Jul 4, 2004 12:10 am


It was Kristoff's prescription in today's NYT suggesting that American policy makers watch Al Jazirah to learn about the Arab view of the world which led me to tell you about last night's dinner party. One of the most useful things the State Department does with our money is inviting up and coming people from various countries and shows them the US. I have responded to a request to invite to dinner some international guests passing through Philadelphia because they were from the Middle East, Moroccans. My guests were a medical doctor mother of three and a single professor. Both are active on behalf of women's rights.

As we were munching on Amish made Jewish Apple cake, I asked their opinion of Bush's push for democratic reform in the Arab world. They explained that the new king is leading the charge for reform in their country while he wisely keeps the lid no the Islamists. Bush should not push too hard because the Moroccan people are not ready for western type democracy.

"It is a different culture," an international lawyer friend noted.

"Not so," I undiplomatically retorted,"I know Moroccans. Moroccans constitute one of the largest groups of immigrants to Israel. My niece is married to one. We did not need to brainwash them before they begun participating in the county's democratic system. There is nothing inherently undemocratic about these people. One of them, David Levy, ended up as Israel's foreign minister."

"But you don't understand," the doctor retorted."65% of the Moroccan people are illiterate". (This morning we checked the number. Indeed, 62% of the Moroccan women though"only" about 39% or the men are illiterate).

"That's a scandal," I said."In this day and age. That's unforgivable."

The doctor explained that the 29 year old conflict in Western Sahara (another little dirty war in which the media has little interest) has been siphoning off much of the county's resources. She was also happy to report that the government has recently passed a compulsory education bill.

I could not believe my ears. Recently?!

The doctor looked at me and said,"Of course, the old kings wanted the people to stay ignorant." I nodded.

I have constantly been baffled by the visceral fear the Arab elite exhibits towards the idea that their people be given any real political power. Now I finally got it. The rulers used the old divide and conquer method. They told the elites: "After me, those illiterate mobs!" Of course, for the strategy to work, the people had to be kept illiterate or at least functionally illiterate (able to recite the Koran and nothing but the Koran). They said that the new king has begun a crash literacy program. Maybe, just maybe, he is the hope of the country.

For years, our Moroccan friend made sure that the Moroccan embassy in London does not know the time and location of the academic conferences he organized. After initially expressing her disdain of such exiles, the doctor admitted that she used to be a student activists but stopped when it became too dangerous. The reformism of the new king has enabled her to renew her activism. Earlier in the Afternoon we visited in Haddonfield. Upon hearing of our guests' interest in women's rights, Bob, the volunteer guide at the colonial Indian Tavern sought to impress them by telling them the story of the famed Quaker preacher, Mary Dyer, whom the Puritans hanged for refusing either to stop preaching or to leave town."Why was she so stubborn?" asked the professor wanted to know.

The professor is no radical and her take on democracy is different. She emphasizes the need for remaking the Moroccan culture because they already have formal democracy with a multiparty elections for parliament.

"But the Parliament has no real power", I protested.

"Well, it functions within the limits of the constitution which reserves for the king the real power," she answered.

"If you want to change matters [which I do not think wise) than you need to change the constitution."

Indeed, there is a movement afoot to do so and the advocates of such a change are no longer thrown in jail but have their articles printed in the papers. In other words, Arabs often dismiss talk about democracy because they have been living for so long with its meaningless forms. They do not trust elections because they only experienced them as shams. Their parliaments have the similar powers to those of the European parliament. Hence, the populace uses its vote not to elect a government but to send the real powers that be a message! The harsher the message they wish to send, the more extremist the party for which they vote. That is also the reason they vote for Islamists.

Arab tyrants are far from stupid. Not only have they succeeded in thoroughly intimidating their elites but have also emptied all the democratic forms of their real meaning. To make the Middle East safe for democracy, we must understand their modus operandi and continue to trust the people. Literate or not, they are wiser than the Arab elite gives them credit. The Professor, who, by the way, supports Morocco's claim to Western Sahara, puts her trust in changing the global system of patriarchy. I do not think Moroccans can or should wait that long.

We rarely realize that the most amazing feature of our founding fathers was their willingness to tie their fate to those of the (then often illiterate) American people.

Happy Fourth of July to one and all.

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