By Ahmed Tharwat
The American flag consists of 13 horizontal stripes, seven red alternating with six white. The stripes represent the original 13 colonies and the stars represent the 50 states of the Union. It has three colours; red symbolises hardiness and valour, white symbolises purity and innocence, and blue represents vigilance, perseverance and justice. As you travel around the country or walk down the street in your neighbourhood; you see the ominous American flag waving everywhere, including on restaurants, businesses, boats, bikes, underwear, cars and in people’s own private spaces. Wal-Mart recorded the biggest sale of American flags this year.
The American flag has not just become a part of the American patriotic landscape, but also a perennial part of their front yard landscape. Americans show their patriotism through flag posting and seem to show their affection to their flag regardless of their political or religious affiliation; and this was even before the 9/11 tragedy. The American flag will rise and the national anthem is sung before every national or local sporting event, even between two high school teams in the same town with the same nationality.
The American flag has become a symbol of the national identity as Americans; it is becoming the patriotic polygraph test and is now becoming the Republican Party mascot. This sense of flagrant public patriotism is absent in the Arab and Muslim world. Growing up in Egypt, flags fervour is replaced by leader fervour – Nasser, Sadat, Mubarak, Morsi, and now Al-Sisi – their pictures are posted everywhere, on every building, street, public or business office, square, and now even on chocolate, cheese, clothes and jewellery.
The perennial president’s face, with his confident look staring at us wherever we go – you can still see it on all the cover pages of the mainstream media (whether governmental or privately owned), thereby providing us with our daily patriotic fix. The only places devoid of this presidential invasion are Egyptians’ private homes and mosques; these Egyptians own private spaces where the presidents’ pictures are replaced by verses of the Quran, or a family picture. Do you get the picture?
This goes on in all Arab countries, and with all Arab leaders, as evidence of national insecurity. The president is acting as a father figure; a symbol of our identity, he is the head of our tribe. A friend of mine told me that before Syria had been destroyed, the picture of President Assad was so prominent that he grew up having never seen a picture of a bird or any form of art. Pictures of human faces are not encouraged in Islam, so only our leaders can break this religious taboo with such unbridled fervour. Americans experienced this phenomenon firsthand when they invaded Iraq and experienced Saddam Hussein’s pictures, with his dominant moustache posted everywhere. When the Iraqis felt secure enough, these pictures were the first to be attacked and torn down by the Iraq people – no longer to be seen.
Arab leaders may own the public spaces, they may own the power and governments, media, banks, courts, police and authorities; and they can impose their will on anything and everywhere. Private spaces, however, remain sovereign and out of their firm grip, and while those leaders may own the public conversation, they can never touch the private conversation or people’s faith.
In the Arab world, freedom of expression is a private affair; where the Arab leaders get their real pictures and private names. President Mubarak was the “laughing cow” (La Vache qui Rit), President Gaddafi was the “lunatic”, King Abdullah was the “royal idiot”, Saddam was the “Butcher of Baghdad”; Nasser was the looter, Sadat was the “drug addict”, interim president Adly was the “idiot”, first civilian elected president Morsi was the “spare tire”, and now Al-Sisi has earned a nickname that took this private conversation to another level of vulgarity, the “Pimp”.
Flags don’t mean much to most Arabs – the flag represented the past and serves as a symbol of disgrace and disappointment in their leaders and nationalism. Flags waving in dictatorial systems take a different meaning. You don’t wave the national flag when you protest against your state; you burn it. Lately, and for the most part, we only saw Al-Sisi supporters, remnants of old dictators and paid thugs who wave the flags in Tahrir Square.
The interrogators at Guantanamo Bay may have desecrated the Islamic holy book to force a confession; however, they would never have considered desecrating a national flag. That would have never worked. On the other hand, when Arabs are protesting against Americans they burn the American flag, and not the constitution or even the Bible for that matter. For Americans, and in a consumer culture, the flag remains the larger symbol of unity and an overzealous belief that we are all Americans, at least under the flag, regardless of our race, religion or socioeconomic status. Even in a land of moral relativism, where nothing is sacred, where most of what we use is disposable; the American flag stands tall everywhere, and unlike the Quran, it is illegal to treat it with anything but absolute respect.
Someone once said: “When fascism comes to America, it will come wrapped in the flag and waving a cross.” In Egypt, it came wrapped in the picture of dictator waving a gun.
Ahmed Tharwat is host and producer of the Arab-American TV show Belahdan (with open Arms), a weekly talk show that airs on MN Public TV. He blogs at Notes From America www.ahmediatv.com. Follow him at Facebook, Twitter and YouTube: ahmediatv