What do you do when confronted with a prejudice so strong it takes your breath away? In my case, I did what was immediately necessary. I took a deep breath to replenish lost oxygen, and moved on. It wasn’t the time or place to take on this particularly ugly example of intolerance; but it is an intolerance which needs to recognised.

I was giving a lecture at a charity that trains journalists from around the world. Some are already making their way in the industry and are expected to do well.

I was talking about my theory that the term ‘Arab Spring’ actually clouds our understanding of what has been happening in the region over the past 18 months.  From the Egyptian coup d’etat onwards, I’ve argued that calling these events the ‘Arab Spring’ automatically frames them as positive.

The word ‘spring’ evokes the feeling of growth, something benign, a time of renewal leading to even better times.  When educated Europeans or North Americans hear the term ‘Arab Spring’ we hear an echo of the ‘Prague Spring’, a heroic, positive thing. Then, when sections of the media began to talk about a domino effect, the template for understanding the events was that of 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall, an utterly inappropriate template for a different region, with a different language, history and culture.

Too many reporters rushed to interview the young liberals who were standing in city squares with placards written in English, and mistook them for the voice of the people and the direction of history. Some journalists had done the same during the ‘Green Revolution’ describing the young students of North Tehran as the youth of Iran, thus ignoring that far more young Iranians were joining the reactionary Basij militia and the Revolutionary Guard.

The Arab uprisings, as I prefer to call them, may well end up leading to the flourishing of  liberal democracy in the region; but it is far too early to tell and it was much too early to frame events in that light last year.

In 1989 in Eastern Europe there was one form of totalitarianism: communism. In the majority of people’s minds there was only one direction in which to go: towards democracy, which was thriving on the other side of the Iron Curtain. East and West shared a historical memory of brief periods of democracy and civil society.

The Arab World of 2011 enjoyed none of those things and faced in many directions. There was, and is, the direction of democracy, liberal democracy (which differs from the former), nationalism, the cult of the strong leader, and then there was the direction in which many people had been facing all along: Islam in its various guises, including Islamism.

In some cases people don’t have much of a choice. Mao Tse Tung’s maxim ‘All political power comes from the barrel of a gun’ is a flawed concept in a liberal democracy, even if democracies insist on having a monopoly on violence, but it is a truism in the Arab World.

Some good citizens of Misrata in Libya may want to develop a liberal democratic party, some might even want to campaign for gay rights; but their choice will be limited if the local de facto power shoots liberal democrats and gays. Iraq is a case in point: a democracy in name only, far from liberal, and a place where people are routinely murdered for being homosexual.

The second phase of the Arab uprising has begun: an internal struggle within societies where religious beliefs, social mores, tribal links and guns are currently far more powerful forces than ‘Western’ ideals of equality, freedom of expression and suffrage.

The Arab countries are beset by prejudices; indeed, hatreds of which the average westerner knows so little that they tend not to believe them even if they are laid out in print before their eyes. We are aware of our own prejudices, which are legion, but often seem to turn a blind eye to those in the Middle East.

Routine expression of hatred for the other is so common in the Arab World that they barely draw comment outside the often western educated liberal minority. Cartoons which echo the Nazi Der Sturmer newspaper are common. Week in and week out, shock-jock Imams are given space on prime time TV shows, which they sometimes host. They use their time to spew vitriol and inspire violence; they would make Ofcom’s eyes water.

Western apologists for this sort of behaviour are sometimes hamstrung by a fear of being described as one of Edward Said’s ‘Orientalists’. They betray their own liberal values by denying that they are universal.  Others, in their naivety, say that these incitements to murder are not widespread and must be seen in the context of Arabic, which can be given to flights of rhetoric. This signals their lack of understanding of the Arab Street, the role of the mainstream Arab media and a refusal to understand that when people who are full of hatred say something, they mean it.  A letter written by Al Zawahiri, the al Qaeda leader, to the Iraqi al Qaeda leader provides a telling example. He asked the Iraqis to stop killing Shia in such large numbers and concentrate on killing American soldiers because the Shia could be dealt with later.

The Arab Uprising is well into its second phase. The oppressive lid of dictatorial rule has been lifted in many areas. This has given the political and sometimes geographical space for ideas, and guns, to flow. None of this happens in a vacuum. Outside forces are playing in the arena. For example Qatari weapons flowed to specific Islamist groups during the war against Gaddafi, and now Qatari riyals flow to people who are usually allied with the Muslim Brotherhood or even more radical organizations. Libya may have had an election in which the Brotherhood came second; but it has an electoral aftermath in which the Brotherhood is the strongest, best organized and best armed network in a nation reduced to fiefdoms.

As we have seen since the removal of Gaddafi, the gangs running these fiefdoms have exacted their ‘revenge’ in an orgy of brutality against black Libyans, black Africans, and people deemed to be Gaddafi loyalists. In impoverished societies with few accountable institutions, power rests with gangs disguised as ‘militia’ and ‘political parties’.  While they fight for power, many innocent people die.

It was in this context during the lecture that I used the phrase, ‘Muslims killing Muslims’. It was the response to this statement which took away my breath. I accept that the phrase might be construed as provocative and that few people would say ‘Christians killing Christians’; but it was a statement of fact nonetheless.

Among the audience of about 30 people from all over the world, was a young woman from south Asia. She stood up and said: ‘I cannot let you say that. Muslims kill Muslims’. I replied that we were all journalists and hopefully could discuss things in a rational manner, giving a few examples of how the Taliban were killing people in Pakistan and how hundreds of Pakistani Shia Muslims die in sectarian murders every year.

At this she turned red and almost shouted: ‘How dare you talk about my religion. I do not talk about yours!’ I replied that I would be happy to talk about Christian fundamentalism, the bombing of abortion clinics or even the Crusades if she wished; but suggested for everyone’s sake that we should move on. Before I could finish a man behind her from an Arab country interjected:

‘I also cannot allow you to say this. Muslims do not kill Muslims.’ I am familiar with the concept that no true Muslim could kill another, but find all too often this is merely used to wriggle out of a debate about the scale of killings. The explanation this time was one with which I am also familiar but rarely hear in a public forum.

In a bid to meet him half way I suggested that there was a debate to be had about whose fault it was that sectarian tensions had erupted in Iraq; but in both Saddam’s time and since his fall, Muslims killed Muslims by the hundreds of thousands.

‘This is not true,’ he replied. ‘The media is wrong. It is foreigners killing people in Iraq.’ Again, I was about to move on when I thought of what I felt might be a strong point. ‘But in the Iran-Iraq war, 1 million people died’.  He replied, ‘Yes, but the Iranians are not Muslims.’ The penny dropped along with my heart.

The majority of Iranians are Shia, so I asked him: ‘Are you saying that the Shia are not Muslims?’ He replied: ‘Yes, the Shia are not Muslims.’

His fellow class mates looked at him in astonishment, some open mouthed.  There are at least 200 million Shia Muslims in the world; it’s possible that some of them were in the room. With only a few minutes of the lecture left, and some of the audience clearly uncomfortable, I felt it was best to move on.

I was saddened by the experience. I’ve heard these views before, many times; but to say it so casually in an open forum made me wonder, again, how widespread this prejudice is. I suspect that a majority of the man’s fellow Muslims would disagree with him. However, recall the theory on the ‘Arab Spring’: those with the most guns ensure that their ideas are shouted loudest. There are many people who share this man’s beliefs. They are highly motivated and very well armed.

Tim Marshall is Foreign Affairs Editor at Sky News

Tags: Arab Spring, Arab world, Egypt, Freedom of speech, Iraq, Islam, Islamism, Libya, Middle East