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"An extremely important book. The Long War for Freedom finally presents to the Western world an in-depth portrait of those 'small voices' in the Arab world waging the most critical battle of the twenty-first century—the battle for the soul of the Middle East. No one with any interest in the struggle for economic and political reform in the Arab world can afford to neglect this penetrating and provocative work, which lays bare both the importance and the great difficulty of ...
"An extremely important book. The Long War for Freedom finally presents to the Western world an in-depth portrait of those 'small voices' in the Arab world waging the most critical battle of the twenty-first century—the battle for the soul of the Middle East. No one with any interest in the struggle for economic and political reform in the Arab world can afford to neglect this penetrating and provocative work, which lays bare both the importance and the great difficulty of helping the Arab world to transform itself."
—Kenneth Pollack, author of The Threatening Storm and The Persian Puzzle
* * *
There is a battle raging within the Arab world whose outcome is of the utmost importance for the entire globe. This struggle between the forces of democracy and authoritarianism, modernity and stagnation, is not so different in kind from the titanic conflicts that have shaped the lives of many other lands. But the specific Middle Eastern version of such events is also quite distinct from what happened elsewhere.
What is going on in the Middle East today is part of the great, centuries-long transition wrought by secularism, industrialization, democratization, urbanization, globalization, and all the other historic changes that have shaped the modern world everywhere on the planet. Indeed, the struggle over the Middle East may be the last of these great battles over alternative futures. Within each country, the issue has been what kind of society and polity would prevail there. On every continent, the regional question to be resolved was whether a single country, leader, or ideology could dominate that vast landmass or even, using it as a base, the entire world.
For example, Europe's political, social, and ideological throes during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries gave rise to international tidal waves that carried violence to every corner of the planet. Three world wars, including the Cold War, as well as fascism and communism, arose in the strife of that great debate over how people should and would live their lives.
Compared to Europe's upheavals, such catastrophic events as September 11 and the three wars emanating from Iraq are mere ripples. But the great battle over what system and worldview will dominate the Middle East is happening now, and this struggle will probably be our era's central drama.
In the long term, the outcome may be inevitable for the Middle East, ending with the triumph of the same basic positive trends that prevailed in Europe and elsewhere. Getting there, however, is what history is about. How many decades this will take and how many thousands of people will die in the process still hang in the balance.
At present, though, Arab liberalism, purported to be the inevitable victor, remains enormously weak. Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian novelist who started the Tharwa Project, one of the main Internet sites for reformers, said the movement is caught between powerful regimes that hold tightly on to power and religious extremists who are increasingly popular. He said, "Arab liberals are indeed under siege, and that's putting it mildly. [They are] fighting to retain the last foothold that liberal values still have in the Arab world."
One Arab liberal admits, "Are we a small minority? Certainly, for now. Still, this movement is not a movement of a few liberal professors living and preaching in the United States and Europe. It certainly has a 'popular' and 'militant' aspect which was missing in earlier movements." Be that as it may, while they are becoming increasingly more active, there is still not a single liberal leader or movement anywhere in the Arab world able to mobilize large groups of people. Perhaps a "silent majority" of Arabs and Muslims do want democracy and modern society in the Western sense of those words, but it is also possible that such people are really only a "silent minority."
The liberals' agenda has found its strongest voice at a number of conferences that have produced ringing manifestos for reform. For example, a 2004 meeting in Cairo organized by the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies brought together one hundred participants from fifteen Arab states. In such venues liberals can speak their minds fully. The meeting's final communiqué declared that Western initiatives "can be the basis for a partnership." While many Arab people "doubt the true intentions and seriousness of the international initiatives for reforms," they also "realize their governments reject reforms." The Kuwaiti columnist Ahmed al-Rubei told the conference, "Reform is not a vice, it is a virtue. Without reforms, this area will explode and will blow up the whole world with it."
In contrast, though, the liberals' nationalist and Islamist rivals control armies of followers and usually shape events in the region. Even if the success of these competing movements can be attributed to repression or manipulative propaganda, they are nonetheless very powerful forces not easily defeated. Decades of thought and education are required to make a liberal, while a few already familiar, widely espoused slogans-accepted by many as legitimate and authentic-suffice to produce followers for their enemies. Such attitudes seem entrenched among the younger generation, more of whom appear to be committed to an extreme Islamist view of the world than were their elders. Even a university education produces more Islamists than liberals.
What makes this situation so hard to accept is the combination of Western expectations and hopes to the contrary among the most articulate, courageous voices in the Middle East. Yet there is a big gap between believing liberal democracy to be a better system and feeling certain of its ultimate triumph.
The really engaging question, then, is why has it been so hard to gain popular support for reform and moderation? A common claim by Arab liberals is that the masses really-but secretly-do support them. "Our numbers are small," said the Egyptian liberal Saad Eddin Ibrahim, "not so much for lack of fellow citizens yearning for liberal governance, but out of fear of publicly expressing those yearnings." Opinion polls only partly bear out this view, and the problem deterring support is far more than just fear alone but also the persuasiveness of competing ideologies and the material or spiritual rewards they can offer their adherents.
One of the apparently strongest liberal arguments is to get people to focus on the seemingly undeniable failure of Arab systems, regimes, and ideologies to solve problems or make progress. This point is well expressed by Rami Khouri, an Arab journalist and columnist who grew up in the United States, who noted that the list of issues confronted by Arabs today is identical to those faced by their grandparents a century ago and are now being passed on to still another generation. The list includes:
The quality of our sovereignty; the nature of our governance systems; the well-being of our economies; the provision and protection of the Arab individual's basic human rights; our relations with Western powers; the balance between religiosity and secularism; the nature of Arab citizenship; the role and rights of women; coexistence or confrontation between Arabism and Zionism; the balance between the identity of the modern Arab state and older indigenous identities such as religion, tribalism, family, ethnicity, monarchy, and regionalism; the role of civil society in the face of state power; the individual and collective right to bear arms; and the role of the military and security services in society."
Ibrahim put the onus for this inability to solve problems on the Arab regimes that retained power by mixing a doctrine of populism, national liberation, socialist economics, cultural authenticity, and repression. The possibility of democracy was postponed to a distant future when total victory could be attained on all other fronts. Over time, though, it became clear that this Arab nationalist system failed domestically and brought repeated warfare in the region. To make matters worse, the resulting desperate situation made people believe that only radical Islamist movements could provide a better alternative.
Of course, it is easily forgotten how tiny and apparently weak at times have been the forces of progress, moderation, and reason during the past in every other corner of the world. Yet it is equally true that in the Arab world the reactionary forces maintaining the status quo are markedly powerful and persuasive. They have clear ideas and programs that may not work, but they have been sufficient to provide the bread and circuses needed to persuade and soothe the masses.
Consequently, while it might seem obvious to many in the West and to Arab liberals that the problems of Arab societies require a new type of solution, the existing system offers its own justifications for why little or nothing should be changed. First, it downplays or denies that these social, economic, and political problems exist. Second, it attributes them to external interference by imperialism and Zionism. The Arabs have not made mistakes, argue Arab nationalists; they have merely been defeated by evil forces. If real Arab unity and militancy were to come into being, all the ruling mechanisms and ideas would work very well. To give up on these ideas and goals would be nothing less than surrender, inducing a state of permanent slavery.
The Islamist view is merely a variation on this theme. The cause of failure, it argues, is external interference and the mistake of not adopting Islam as the main ideology and organizing principle for government and society. If only this were to be done, the foreigner would be quickly defeated and all internal problems solved.
Those opposed to reform also effectively use many of the tools that at other times and places were wielded by reformers. For example, nationalism and religion have often served the cause of progressive change elsewhere, but in the Middle East they have been monopolized by the armies of the status quo. Similarly, prodemocratic forces in the West invented the idea of mobilizing the masses, a strategy now used most effectively by Arab nationalists and Islamists. Religious revivals and sects identified with grassroots or ethnic groups in other regions have often advocated freedom against autocratic regimes, a tactic now most often wielded by extremists in the Arab world.
In the Middle East, generally, the antidemocratic side has shaped the ideals of nationalism and religious devotion to its own purposes. Nationalism is identified with radical Arab nationalists, while national liberation from Western imperialism has been that group's calling card. These weapons are pointed not, as in other places, at a reactionary monarchy or authoritarian dictatorship but are used by those very systems against the democratic West and Israel. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Usama bin Laden took this rhetoric, put it into a modern Islamist framework, and proclaimed their movements as the Muslims' national liberation struggle. In this context, the liberals are portrayed as reactionary traitors who want to hold their countries back and enslave them to imperialists.
Both the nationalist and Islamist schools of thought have far more followers and a much deeper influence on the Arab world than do their liberal competitors, who often seem a virtual footnote in the ongoing Middle East discourse. Still, whether the liberal impulse in the Arab world is the wave of the future or a fragile endangered species, many aspects of this worldview reveal a great deal about the contemporary Middle East. And if liberalism is going to be the Middle East's wave of the future, it is all the more important to understand the thinkers and ideas shaping its infancy, the barriers to their progress, and the issues at stake.
* * *
While the roots of failure for liberalism and the interlinked stagnation of the Arab world have by no means been based on inevitable or immutable processes, they are the product of a clear historical progression. Within living memory, from the 1920s and until the 1950s, the Arab world's future seemed open. The main challenge it faced was how to become independent, successful, and strong. In debates over the best solution, the liberal democratic perspective seemed to have an advantage. This was, after all, the route taken by the West, and many Arab intellectuals of the day would have agreed with the dictum of their Turkish counterpart, Kemal Ataturk: "There is only one civilization, Western civilization."
Although on the religious front the situation seemed grimmer for liberal ideas, it was by no means hopeless. Aside from the secularists, there were many others who wanted to revive the old liberal strain of Islam from the Middle Ages. Centuries earlier there had been great Muslim philosophers and scientists but-unlike in the West-the reactionaries had won the battle to direct society. There had been no Reformation or Renaissance in the Arab world and, perhaps as a result, no rise of the modern nation-state, no scientific revolution, and limited industrialization.
On the ideological front, the medieval moderates had been defeated by hard-line religious thinkers who demanded a conservative reading of Islam. In the eleventh century, Ibn Salah al-din al-Shahrouzi issued a fatwa banning the study of logic as a "heresy delivering man into Satan's bosom." The advocates of such ideas favored the narrowest possible reading of Muslim texts, as opposed to thinkers who tried to analyze them using the tools of comparison and logic. The former, victorious, school preached, in the words of the Egyptian liberal thinker Tarek Heggy, "a dogmatic adherence to the letter rather than the spirit of religion [which slammed] the doors shut in the face of rationality." The rulers of the day preferred the conservative approach, which stamped down on dissent and defended the status quo against liberals who raised subversive questions.
Consequently, the gates of ijtihad-allowing qualified scholars to debate the reinterpretation of religious texts to fit new times and situations-were closed. Creative thinking or critical inquiry regarding the meaning of the Qur'an and later religious texts was forbidden. Only rulings already made and narrowly adhered to would be acceptable.
The greatest irony is that it was Europeans who heeded the rationalist Islamic scholars of the Middle Ages in their revival of classical Greek thought. Thus, these Muslim scholars helped pave the way for Europe's great cultural and scientific progress while being forgotten by their own people. In the West, rationalists defeated dogmatists. The backward Middle Ages had given way to the Renaissance and the Reformation. Had the same side won in Europe as in the Middle East, Heggy noted, Europe today would be at a far lower stage of development and enlightenment.
There was another chance for change beginning in the nineteenth century, however, as the political and social weakness of the Arab and Muslim worlds could no longer be hidden or ignored. European development was accelerating and, in the form of imperialism, gaining power over the Middle East. Many Arabs thought that this cultural, intellectual, and technological gap could be bridged only by copying some of the features that had made European superiority possible.
In 1799 Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt with his army and an entourage of scientists and philosophers, heirs of the French Revolution. He easily defeated the rulers at the Battle of the Pyramids. Modernity in all its multiple forms, from military organization and technology to scientific inquiry, had come to the unavoidable notice of the Egyptians.
When the Egyptian military officer Muhammad Ali seized power and founded a new dynasty there in 1805, it was taken for granted that he would seek to imitate the Western model as a matter of both survival and progress. If Egyptians were being challenged to transform their society and jettison old ideas, this was no more than was being demanded of their counterparts all over the world and in Europe as well. Moreover, the definition of modernity was still in flux. It was a work in progress, and Egyptians could participate in the great enterprise, getting in close to the ground floor, so to speak.
And so Muhammad Ali called on European technicians and thinkers to help bring his people the benefits of modern civilization. Egyptians were sent to Europe to study and bring back these ideas and innovations. A small but influential Egyptian Westernized elite set about the task of transformation. Other Arabs paid attention. If Egypt could imitate the West, so could they. Clothes and music, the study of languages and modes of thought-all were seen as part of a package whose benefits would far exceed their cost.
Excerpted from The Long War for Freedom by Barry Rubin Excerpted by permission.
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1. Heartbreak and Hope.
2. “Better Saddam’s Hell Than America’s Paradise”.
3. The Courage of Their Convictions.
4. What’s Wrong with Arab Society?
5. Whose Islam?
6. America: Satan or Savior?
7. Israel: The Great Excuse.
8. The Challenge of Terrorism.
9. The Iraq War: Aggression or Liberation?
10. Women’s Rights: A Test Case for Reform
11. A Thousand and One Difficulties.