Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Our young Muslims must see what freedom means to Arabs

The martyrs they see in Libya and Egypt are sacrificing themselves for a better real world, not to escape to a hedonistic and over-sexed afterlife
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The Independent Online

As their friends in high places fight or flee the firestorms of revolution in Arabia and North Africa, our government ministers barely seem compos mentis. They look like lost boys in the desert, mouthing words, some of it babble, looking for a way back to safe and familiar territory. The SAS cannot pluck them from their bewildered thought wanderings. How could it when the dictators had our excellent weaponry and support? And what now for our foreign policies, our perfected diplomatic duplicity, that have served Queen and Country so very well? And why are the crowds of revolutionaries, well, so much like us, and not like crazed fanatics?

While our pitiable leaders cling to imperial fantasies, all expectations have fallen. The uprisings prove that almost every Western "expert" on the Middle East was hopelessly off-beam and most UK policies were criminally complicit in the subjugation of millions. Bitter laughs must have burst out in living rooms yesterday when the inept William Hague tried to sound off on BBC's Andrew Marr Show about the unanimous UN measures against the Gaddafi regime, warning that there would soon be a "day of reckoning". Meanwhile, over on Radio 4, Oliver Miles, an ex-UK ambassador appeared to be continuing to defend British support for murderous dictators. The antics of the PM have been more embarrassing. Off he bounced to Abu Dhabi to sell more British arms to brutish regimes and then made the time to deliver a stirring speech on freedom and democracy. He must still believe that swarthy god-botherers are easily duped. They are not. Not there, not over here either and arguably, that is the best news we have had for a while.

The people aren't chanting jihadi slogans or shouting support for Bin Laden or waving placards promising forever fresh, heavenly virgins; they aren't all hoods and political beards. Few women and girls are fully shrouded in black burkhas, instead their faces are defiant and hopeful, as they walk with the men and boys, ready to die for bread and freedom.

Many dissidents are young, educated idealists fighting for a meaningful vote, government by the people, the right to speak out and change their petrified, calcified nations. Ahmed Bahaauddin Shaaban, one of the founder members of the Egyptian Movement for Change, said resoundingly: "We have a programme for democracy, social reform and the creation of a modern developed state." Amen. Not, note a Caliphate or an Islamic republic. That could still arrive in some countries, but unlike Iran in 1979, change is not tied to religious revivalism. In the two months since a young Tunisian man set himself alight and gave up life under repression – his poignant suicide did more than all those nihilistic suicide bombings the world over – Arabs have found courage and purpose and can reclaim pride after decades of abject submission and inertia.

This then is the final riposte to Blair and fellow neo-cons, advocates of shock and awe wars to depose Muslim tyrants and the "democratic values" that have to be imposed and controlled by the Anglo-Saxon axis of avarice. That gang has been utterly discredited. But so too are the Muslim networks in Britain like Hizb-ut-Tahrir who argue that Islam is incompatible with democracy. Young Muslims who might have been swayed by such idiotic ideologues, and too many have been, even on university campuses, can now see that even the most downtrodden Muslims are prepared to give up their lives for proper political representation. Their example should inspire the most sullen of our young British Muslims.

Some are even tempted to join the uprisings. I hear of five young Egyptians who have already flown out. One father, Omar (not his real name) said to me: "We have lived here now since 1960. Our children expect rights. I think they want to help in the big change and we must understand that." In recent years small numbers of British Muslims have gone to Chechnya, Afghanistan, Somalia and elsewhere to fight or blow themselves up either for legitimate causes or as warriors of Islamicism. That voluntarism almost always came from a font of total pessimism. This time it is optimism that draws them. The martyrs they see in Libya and Egypt are sacrificing themselves for a better real world and aren't trying to escape to a hedonistic and over-sexed afterlife. It is a priceless lesson and one that will have an impact in ways we can hope for but not yet predict.

Another unintended good consequence will be that British Muslims consumed with perpetual rage will cool down a little and find more reasonable outlets for their feelings. Research at Cardiff University and other academic institutions shows increasing numbers of these hyperactive citizens are disaffected and some are attracted by terrorism. They are worked up because unlike their parents they know about geopolitical games, injustice and oppression. In 2006, a report by the think tank Demos concluded that government foreign polices and actions were causing this alienation and resentment. A starker warning came from an earlier Cabinet Office report which described the "perceptions" of double standards and quoted young British Muslims who felt their government had betrayed the citizens of Palestine, Iraq, Kashmir and other conflict zones. They feel angry, guilty by association and helpless. I confess I do too.

However, if the revolts result in new settlements across the Arab world, the UK and US will not be able to revert to their reprehensible foreign policies. They are now dealing with a modern Arabian sensibility and must bow to the forces of good. Israel will have to rethink its role. Israelis will have to stop clinging to the unjust status quo and win over the enthusiastic democrats springing up around them. Honesty not deviousness on all sides will pay dividends. If and when that shift happens, extremism will lose its power to catch young minds here and religious parties in the Muslim world will make themselves redundant. And Allah willing, my faith in Islam will be de-toxed and decoupled from politics, returned to spiritual and moral enlightenment. It could all go badly wrong but for now let us go on this flight of extraordinary possibilities and imagine a brave new world. For Arabs and for us.