It’s probably one of the most difficult questions to answer.
One of the main factors that make it very difficult to understand the Middle East especially for Westerners is that the region has been moving on an opposite course to that of Europe when it comes to socio-political evolution. Europe’s evolution took it from religious monarchies to nationalism-based states through socialism until it finally became the secular democratic mass that it is today. But the Middle East moved from constitutional monarchies a century ago to communism then to nationalism and now the growing trend appears to have been religion.
What makes it very difficult to understand and predict the future stops of this backwards movement is that change from one system to another was virtually never a genuine change from within, but largely a result of influence from without.
Growing up in a traditional dictatorship in a predominantly Arab Muslim country we were told that all our problems were the result of centuries of Western colonialism, domination and later manipulation and conspiracies. By told, it means that governments, intellectuals, opposition groups and everyone with a voice tried to convince us of this claim; for different purposes of course. In order to find excuses for their failure or to distract us from domestic causes of our misery, governments blamed the West for everything from the pillaging of our natural resources by greedy colonial Europeans, to the creation of Israel, to the borders the West sketched on a piece of paper to rip apart the so called Arab homeland to even the levels of illiteracy in our remote villages, you name it!
Opposition groups and intellectuals on the other hand blamed America and Europe for our underdeveloped undemocratic conditions which they say were a result of manipulating our political systems and public opinion since the creation of the modern states of the Middle East in the early 20th century. They also blame the West for planting and toppling regimes as they pleased; they’d tell you that the West aided the Hashemite against the Ottomans once, left the monarchs to fall later, then aided the nationalists against the communists and then the Islamists against both nationalists and communists and most recently an assortment of the above groups against fascists…the list goes long.
Coming to the West, we saw that the issue here too, surfaces quite often. We hear people to the left say they’re ashamed of what the West did in the Middle East. They blame Europe and America for the mess that the Middle East is, and for two purposes. For self-flagellation and, for attacking their political rivals in the conservative right. At least this is our perception of the debate.
People to the right, are perhaps equally embarrassed by the history of Western involvement in the Middle East, if in a different way. It can be felt that they regret the fact that doing what had to be done in the past led to undesirable outcomes.
What we want to say here is that we-east and west, left and right-all acknowledge that the West has a long history of successfully manipulating the course of events in the Middle East. Let’s look at a bunch of milestones in recent Middle East history. The creation of Hashemite monarchies, the creation of Israel, the counter-Mosaddaq coup in 1953, the Iraq-Iran war, the nationalists’ rise to power, or the Soviet’s defeat at the Mujahideen’s hands. These are all facts, and the decisive role of the West in shaping the outcome of all these events and many more is also a fact.
Now some may wonder why we think this can be useful. Here’s why;
This ability of the West to influence or induce a change in the Middle East can be used to consolidate our efforts to bring about, and sustain, a change in the right direction to produce a democratic secular mass similar to that in the West. This is what America has been trying to do for a while, alas with great opposition in Europe and inside America itself.
The time is perfect to push forward with this now, especially that in the first phase of US-led democratization, Islamist powers have been tested and their shortcomings are being exposed, at least in Iraq and the Palestinian territory.
One of the key questions that usually arise is whether Islam is compatible with democracy or if there’s an inherent obstacle that makes democracy impossible in Muslim societies.
It’s a good question, but it’s also irrelevant. Let’s consider the following questions:
Is Islam compatible with nationalism? Or better, could Islam ever be compatible with godless communism!? Recent history shows that religion did not prevent nationalism or communism from taking root in the region; there were times both ideologies took turns in becoming the prevailing trends.
What many people forget is that in the Middle East, religion is only one identity, among many others, that people adhere to or use to describe themselves. I mentioned the two other identities; communist ideology and nationalistic sentiments because both were at times so strong in the Middle East. So strong that in Iraq in the late 50s and 60s the bloody competition for power was exclusively between the communists and nationalists-one is non-religious and the other is anti-religious.
Given the above points, we believe it is very possible to make the Middle East accept and endorse secular democracy, especially that this is the best among all systems of governance.
The West excelled at manipulating the course of events in the Middle East and we in the Middle East have always gone with the flow. Virtually everyone on the Middle East switched sides more than once and elder people of our parents’ generation for example knows this first hand. Pick a man from that generation, look at his path and you’ll see that he or she was a staunch supporter of the kings in the 1940s, then became a Marxist in the 1950s, then a nationalist in the 1960s and 70s, only to become an Islamist in the 80s or 90s. Some, however, were on the other side and did this course the other way around because of socioeconomic factors, location or mere personal impulses. Anyway, the former path was dominant among a majority of people.
The feeling that things have gone out of control in the region should not discourage us. Western powers have always managed to shepherd the Middle East into positions that seemed to best serve their interests. Now if the West believes that a secular democratic Middle East is in everyone’s best interest, all it has to do is push for it the same way it did at any time in the 20th century. And when we get there all it will have to do is to not rock the boat.
By Mohammed and Omar Fadhil