Middle East really doesn’t need any more bad news.
it’s official. The region now has its own disease: a dangerous virus called
MERS, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome – perhaps related to the SARS virus, but
sad news started me thinking (again) about the sad state of the region. There
are some bright spots – or at least some spots that are not as dark. Tunisia
seems to be making a relatively stable transition without paralytic violence
and incompetent governance. And there’s a younger generation of Arabs and
Muslims who seem bent on freeing themselves from the old ways, demanding not
only personal freedom but dignity, too. I’m reminded of Howard Beale’s famous
rant in Network: They’re mad as hell,
and they’re not going to take it anymore.
much of the region looks bad: violence in Iraq; civil war in Syria and violent
spillover into Lebanon; growing popular despair in Egypt; repression in
Bahrain; lack of central authority in Libya; and an impasse in the
Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Even in Turkey, the wonder state, things
have become unhinged.
going on here? Why, when much of the world seems to be moving forward, is the
Middle East being left behind? And why has its big transformative moment – the
Arab Awakening – seemingly been lost amid a jumble of violence, sectarianism,
and incompetence? There may be many reasons for this sorry state of affairs.
But here are my top five.
status of women – what they can and cannot do – in theory and in practice
varies widely in the region. But there’s far too much inequality and
discrimination. Countries that systematically discriminate against half their
population, intentionally or otherwise and for whatever reason (culture,
religion, tradition, inertia) try to hold women back, keep them down, or just
plain ignore them aren't going to be as moral, productive, creative, or
competitive as those that empower women – whether in the Middle East or
anywhere else. And their futures won't be nearly as bright. Period.
No Separation of Religion and State
it’s politically incorrect to point out, but show me one truly healthy and
successful society run according to divinely mandated religious rules based on
the idea that its god is better than any other – or where extremist religious
groups intimidate and wage war against fellow citizens, sometimes using terror
and violence. I thought Turkey might be an exception. But Prime Minister
Erdogan’s recent my-way-or-the-highway behavior makes me wonder.
societies that have proven the most durable and successful over time (all of
which are outside the Arab world) are those where the realms of god and
man/woman remain separate, where institutions are inclusive, and where freedom
of religion, but perhaps even more important freedom of conscience, prevails.
Indeed, freedom of expression is a critically important element in realizing
human potential, inventiveness, and creativity. And it must be respected and
safeguarded by the state, not restricted by it. Go into Times Square and,
unless you’re threatening public order, you can say just about anything you’d
like about Judaism, Christianity, or Islam without fear of arrest or worse. Don’t
try that in Tahrir Square.
Too Much Conspiracy
many people in the Middle East refuse to look in the mirror. They’d rather come
up with excuses and justifications as to why others, particularly forces
outside their neighborhood, are responsible for their misfortunes. I know all
about colonialism, Zionism, imperialism, communism, secularism, Islamism, and
every other -ism that’s been marshaled to show why outsiders and not locals
deserve the blame for what goes on in the Arab world.
get real. At some point, as every person knows, there’s an expiration date for
blaming your parents for the way you turned out. And in the case of the Arab
world, the warranty on coverage for blaming the Mossad, the CIA, America, the
Jews, or Bozo the Clown for the absence of democracy, the lack of respect for
human rights, and gender inequality has long expired.
sure, outsiders still influence the Middle East in very negative ways. But that’s
no excuse for believing its people can’t shape their own destiny. After all,
that is what the Arab Awakening was supposed to be about. And wouldn’t you know
it: the Arab Awakening got hijacked not by Western bogeymen, but by forces
within Arab society itself, including Muslim fundamentalists, secular and
liberal elements that couldn’t organize effectively, and remnants of the old
regimes who hung on to power after the dictators were gone.
it comes as a shocker, but the Middle East really isn’t the center of the world
any more. Today, Asia, Europe, America, and even Africa are where free market
economies, pluralism, and human enterprise are innovating, inventing,
producing, and creating stuff – leaving the Middle East in the rear-view
mirror. Read any of the U.N. Human Development Reports, which chronicle the sad
tale. But too many Middle Easterners still think they're at the epicenter of it
all – or somehow deserve to be.
Arabs and too many Israelis still believe that the world sits on the edge of
its collective seat 24/7 wondering what's going to happen next in their region
and devising new ways to rescue them. I’m really tired of Israeli peaceniks
hammering the United States for not rescuing the peace process and of Arabs
waiting for us to punish Israel, which too many ridiculously dismiss as either
America’s master or its unruly child. Meanwhile, talk to any Lebanese and you’d
think what happens in Beirut is on the minds of U.S. policymakers from morning
till night. And, despite America’s loss and lack of credibility, there’s still
this misplaced hope that the United States will save Syria.
a news flash: the cavalry isn’t coming. Maybe if this sinks in, the locals will
do more for themselves. But I doubt it.
really isn’t any. It’s ironic – particularly against the backdrop of the Arab
Awakening’s democratic impulses – that the most durable leaders have turned out
to be the authoritarian monarchs. The King Abdullahs (Jordan and Saudi Arabia)
look like statesmen compared to Egypt’s Mohamed Morsy or Iraq’s Nouri
even here there’s a problem. Middle Eastern leaders have become masters at
acquiring power, but they're not all that interested in sharing it. Marry that
to the absence of legitimate and inclusive institutions – and to politicians
more interested in furthering the interests of their tribe, family, or
religious sect than the nation as a whole – and the future of good, accountable
governance in the Arab world doesn’t look all that bright.
still a mystery. But I'm pretty confident the epidemiologists will eventually
figure it out. And I know we must give this region a couple more generations to
sort things out. Still, I'm not nearly as confident they will, even though what
ails this region is an open, if inconvenient, truth.