Democracy is future of Middle East
By Ghassan Michel Rubeiz - The Arab American News | Friday, 04.18.2008, 01:34 PM

Not many people know about the appeal that Akbar Ganji and Abdel Karim Sourouj hold for millions of Iranians who are eager to see change in their political system. Not many know that Syrians call the human rights dissident Riad al Turk "their Nelson Mandela." It is not well known that the Moroccan Fatima Mernissi and the Lebanese Asma Maria Andraos represent a growing number of educated Arab women who are engaged in effective grass roots promotion of democracy. Few are aware that Khalil Shikaki is one of many Palestinian intellectuals who contribute to democracy building and dialogue with Israel.  To learn more about signs of hope through people's yearning for justice, human rights and freedom in the Middle East, read the latest book by Robin Wright, "Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East." 


This book is a treasure trove of interviews with people who have discovered self-fulfillment by challenging their autocratic regimes.  The author demonstrates that people in the Middle East are increasingly willing to take risks to challenge closed systems of governance.

 Wright reports on the political dynamics in seven countries: The Palestinian territories, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Morocco and "Iraq and the United States."

Wright believes that democracy has started to spread in the Middle East, albeit slowly. In her book, this highly respected Middle East correspondent  presents a theory about global, social change:  "The pattern of change globally communism's demise in Eastern Europe, the end of Latin America's military dictatorships, and apartheid's collapse in Africa has a common denominator: Change begins with breaking the monopoly of an autocratic leader, party, government or ideology. It can take decades. Once accomplished, it is still only the starting point."

Wright makes a compelling case for encouraging Muslims to develop their own version of democracy through successive stages of approximation.  She argues that Muslims will ultimately achieve a form of democracy that will be similar but not identical to the Western model of governance. But they must be allowed to evolve to this stage at their own pace, by integrating their own culture into new forms of governance and interpreting their own faith creatively.

There is original and bold thinking on the Palestine question. Despite their current anarchy and national disunity, Wright considers the HAMAS electoral victory in January 2006 to be a genuine breakthrough for democracy, not only for Palestinians, but for the entire region:  


"After half a century of dominating, Fatah's monopoly had ended. It was the first time an Arab electorate ousted autocratic leadership in free and fair elections a message that resonated throughout the region."

Egypt is rightfully depicted as the nexus of political change in the Arab world. The early twentieth century idea that Arab modernity has to come from Islam and not from the West was born and nurtured in Egypt. Islamic political organization has already spread to the rest of the Arab world through movements like HAMAS in Palestine, Hizbullah in Lebanon and the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria. Wright weaves the ideological connections among the diverse groups that constitute political Islam today. She makes the important point that not all Muslim groups are reform oriented or ready for the much-needed cooperation with secular groups to make nation building peaceful and viable.

Moderate Islamic movements are gaining influence.  Wright shows how certain moderate Muslim parties in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Turkey and elsewhere, have gained significant ground in the political landscape of the Middle East. These gains are likely to continue. There is no way to stop Islam from affecting the ways people shape the future of their politics. 


The author points out that the oppressive efforts to weaken Islamic opposition groups by authoritarian governments,  through jailing and torture and the West, through isolation, have only served to delay the impact of political Islam; ultimately, punitive measures against Islam, in fact, reinforce it.

The book makes it clear that in the Middle East religious values and norms will always be an ingredient in politics.  Nasser tried to ban the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in the fifties but the effect did not last.  Syria's suppressive efforts on Islamists in the early eighties were brutal but not lasting. The Algerian government's bloody response to the Islamic Salvation Front in the early nineties was counterproductive.  In Jordan, the electoral manipulations to limit the gains of the Muslim Brothers in the late eighties were later terminated.

In both the Palestinian territories and Iraq, Wright points to basic flaws in U.S. foreign policy. She believes that HAMAS cannot be eliminated from the peace process through intimidation and starvation. In Iraq she sheds light on rapidly changing Kurdish society and concludes that the U.S. occupation has actually delayed the growth of democracy in the region.

The author reveals that Islamic parties are slowly but surely opening up to secular ideas of nation building. In return, secular parties are approaching Islamic groups to jointly face the tyranny of existing regimes. The Justice and Development Party in Morocco illustrates the merging of the secular and the religious in nation building. In Egypt, the cooperation of the Muslim Brotherhood with reform oriented political groups is a sign of integration of religion in developmental politics.

The book's deepest analysis is in the two separate chapters on Palestinians and on Iran. Wright shows that Palestinians and the people of Iran are closer to democratic rule than their current political situation indicates.

In narrating the personal stories of sacrifice of civic and political leaders across the Middle East, a powerful message is conveyed: The region is ripe for political change and the people of the Middle East have already learned the effective tactics of non-violent, civil disobedience.

The book is missing a vital element.  Arab readers may wonder why the author discussed Palestine with minimal reference to Israel. It is true that Israel is not an autocracy, but its occupation in Palestine, Lebanon and Syria has a strong bearing on the development of ideology and democracy in the Arab world.

By Ghassan Michel Rubeiz - The Arab American News

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