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Commentary :: Human Rights
Arab liberals - endangered species
18 Dec 2003
The Region: Arab liberals - endangered species

The Middle East has been more effective at exporting authoritarianism than the West has been in exporting democracy

I'm now working on a book about liberal Arabs struggling for democracy, human rights, and moderating reforms in the Arab world. When I tell people this, the usual response is that it must be a short book.

There is a lot of material, but what is astonishing is how few reformers and supporters of reform there are. It is startling - but typical of Middle East studies - that in an era when the US government has made supporting democracy in the Middle East its main priority and key theme in the Iraq war, there has been no comprehensive survey or assessment of the reformers.

Equally startling is how weak the liberal forces remain. There is no great liberal theorist or reform advocate who galvanizes people in the Arab world. There is no major original book which provides a manifesto for moderation, and no powerful political party or movement pushing for democratic change.

Outside of Kuwait, there is arguably no organized liberal grouping at all. Though some Western observers - motivated both by wishful thinking and a belief that a moderate triumph is inevitable - magnify each individual action, there just isn't that much to talk about.

This reality does not detract from the heroism of reform advocates. On the contrary, it makes their courage even more impressive, because the odds against them are so stupendous. Yet it seems more realistic to call the liberals an endangered species rather than an ever-growing wave of the future.

Contrary to what many people are saying, the Middle East has been more effective at exporting authoritarian and extremist thought to the West than the West has been in exporting democratic thinking to the Middle East.

Look, for example, at the global wave of anti-Semitism; the wacky views of the region held by so many in Europe and America; the intellectuals who apologize for terrorism; media coverage which is becoming increasingly bizarre; radical Islamist activities in Europe; and the way that Middle East studies are taught in university classrooms. Who is having more impact on whom?

I don't want to list here all the Arab world's political, economic, and social disasters of the last half-century. One should not have to be a genius to see how the existing systems and dominant ideologies - both radical Arab nationalism and revolutionary Islamism - have failed. Equally, the region's poor performances in almost every index for measuring progress have been amply documented.

WHAT is there to counter the status quo? A few hundred, at most, Arab intellectuals writing columns and op-ed pieces with devastating critiques of these problems, and a much larger amount of private muttering about how rotten the situation is for Arabs today. This stands in opposition to powerful regimes with giant armies and massive Islamist movements with many tens of thousands of followers.

Why the disparity? Some of the reasons are apparent:

The strength of repression.

The relative lack of democratic experience in the Arab world (though a half-century ago there were many elected parliaments there).

Nationalism and religion were often forces pressing for democracy in the West, while in the Middle East they are aligned against it.

But foremost reason why this situation persists is due to the real WMD - Weapon of Mass Deception - xenophobic demagoguery: teaching people that everything is the foreigners' fault. It is the systematically exploited hatred of the West in general and of Israel and the US in particular that is the most effective tool of the Arab regimes and their Islamist opponents.

The problem is not that the Arab-Israeli conflict is unresolved, but that those in power - and that goes for the Palestinian leadership as well - will not let it be resolved. Such an outcome would be too politically dangerous for them.

The liberal Arab critique of all this is as fascinating to read as it is frustrating to write. As the liberal columnist Ridha Hilal put it in March 2001, "The calls for democracy and economic prosperity disappeared in favor of the slogan: 'No voice should rise above the voice of battle,' a slogan that returns to our life as if we are forever doomed to wallow in the mud of violence, dictatorship and poverty" (translation by MEMRI).

Or to sum it up even more dramatically, there is a popular song written by an Egyptian entitled "Better Saddam's Hell than America's Paradise." Nationalism and religion trumps democracy and higher living standards. And even in Iraq, where the dictator is overthrown, the old mental and structural system does not disappear easily.

The most important point to make repeatedly is this: A lot more harm has been done in the last quarter-century by leaders thinking these issues were too easy, rather than too hard, to resolve.

This work is in the public domain
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