In late 2010, citizens from several countries throughout the Middle East broke out in protests, revolts, and civil wars against their governing bodies in what would be known as the Arab Spring. During this time, Professor Asaad Al-Saleh felt himself personally and intellectually drawn to any news about the Middle East he could find. He thought he needed to formulate what was going on in a meaningful way, but eventually he realized the people directly involved in the revolution would be able to articulate the conflict in a more powerful way.
“The power of people at that time was magnificent,” Al-Saleh said. “And I thought, it’s better to open up those people to tell their stories.”
Those stories can be found in “Voices of the Arab Spring: Personal Stories from the Arab Revolutions,” published in March 2015.
Al-Saleh wanted to focus on collecting stories from a diverse group of people touched by the Arab Spring. The best venue for finding sources proved to be social media, and Al-Saleh sought out members and founders of popular groups and pages on Twitter and Facebook to find people willing to share their stories.
“It was a huge process of shooting all my arrows in the cyberspace and seeing who’s going to actually respond and follow up with me,” he said.
Through this process, Al-Saleh was able to collect many stories, each one as unique as the storyteller. Al-Saleh was even able to speak to some of his subjects over the phone, which he said offered a rare glimpse into the Middle East during the revolutions.
“I was calling a contributor,” he said. “I could hear some bullets being fired, and he told me, ‘This is what’s happening now.’ These moments you wouldn’t see it in the book as narrated. But these were very special for me as an observer.”
Over the past five years since the Arab Spring, situations in the Middle East have remained tense, particularly with regards to ISIS’ presence in Syria. This is a situation that personally affects Al-Saleh as well – his uncle was killed by ISIS, another uncle’s teenager was radicalized and killed, and the group currently occupies the eastern region of Syria where his family lives.
But while many people believe the Arab Spring created an environment for ISIS to flourish, Al-Saleh disagreed.
“These people are like us. They don’t want ISIS. They don’t want ruthless and dictatorial regimes. They want to have a life maybe identical to this democratic lifestyle available in the West. Many young people fled my region to Germany—to avoid regime’s fire and ISIS control” he said. “ISIS is even a darker image or a more horrible nightmare of the reality that these people tried to change when they were revolting against certain regimes in the Arab world.”
Al-Saleh said he hopes “Voices of the Arab Spring” will help people’s understanding of the current state of the Middle East. But the book is not the end of Al-Saleh’s work on this subject. He is participating in a fellowship at the International Institute of Islamic Thought in Washington, D.C., where he’ll study how groups like ISIS manipulate the teachings and texts of Islam to reflect their beliefs and methods.
“They [ISIS] are only controlling people because they could and they have the power to do so and they have this machinery that they can kill anybody who’s resisting them,” Al-Saleh said. “I’m very deeply concerned by this and I think I have maybe something to contribute to the understanding of where they stand and how the texts they use are being manipulated.”
When speaking to his subjects in the Middle East, Al-Saleh said many of them compared the goals of the Arab Spring to those of the French Revolution. He said they hoped the bloodshed and turmoil surrounding the area would pay off in the end and lead to a more democratic society. While he doubted whether the political environment in the area would allow that to happen, his hope for the people in the Middle East remains strong.
“ISIS is a regime,” he said, “and the stories tell you that people are bigger than regimes. They are more powerful than regimes.”