Experiments with Empowerment

David A. Pendleton January/February 2015

For those intrigued by the advance of freedom, even and perhaps especially the advance of religious liberty in the Middle East, Robin Wright’s Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East is a major contender for your nightstand. It juxtaposes sweeping historical accounts of political, social, and religious developments with insightful biographical portraits, producing a mosaic of the Middle East en route to its future.

“This is a book about disparate experiments with empowerment in the world’s most troubled region,” Wright explains. While she makes no claims to being comprehensive, she rather scrupulously explores and elucidates, country by Middle Eastern country, “the emerging ideas and players that are changing the political environment in ways that will unfold for decades to come.”

Told as only one who had lived there for decades could, it is a story of faith and frustration, dreams and nightmares, liberty and love. Wright underscores the momentous struggle for peace in the Middle East and its quest for ever-elusive political and religious freedoms. The people of the Middle East increasingly understand that the right to believe requires the freedom to vote—and that the vitality of faith depends upon freedom from government coercion in matters of faith.

Democracy is making incremental progress in the Middle East, but it has never been an easy achievement anywhere in the world. It took a war to free the American colonies from King George III. There is no reason to expect democracy (or, more accurately, self-determination) to have an easier road ahead in the Middle East. “In a region rife with vulnerable minorities and shifting demographics, opening up politics endangers deepening the problems it is meant to solve,” warns Wright. At least there has arisen a “rich new discourse on democracy and how to adapt it to their own cultures.”

The stark contrast between the West and the Middle East often blinds us to the considerable diversity in the Middle East. For the “Middle East is not really one place,” opines Wright of this often misunderstood corner of the globe. “The region today is arguably more stereotyped than any other part of the world. But the peoples, histories, religions, political systems, and economies actually differ widely among countries, even within them.” Standing astride two continents, it is perhaps more varied than any other religio-cultural assemblage of peoples in the world.

“The Middle East includes the tribal societies of the Arabian Peninsula, from where Islam and the Arabs originated. It includes the cosmopolitan cities of new Beirut and old Damascus. It includes Palestinians who have lived more than a half century in squalid refugee camps. . . . It includes the desert-dwelling Berbers and Bedouin nomads who roam with their camel-hair tents across the Sahara, the Sinai, and the vast expanses of Arabia. And it includes the Kurds, who are the world’s largest minority without a state.”

These facts incline one against one-size-fits-all solutions for the Middle East. What actions the West takes to support democracy may be perceived quite differently by Shiite and Sunni—and will be received in yet another way by sophisticated urbanites in Istanbul or simple villagers in rural Afghanistan.

Wright reminds the reader that the Middle East is also a place of disparate economic circumstances. “Economically, the peoples of the Middle East also have vastly different resources as tools for a transition. The region includes the earth’s richest nations, like glitzy Qatar, the tiny thumb off Saudi Arabia’s eastern coast that sits atop the world’s largest field of natural gas and has a per capita income of $38,000,” she writes. “On the other extreme is exotic but densely populated Yemen on Saudi Arabia’s southern border, where the per capita income is a mere $500.”

Given the recent upsurge in Somali piracy, one might speculate about a connection between poverty and lawlessness. Are affluent countries more secular and, therefore, less susceptible to religious extremism? To suppose material want is the virus leading to violence, or to infer a direct causal relationship between poverty and terrorism, however, requires ignoring the affluence of the individual Saudi Arabian hijackers on that fateful morning of September 11, 2001.

Not surprisingly, there are those in the Middle East who blame the Jews for adding to the volatile ethnic/religious mix. It is not just the State of Israel (ironically the youngest nation in the area but the oldest stable democracy there) that draws fire from radical Islam. Jewish communities anywhere can find themselves the target of criticism. Wright uncovers the little-known fact that the “largest Jewish population in the Middle East outside of Israel is also in Iran, which still has kosher butchers, Jewish schools, synagogues, and a first-rate hospital favored by many of the ayatollahs.” Furthermore, “Iran’s parliament has five especially reserved (and proportionate) seats for Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians.” Formal acceptance and quasi accommodation of Jews amidst the milieu of an Islamic culture is an ever-present source of inspiration and tension.

Because this conflict traces back to Isaac and Ishmael (or at least the standard etymological narrative employs that story to explain the ancient feud between long co-located Semitic peoples), it would be unrealistic to demand that a new American Administration solve the Arab-Israeli problem before the next American elections. The old proverb that “time heals all wounds” (however truthful in the long term) has never proven to operate swiftly. “Indeed, whatever the rhetoric, the greatest tension in the region may not be between Arabs and Israelis,” warns Wright. It is between Shiite and Sunni; Hamas, Fatah and Hezbollah; and the Islamic theocratic state versus secular Arab state.

The book’s title—Dreams and Shadows—springs from a quotation of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founding father of modern Turkey, successor to the Ottoman Empire. “Neither sentiment nor illusion must influence our policy. Away with dreams and shadows!” Ataturk declaimed. “They have cost us dear in the past.”

This book predicts not an imminent peace. The vision of a Middle East that overnight embraces American-style democracy is but a mirage. Wright is as versed in realpolitik as any other journalist. With heartfelt disappointment she reports the increasing dismay on the part of Iraqis and Afghans regarding the protracted U.S. presence in the Middle East and the on-again-off-again violence of the self-styled resistance. While the frequency of suicide bombings is subject to ups and downs, the region’s sentiment toward Americans has been one of steadily decreasing affection since the initial liberation of peoples from the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. To say that America’s popularity is not what it once was is to put it mildly.

What the present American administration can accomplish in the Middle East in its remaining months turns in part on the actions of others. The president’s supporters—whether in the media or Main Street U.S.A.—seem to have few doubts about what his diplomatic efforts can yield. Though her book was written before President Obama won his election, one cannot help wondering whether any American administration can achieve what no past American administration has been able heretofore to achieve.

Democracy doesn’t necessarily follow a straight path to the rule of law and civil order as a nation state. The rise through democratic processes of Hamas in Palestine and of Fatah in Gaza illustrates the “conundrum in the Middle East . . . that free and fair elections may not initially produce a respectable democracy. After decades of autocratic rule, the political spectrum has become so skewed that the choices, and winners, may not all be peace-loving or tolerant moderates.”

Elections not once but twice made Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran. His vocal disdain for the West, his saber rattling, and nuclear power dabbling have likely made more complicated an already-problematic geopolitical situation. His successor is more pragmatic and Iran and the U.S. now have more reason to cooperate against the rise of ISIS, but suspicions remain.

While “the United States had originally calculated that ousting the Middle East’s most notorious dictator [Saddam Hussein] would shake arrogant regimes and passive populations out of their political lethargy,” that has not come to pass. Wright posits that U.S. government officials assumed increased civil liberties, and free elections after Saddam’s demise, would empower reformers in their debate with theocrats. Many have argued that the “military adventurism” of the United States has only emboldened religious fanatics.

Surely an American-style democracy will never do in the Middle East. Wright is neither naive nor jaded. She harbors no Leibnizian “best of all possible worlds” delusion about the inevitability of peace and freedom—but neither are peace and freedom in the Middle East mere pipe dreams for her. Democracy is not only for the West. It is not a divine donation to the countries of Western Europe or North America.

Turkey, despite daunting odds, has navigated its way toward a culturally appropriate and relatively stable governing democratic state. It was not built overnight—but it was built. It required a long time and a lot of effort. And while one example does not establish a trend among Muslim nations, it is a beginning. There is good reason to suppose that the Muslims of neighboring countries can achieve the same.

Democracy is on the march in the Muslim Middle East, however sluggish and attended by bumps, detours, and occasional culs-de-sac. But impasses need not be permanent. People throughout history have opted for freedom rather than settle for tyranny.

No doubt the challenges are daunting, the probabilities tilt against success, and the situation with ISIS shows extra danger. It is also questionable whether the present American administration can live up to the stratospheric expectations set by the 2008 campaign.

Nevertheless it is with measured optimism that Wright weaves her narrative. Hope springs eternal, and even a desert has its springs and oases. Despite being a journalist who writes to titillate and meet deadlines, she has demonstrated the capacity to take the long view—to look further than the immediate mise-en-scène of armed gunmen, IEDs, ISIL, and Al Jazeera news reports—to the distant horizon. She scouts beyond the pressing news cycle and the next political election. Surveying the past, she recalls that in the long history of Islam in the Middle East, there were times during which peoples of differing faiths lived in a harmony of their own making. Turning to the future, she sees a people who have conquered their deserts, can conquer their worst fears, and can realize their dreams for liberty and peace—the operative term being “their.”

For, as Wright puts it, “most inspiring is not the dreams the outside world has for the people of the Middle East. It is instead the aspirations and goals they have genuinely set for themselves.”

Article Author: David A. Pendleton

David A. Pendleton has served as a schoolteacher, college instructor, trial lawyer elected state legislator, and policy advisor to a state governor, and now adjudicates workers' compensation appeals in Honolulu, Hawaii.