Cracks in the Middle East
|Saturday, June 20,2009 05:59|
What"s most exciting about the Iranian uprising is that the dissenters appear to represent forces of moderation and liberalism. Historically in the Muslim world, the political opposition, such as any existed, has never been much better than the ruling regimes. Egypt"s Hosni Mubarak is president-for-life, a prototypical Arab strongman, but he"s still more attractive than the Muslim Brotherhood who long to replace him. The Saudi royal family are a mafia, but better them in charge than al-Qaeda.
The opposition now emerging in Iran, however, is more promising. It would be naïve to believe that these reformists are Jeffersonian democrats, but they do appear to have a more progressive and westernized orientation than currently exists anywhere in the Middle East outside of Israel and Lebanon.
The Muslim Middle East has for generations suffered ossification -- politically, intellectually, culturally. One has to wonder whether we are now seeing the appearance of small cracks. Again, it would be naïve to conclude that the Muslim world is on the verge of transformation. But neither should we ignore certain signs that ought to make us feel, if not hopeful, perhaps less despondent about the region.
One of these signs happened a few weeks ago. It was a remarkable interview between a Saudi newspaper and one of the country"s senior intellectuals, Ibrahim al-Buleihi -- remarkable because al-Buleihi called on his fellow Arabs to recognize the value of western culture.
"The light of (western) civilization is very bright and only a blind person can be oblivious to its brightness," he said. He went on to credit the West with open-heart surgery, airplanes and telephones. "This is a civilization that deserves admiration. The horrible backwardness in which some nations live is the inevitable result of their refusal to accept this ... while taking refuge in denial and arrogance."
Granted, al-Buleihi already had a reputation as a maverick, but the appearance of his comments in a daily Arabic newspaper, and the wide circulation they have since received, suggest that there just might be some space opening up for this kind of dialogue. The absence of self-criticism has hobbled Islamic societies, and more and more Muslims know it.
Another encouraging sign, this time in Iraq: Last weekend, that country held its first formal state funeral since the ousting of Saddam Hussein. Iraq is a Shia
majority country but the funeral was for a Sunni leader. This was a powerful gesture of pluralism in a region racked by sectarian and fratricidal violence.
The dead Sunni leader was Harith al-Ubaidi, an important member of the Iraqi Parliament. Iraq remains a dysfunctional and dangerous place, and indeed al-Ubaidi died violently. He was assassinated at his mosque, a killing that appears to have been orchestrated by militants who opposed his efforts to promote reconciliation and human rights.
The murder itself was a terrible thing, but the response to it may prove to be the truly significant event. Iraqi leaders from across the religious and political spectrum have expressed their anger. An honour-guard carried al-Ubaidi"s body. It wasn"t so long ago in Iraq that few Shias would mourn the death of a Sunni, and vice versa. Yet at the funeral, Shia leaders called on all Iraqis to stand united against terrorists like the ones who killed al-Ubaidi.
The willingness of Muslim leaders to challenge the orthodoxies around them encourages ordinary citizens to do the same. And when ordinary people -- students, workers, intellectuals -- start organizing themselves into a real movement, they create more space for dissenting leaders to speak out.
The uprising in Iran, for example, has shown that the country"s religious leadership is perhaps not so unified after all. The Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri has come out and sided with the protesters, denouncing his own government for fixing the election and persecuting opponents.
"A legitimate state must respect all points of view," Montazeri said in a statement. "It may not oppress all critical views."
Students of the Middle East know that projecting high expectations onto the region is a bad idea. Its history is one of missed opportunities and dashed hopes.
But even if current events end up as just another instance of one step forward and two back, we can at least enjoy the step forward before turning around again.