Sunday, June 29, 2008

Where is the Middle East heading?

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

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Can the US and Iraq Have a Long-Term Relationship?

The debate over immediate security conditions is taking a back seat in Iraq now as the debate over long-term fixes, particularly the U.S.-Iraq agreement, takes the lead.

The national scope of this debate goes beyond the talk of politicians –who are trying to use their position on the agreement for electoral campaigning– and people’s talk in the streets to Friday prayer sermons. Interestingly, the issue has also attracted curiously broad attention from Arab and regional leaders and media. Most notably, in his first speech following a crisis that brought Lebanon to the brink of a new civil war and on a day no less than the anniversary of his “victory” in the south, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah dedicated a significant portion of his speech to the U.S.-Iraq agreement. In Iran, hard-line cleric Ahmed Khatami also denounced the proposed treaty in an earlier Friday sermon, warning Baghdad’s government that signing the agreement would be a betrayal of the Muslim world and particularly of the Shia faith. This frenzy with which Iran and allies scramble to preempt the agreement has a downside — their speeches embarrassed their allies in Iraq, making them appear as mere puppets.

It’s neither strange nor ironic that the pro-Iran extremists have made such a fuss about an agreement whose terms are yet to be fully made public — rumors and exaggerations of half-truths are enough to make the public in a place like the Middle East feel uneasy about any given issue. It’s enough for an aide of Sadr to tell fanatic followers that the treaty would grant the U.S. control over 99% of Iraq’s riches to make them take to the streets to denounce the agreement. This cleric didn’t need to find facts to back his argument: the crowd is easy to convince, thanks to widespread ignorance; sentimental rhetoric is more attractive to them than facts, numbers, and science.

Like I wrote a moment ago, some politicians have already begun using their positions from this agreement for electoral campaigning. Former PM Ibrahim Jaafari emerged with a new political alliance with supposed backing from Iran and Ayatollah Sistani. He showed his true colors too early when he made his main theme that the agreement is bad and our neighbors don’t like it. By “neighbors” I can only think of Iran and Syria, as I don’t see a reason for any other neighbor to be upset with the agreement.
I personally don’t have a full text of the agreement’s draft but I’ve always been a proponent of establishing a strategic alliance with the U.S.
For our government, I hope that accepting or rejecting it would be based on its impact on Iraq’s interests.

Will Iraqis accept the agreement? No one can tell at this point, and this is the difference between democracies and non-democracies. Had the question been posed in Iran or Syria, it would take one man’s word to offer an answer. I am pleased to see that our government is dealing pragmatically with the issue and is seeking the opinion of countries that have experience with long-term U.S. military presence. The government sent delegations to Germany, Japan, and South Korea to listen to what they, not the mullahs, have to say about it.

If not for the lack of information about this agreement, the clergy in Najaf wouldn’t have considered calling for a referendum on it. The ignorance of the public as to the content of the agreement makes it easy for a cleric to manipulate the outcome of such a referendum and still make it look as if it was the people who made the decision. All he needs to do is issue a fatwa that tells the simple, faithful citizen that his or her vote today could make the difference between hell and heaven. Such a disgusting exploitation of the trust of people who are just beginning to learn the alphabet of knowledge!
The political map when it comes to positions on the agreement looks something like this:

• For: Kurds, the Iraqi list of Ayad Allawi, and part of the Accord Front (Sunni)
• For, with reservations: the Islamic Party of VP Tariq Hashimi
• Undecided: SIIC of Abdul Aziz Hakim
• Against: Sadrists and Ibrahim Jaafari’s new group

As to PM Maliki and what’s left of the Da’wa Party (Jaafari took part of the party with him when he split), the man is being very careful here. He’s trying to make a choice between two sources of power, and it’s indeed a difficult one for a Shia Islamist. On the one hand he’s got the political achievements he made on his own as a statesman and his recent successes in terms of security and reconciliation; on the other there’s Shia unity and the blessings of the Najaf clergy.

The scale is very delicate and I think Maliki will wait for it to stop before he makes adjustments to his position. However, these adjustments are unlikely to move him far away from his current position and I see that ultimately the agreement will be signed, if with some modifications. Sorry, Tehran!

Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Mideast Won't Change From Within

The Middle East has witnessed dramatic changes over the past few years, including the adoption in some countries – Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories – of the democratic system as the means for the transfer of political power. Though all of these countries are still troubled, the huge turnouts in all three electoral processes were clear evidence of the willingness of their peoples to switch to ballots over bullets.

Unfortunately, some Arab intellectuals seem bent on rejecting democracy as a foreign – in particular, Western – concept. I recall before Saddam's fall that many were repeating a slogan that says "No America and No Saddam," which ostensibly aimed at touting a nationalistic project for change. Today the same slogans are reiterated; sometimes out of good will and naïveté, other times to support the totalitarians and the extremists. People keep saying that if both Iran and the U.S. had stayed out of our business we would have been able to solve our problems on our own.
In my opinion this fantasy about change in isolation from foreign influence is ridiculous...

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