Muslims, may perceive the connection as tenuous.

However, more recent Arab and Muslim immigrants who have come from the Middle East and recently experienced the blowback from the hostility engendered by the Sept.11 terrorist attacks have become more sensitized to the struggles for civil and human rights in the United States and abroad.

“The reason why there is a seeming disconnect is that until recently many immigrant Muslims did not consider themselves marginalized or disenfranchised members of American society,” Khan said.

“After 9-11 the change in the public rhetoric which became much more pointed and hostile in some quarters toward Arabs and Muslims resulted in the perception that perhaps Arabs and Muslims were not as well integrated, or insulated from some of the darker periods of America’s social and political history.

“Now they see there is actually a shared and related experience, and over the last 10 years there has been a heightened awareness and even activism among many Arabs and Muslim Americans to not only try to protect and preserve their own civil rights, but those in a broader context as well.”

Trevor W. Coleman is a Detroit-area author and journalist whose biography of federal Judge Damon J. Keith will be published in October.

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