Dec 27, 2003 1:43 am


I'm now working on a book about liberal Arabs, meaning those who struggle for democracy, human rights, and moderating reforms in the Arab world. When I tell people this the usual response is that it must be a short book.

Actually, there is a lot of material. What is astonishing, though, is how few people are represented, both among these advocates and the number of those supporting them. It is startling--but typical of Middle East studies--that in an era when the U.S. government has made supporting democracy in the Middle East its main priority and key theme in the Iraq war, there has been no comprehensive survey or assessment of this faction.

Equally startling is how weak the liberal forces remain. There is no great liberal theorist or reform advocate who galvanizes people in the Arab world, no major original book which provides a manifesto for moderation, and no powerful political party or movement pushing for democratic change. Outside of Kuwait, there is arguably no organized liberal grouping at all. Though some Western observers--motivated both by wishful thinking and beliefs that a moderate triumph is inevitable--magnify each individual action, there just isn't that much to talk about.

This reality does not detract from the heroism of reform advocates. On the contrary, it makes their courage even more impressive because the odds against them are so stupendous. Yet it seems more realistic to call the liberals an endangered species rather than an ever-growing wave of the future.

Indeed, I would suggest that contrary to what many people are saying the following remarkable fact is true:

Middle East has been more effective at exporting authoritarian and extremist thought to the West than the West has been in exporting democratic thinking to the Middle East.

Look, for example, at the global wave of anti-Semitism; the wacky views of the region held by so many in Europe and America; the intellectuals who apologize for terrorism; media coverage which becomes increasingly bizarre; radical Islamist activities in Europe; and the way that Middle East studies are taught in university classrooms.

Who is having more impact on whom?

But back to liberal Arab intellectuals. I don't want to list here all the Arab world's political, economic, and social disasters of the Arab world in the last half-century. One should not have to be a genius to see how the existing systems and dominant ideologies--both radical Arab nationalism and revolutionary Islamism--have failed. Equally, the region's poor performance of the region compared to others and its falling behind in almost every index for measuring progress have been amply documented.

And what is the alternative response? A few hundred, at most, Arab intellectuals writing columns and op ed pieces with devastating critiques of these problems and a much larger degree of private muttering about how rotten the situation is for the Arabs today. Yet this compares to powerful regimes with giant armies and massive Islamist movements with many tens of thousands of followers.

Why is this so? Some of the reasons are apparent: for example, the strength of repression and relative lack of democratic experience in the Arab world (though a half-century ago there were many elected parliaments there). Nationalism and religion were often forces pressing for democracy in the West while in the Middle East they are aligned against it.

But if you want to know the secret of why this situation persists it is due to the real WMD (Weapon of Mass Deception) in the Middle East: xenophobic demagoguery. That's a fancy phrase meaning teaching people that everything is the foreigners' fault. It is the systematically exploited hatred of the West in general and of Israel and the United States in particular that is the most effective tool of the Arab regimes and their Islamist opponents.

The problem is not that the Arab-Israeli conflict should be solved (though that would be a wonderful thing) but that those in power--and that goes for the Palestinian leadership as well--will not let it be resolved. Such an outcome would be too politically dangerous for them.

As for the liberal Arab critique of all this, it is as fascinating to read as it is frustrating to write. As the liberal columnist Ridha Hilal put it in March 2001,"The calls for democracy and economic prosperity disappeared in favor of the slogan: 'No voice should rise above the voice of battle,' a slogan that returns to our life as if we are forever doomed to wallow in the mud of violence, dictatorship and poverty." (Translation by MEMRI)

Or to sum it up even more dramatically, there is a popular song written by an Egyptian entitled,"Better Saddam's Hell than America's Paradise." Nationalism and religion trumps democracy and higher living standards. And even in Iraq, where the dictator is overthrown, the old mental and structural system does not disappear so easily or quickly.

Although I do talk periodically about how regional problems, including the Israel-Palestinian conflict, can be solved, readers frequently ask what politicians should do based on the assessments I give in this column. Answering those questions has a place. But the most important point to make repeatedly is this: a lot more harm has been done in the last quarter-century by leaders thinking these issues were too easy rather than too hard to resolve.

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Jonathan Dresner - 12/28/2003

I wonder if these estimates of the supposed weakness of Arab liberalism include some consideration of the Arabs who have lived for decades in the liberal democracy of Israel, who have voted, served in parliament and at lower levels of government, even been minority members of ruling coalitions. I could certainly understand if Israeli Arabs didn't want to serve as "ambassadors of democracy" to the rest of the Arab world, but it seems odd to exclude them from consideration when they could be a force for growth and change.