Pluralism, progress and the shrinking U.S. role in the Mideast

The New York TimesJanuary 8, 2014 

Every day the headlines from the Arab world get worse: An al-Qaida affiliate group, aided by foreign fighters, battles with seven homegrown Syrian rebel groups for control of the region around Aleppo, Syria. The Iranian Embassy in Beirut is bombed. Mohamad Chatah, an enormously decent former Lebanese finance minister, is blown up after criticizing Hezbollah’s brutish tactics. Another pro-al-Qaida group takes control of Fallujah, in Iraq. Explosions rock Egypt, where the army is now jailing Islamists and secular activists. Libya is a mess of competing militias.

What’s going on? Some say it’s all because of the “power vacuum” – the United States has absented itself from the region. But this is not just about us. There’s also a huge “values vacuum.” The Middle East is a highly pluralistic region – Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, Christians, Druze and various tribes – that for centuries was held together from above by iron-fisted colonial powers, kings and dictators. But now that vertical control has broken down, before this pluralistic region has developed any true bottom-up pluralism – a broad ethic of tolerance – that might enable its people to live together as equal citizens, without an iron fist from above.

For the Arab awakening to have any future, the ideology that is most needed now is the one being promoted least: pluralism. Until that changes, argues Marwan Muasher, in his extremely relevant new book, “The Second Arab Awakening and the Battle for Pluralism,” none of the Arab uprisings will succeed.

Again, President Barack Obama could have done more to restrain leaders in Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran or Syria from going to extremes. But, ultimately, argues Muasher, this is the Arabs’ fight for their political future. If 500,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, and $1 trillion, could not implant lasting pluralism in the cultural soil there, no outsider can.


There also has to be a will from within. Why is it that some 15,000 Arabs and Muslims have flocked to Syria to fight and die for jihadism and zero have flocked to Syria to fight and die for pluralism? Is it only because we didn’t give the “good guys” big enough guns?

As Muasher, a former Jordanian foreign minister and now a vice president at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, put it in an interview: “Three years of the Arab uprising have shown the bankruptcy of all the old political forces in the Arab world.” The corrupt secular autocrats who failed to give their young people the tools to thrive – and, as a result, triggered these uprisings – are still locked in a struggle with Islamists, who also have no clue how to deliver jobs, services, security and economic growth. (Tunisia may be an exception.) “As long as we’re in this zero-sum game, the sum will be zero,” Muasher says.

No sustainable progress will be possible, Muasher argues, without the ethic of pluralism permeating all aspects of Arab society – pluralism of thought, pluralism in gender opportunities, pluralism in respect to other religions, pluralism in education, pluralism toward minorities, pluralism of political parties rotating in power and pluralism in the sense of everyone’s right to think differently from the collective.

The first Arab awakening in the 20th century was a fight for independence from colonial powers, Muasher says. It never continued as a fight for democracy and pluralism. That war of ideas, he insists, is what “the second Arab awakening” has to be about. Neither the autocrats nor the Islamists can deliver progress. “Pluralism is the operating system we need to solve all our problems, and as long as that operating system is not in place, we will not get there. This is an internal battle. Let’s stop hoping for delivery from the outside.” This will take time.

Naive? No. Naive is thinking that everything is about the absence or presence of U.S. power and that the people of the region have no agency. That’s wrong: Iraq is splintering because Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki behaved like a Shiite militiaman, not an Iraqi Mandela. Arab youths took their future in their own hands, motivated largely by pluralistic impulses. But the old order proved to be too stubborn, yet these youth aspirations have not gone away, and will not.

“As history has demonstrated overwhelmingly, where there is respect for diversity, there is prosperity,” Muasher writes. “Contrary to what Arab societies have been taught for decades by their governments to believe – that tolerance, acceptance of different points of view, and critical thinking are destructive to national unity and economic growth – experience proves that societies cannot keep renewing themselves and thereby thrive except through diversity.”

Muasher, who is returning to Jordan to participate in this struggle for diversity, dedicated his book to: “The youth of the Arab World - who revolted, not against their parents, but on their behalf.”

The New York Times

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