Just a few days ago, an ABC News anchor asked his correspondent on the ground to explain the Muslim Brotherhood to their viewers. We were told that they weren't the Taliban, they weren't mullahs (which the Taliban are also not) -- we were reassured that the Brotherhood, although a very conservative movement with views often at odds with our policy interests, was modern. They "wear business suits," and such is the definition of modernity and the sophistication of the conversation. Of course, Hosni Mubarak, a brutal dictator, also wears business suits, which tells you how helpful our sartorial prejudices are.
For far too long, dress has been not merely been a marker of cultural difference or of preference, but of acceptability. How you wear your clothes, and how many you wear, determines the rights you get or don't get. The ugliness of the sartorial in Middle Eastern politics is an old issue, wrapped up in the question of "catching up" with modernity. Ataturk forced Turks to dress like Westerners, on the assumption that only dressed that way could they move forward nationally. The Islamic Revolution in Iran flipped things back the other way, undoing decades of forced westernization with forced Islamization. Many in the West have commented on Ahmadinejad's sloppy manner of dress. It's not by accident that we never see him wear a necktie.
Unfortunately, political discussions in the Muslim majority world often remind me of high school cliques. Because you belong to one, all these other decisions and preferences that don't seem related suddenly become related -- and inseparable. When I was growing up in the 1990s, if you were a jock, you didn't listen to certain kinds of music. If you dressed like certain bands from Seattle, you couldn't also like certain music (say, hip-hop) that had its own type of dress. The end result was a rather naïve self-division of students, limiting us not only through what we looked like but who we hung out with.
To give you an example of this, I once had a long discussion with a Pakistani, while in Pakistan, who was telling me that the reason Pakistan could not modernize was because its national language, Urdu, used a modified Arabic script. He told me that only countries which used the Latin script were capable of democracy, progress, individualism -- basically, every good thing he associated with the West. When I pointed out to him that countries such as Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea have accomplished many of the things that he himself identified as laudable, yet had not changed their scripts, he seemed entirely unmoved. For so long people have assumed that they can only be one thing or the other.
Too often, political decisions in the Muslim majority world have become an all-or-nothing, zero-sum game. It is the same logic that the Mubarak administration has used for years, arguing that if not a secular dictatorship, then a populist theocratic and radical state in its place. There can be no middle ground, there can be no conversations across cultural boundaries, and the very clothes we wear doom us to a never-ending cycle of conflict and friction. Until recently. Because, I'd argue, the whole scheme has of late crumbled to the ground, and our foreign policy -- and Mubarak's regime -- are caught trying to catch-up. It's the same phenomenon as in Iran's Green Movement, with clerics in their traditional robes and folks in "Western" dress on the streets together.
What's so remarkable about the current events in Egypt are the inapplicability of our categories to them. Some have been so surprised by the rapidity of the events there that they've fallen back on simple categories whose usefulness has long since died -- but they have nothing better to work with. In effect, we are saying, "break it down for me -- do they wear headscarves?" (Bad). "Do they speak English?" (Good). "Do they have turbans?" (Terrible.) We are reassured that the Muslim Brotherhood wears suits, as if this is in itself a marker of modernity. Ask yourself: did Adolf Hitler wear clerical robes? What kind of clothes did Mussolini wear? Does Obama dress any differently than Vladimir Putin? Contrarily, it is Ahmadinejad who represents the Iranian regime against turbaned mullahs like Khatami and Karroubi, fighting for democracy.
It's not just the Obama administration that seems lost, trying vainly to balance a long-term vision of the United States as steward of the peoples of the Middle East, but the Mubarak administration with its vision of itself as indispensable to Egypt is also lost. The audacity is amazing. Egypt is one of the oldest nations on earth, and yet Mubarak would have us believe that if he goes, the whole country goes down. Mubarak tells us that Egyptians are not ready for democracy, that their culture requires a strong hand, but somehow he and his cronies have exempted themselves from Egyptian culture, for which reason they can take charge of it. They are in fact the greatest Orientalists, the deepest racists, self-hating despots whose reign is the literal embodiment of a Pharaonic inferiority complex.
And now, in their distance first from the people and then from the world, the revolution escapes them. It refuses the categories they assumed. They are not facing other old men, wearing robes, spitting Islamic fire and Arabic brimstone. They are instead facing young Egyptians, who refused to be boxed into categories that for too long have been used to justify repressive policies throughout the Middle East. Mubarak's administration is indeed so obviously and stunningly lost that they send goons after all journalists, not bothering to note that persons such as Katie Couric and Anderson Cooper are off-limits. You could literally find in our administration's response to the crisis during those days a much more hostile tone towards the Mubarak administration. Americans do not like it when our TV personalities are attacked, or our relationship to the automobile is challenged. These two things, at least, are sacred.
One of the revolution's leading figures is Wael Ghonim, a young Google executive, an articulate, personable, worldly, and obviously passionate young man, who speaks English fluently, who seems to have an endorsement deal with Express (I've seen him wear two polos), and who is in every sense not who they -- and we -- assumed the revolution would be led by. It is a public relations disaster for the Mubarak administration, but it is also a public relations quandary for the Obama administration. The voice of the Egyptian people is being channeled by someone other than we expected, someone even younger than Obama, someone who could be, in another world, another Obama. And he is not afraid of death: he has called for a corrupt and cruel regime to fall, and he seems to mean it, that he will try his best to outlast the old men in their palaces. Speaking superficially, on age (and the fashions he wears) he appears to have time on his side. He also has the Muslim Brotherhood on his side.
We still don't know what to make of this movement. Is it secular, or is it Islamist? Why does it have to be one or the other? Why can't it be a reflection of all the things Egypt is, and imply that, come democracy, it will not import ideology uncritically, but seek to reflect the forces that shape and are Egypt: Christian and Muslim, religious and nationalist, liberal and socialist. Just as journalists are endlessly debating whether Turkey's AKP is Islamist or isn't, whether Turkey is or isn't abandoning the West, we're held back by bipolar language in a multipolar, multicultural reality. Arabs and Muslims are becoming more confident, and this confidence means the ability to transcend the boundaries our clothes form, whether those boundaries come from a foreign observer or a domestic tyrant. The Express Polo marks the end of one world, and the beginning of another. Are we ready for it?