As the dust begins to settle on the American/British victory in Baghdad, it falls upon all Arabs now to reflect seriously on the future. I cannot provide accurate percentages, but it would be fair to say that an overwhelming majority of Arabs were against this war, to say the least. A sense of outrage was palpable across Arab society. And I am not talking only of the underprivileged or the disenfranchised. The outrage, despair and humiliation, as hundreds of thousands of bombs pounded Iraq, were equally felt by palace and ghetto dwellers.
I will always remember my conversation with a friend on the day it transpired that Baghdad was about to break all records in the speed of city surrender in conflict (so much for Stalingrad!). He said in despair: “Call me back in a few minutes. I think I’m going to kill myself.”! This friend is a modern Arab. His education and work life had been almost entirely in Europe and the pragmatism of that continent marks his character. And he has always believed in the sanctity of democracy. He was far ahead of Bush and Rumsfeld in the anti-Saddam stakes. He hated Saddam so much he would have recurring nightmares in which he sees a scarily grumpy Saddam threatening to kill him. Yet he was hoping, like that overwhelming majority of Arabs, for a victory for the Iraqi people.
Other enlightened Arabs were hoping against hope for a miracle: the Iraqi people, in a moment of inspiration at once rivaling the American War of Independence and the Czech Velvet revolution, would put up a stoic resistance to the Anglo American invasion while simultaneously getting rid of Saddam. People power like never seen before in the Arab world.
But that was too much to ask of a people who have lived for at least six hundred years under dictatorial or colonial rule. That is too much to ask of other Arab people who have also lived for at least six hundred years deprived of freedom. There can be no turning point in Arab fortunes without a structured and pragmatic agenda. An agenda that would be wholeheartedly adopted by big sections of that proverbial Arab street. Another friend of mine (an Arab too) has so long despaired of the Arab street, he frequently taunts me by saying the street is entirely populated by lackadaisical Shawirma sellers. But it’s our own laziness in thinking up a solid vision for the future that leads us to this interminable cycle of self-mockery, desperation and empty dreams of easy salvation.
There is no salvation from an Anglo American invasion of Iraq. Not even if Bush and Blair were angelic reincarnations of Mother Teresa and Thomas Jefferson. Not even if it’s proven that we were all too skeptical of the likes of Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle and, contrary to all reasonable analysis and the facts, they were actually selfless warriors who dream of nothing more than assisting the Iraqis and other Arabs in establishing democracies. The fact of the matter is that the US, like every superpower since the beginning of time, is working to further its own self-interest. And as the historical record shows, the US has almost always worked against true democratic movements in the Middle East. But US intentions are ultimately irrelevant in this debate. Nothing good will ever come to the Arab world unless Arabs start willing it for themselves.
Most Arabs are presently caught between a rock and a hard place. The governing regimes are, for the most part, the antitheses of democracy and the rule of law. Yet, if elections were held tomorrow, it’s acknowledged that the winners would be extremist religious parties that fundamentally reject the notion of democracy. So where do we go from here? Do we simply accept the status quo, as so many do, on the ground that the relative tolerance of the regimes in power is infinitely better than the unpalatable alternative that awaits us in the ballot box? Do we simply accept the religious parties’ almost absolute dominance of the hearts and minds of the majority? Do we simply resign to our seemingly eternal role as spectators? Just hang around and hope Bush doesn’t bomb Syria next? Just watch television and cry tears of shame and hilarity as Arab governments yet again demonstrate unparalleled impotence towards every important issue of the day?
Surely, there is a way out. A way that is not confrontational, reactionary or revolutionary. We definitely don’t need any more so-called revolutionary movements in the Arab world. God knows we’ve had enough of those and they have almost succeeded in destroying what the colonial powers and dynastical systems couldn’t get to.
What is needed is a new movement that seeks to unite the “we” I took the liberty of using so far. I am talking of Arabs who are tired of an Arabia that is light years behind realizing its true potential. Arabs who firmly believe that Islam is the greatest and most positive force in the history of the region, yet understand that the notion of mixing politics and religion is at best an act of self-serving deception. Arabs who are wise enough to realize that talk of democracy being incompatible with Arab culture is nothing more than racist claptrap propagated by apologists for the pervading dictatorial rule. Arabs who are open to the culture of the world and believe that there is a lot of good to be learnt from the economic and political success stories of Europe, Asia, and, yes, the United States. Arabs who believe in our potential to play a key role in a vibrant free market economy. Arabs who will settle for nothing less than real and lasting justice for their long suffering compatriots in Palestine. And last but not least, Arabs who believe, whether by conviction or necessity, that Arab unity is the only real bedrock for sustainable development in the region.
This movement need not focus on political change. It should direct its efforts at real cultural, social and economic change in the Arab world. On the economic level, while it is still lamentable that inter-Arab trade represents only around 9% of Arab countries’ trade, there are signs that regional business is on the rise. This is particularly the case in the Information Technology and other copyright-based industries. A new breed of young Arab businessmen is coming to the fore. Businessmen who tailor their economic models on the region, racing to set up branches in Amman, Cairo, Riyadh and other Arab cities. While such regional expansion is of course not novel, the passion with which these new age traders seek Arab synergies is.
A concerted effort must be made to raise the level of cultural awareness in the region. A starting point should be book-reading. We must do everything possible to make reading books cool in Arabia again! The Arab book publishing business, let alone the business of reading, is in terrible disarray. I am always amazed when I travel in the region; plane passengers almost never carry a book on them. Whilst any flight in Europe is a mobile air library. We are in desperate need for public awareness initiatives to increase book reading. This is an important step in fostering the culture of democracy in the Arab mind.
This movement would give voice and structure to the impressive outburst of expression spreading across the internet. Every day, I am bombarded with articles and thoughts on Iraq, Palestine and the world from friends, friends of friends, distant acquaintances… The internet is providing the forum that empires and armies tried to deny us for centuries. It is finding its way to every office and home. It’s the voice of new Arabia.
I do not purport to write a program for this movement in this short article. I simply wanted to express the obvious need for it. In the Arab world, we will not have the strands of political thinking that pervade in Europe and the US. There will not be an Arab equivalent of the Tories and Labour. No Arab Gores and Bushes fighting it out in a bye-election in Karbala! The slow and hard road to democracy in Arabia will be traveled by three schools of thought, the same schools that will compete in any eventual democracy that we hope to achieve in the region: the “status quo” movement (arguing that what we have now is better than any alternative), the political Islam movement, and the modern freedom-aspiring pan-Arab movement. It is this last movement that needs to spring into action immediately, bringing the disparate personalities and groups that believe in its tenets together. It’s a historic opportunity that we cannot miss.