Who will lead an Arab renaissance?

As promised in an earlier column, here is an update on what must be done to draw the Arab lands out of their backwardness and set them upon the road to freedom and prosperity that would make them less dangerous, and more agreeable, citizen-states of the world.

The war against terrorism is a new kind of war such as Americans have never before experienced. It is multifaceted and requires new methods, new thinking.

Obviously, much of the war requires military effort. That was brought to bear brilliantly in Afghanistan, combining small special operations units with new, sophisticated, remote-controlled weaponry against a fairly easily identified enemy. But with the Taliban eliminated and Al Qaeda dispersed, the military effort has plateaued, entering a new, twilight phase against small, hidden terrorist cells.

Another important aspect of the war is diplomacy. But this, too, has stalled, because, for the Arab lands from whence most terrorists come, the critical issue is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has gone from bad to worse, and proved stubbornly resistant to American efforts at peacemaking. The perceived American championship of Israel is a huge roadblock on the road to winning over Arab public opinion.

Meantime, the United States is cranking up its public diplomacy, or informational campaign, designed to counter decades of hate-filled anti-American brainwashing in Islamic fundamental schools, and to dispel such ludicrous fantasies as that it was the Israelis who attacked and brought down the World Trade Center towers.

The campaign to draw the Arab lands into the modern world is much longer term and more difficult.

A recent report by the UN Development Program makes it clear how gargantuan this task will be. The report is significant because it is not the work of outside bureaucrats, but of reputable Arab scholars taking a hard look at their own region's deficiencies.

• Per-capita growth in the 22 Arab countries surveyed is lower than anywhere except in sub-Saharan Africa. It will take the average Arab citizen 140 years to double his or her income. Other parts of the world will do it in fewer than 10 years.

• Of the 280 million Arabs in the region, 65 million are illiterate. Two-thirds of these are women.

• The GDP of all these Arab states combined is less than that of Spain.

• One out of every 5 Arabs lives on less than $2 a day.

The report's brutal conclusion? This backwardness is the result of three huge deficiencies: of freedom, women's rights, and education.

As a powerful and wealthy nation, and a beacon of freedom for much of the world's oppressed people, the United States is well placed to encourage the campaign for reform in the Arab lands. Recently, President Bush pledged a $10 billion increase by 2006 in US aid going to the poorer nations of the world. He was right in proclaiming that priority recipients would be those countries moving toward democracy.

But the war against terrorism is not America's alone. Terrorism rears its head in Japan and South Korea, in Germany and Italy, and in other prosperous democracies that should have a self-interest in drawing out of their darkness the Arab lands that have spawned international terrorism.

Even countries without substantial resources could play an influential role. Pakistan and Indonesia are non-Arab countries with large Muslim populations. They themselves are struggling to find their way to democracy. They, along with other Islamic lands like Turkey, could show by example that Islam does not necessarily mean a descent into obsession with hatred.

Nor should we assume that the Arab lands living in economic backwardness and democratic darkness are without their own internal mutterings for reform.

There is intellectual pondering in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The UN report found that 51 percent of older Arab adolescents, and 45 percent of younger ones, in the 22 countries surveyed, expressed a desire to emigrate, "clearly indicating dissatisfaction with current conditions and future prospects in their home countries." The very frankness of the Arab scholars who spent 18 months producing the hard-hitting report is a positive development.

As they concluded: "The Arab world is at a crossroads. The fundamental choice is whether its trajectory will remain marked by inertia, as reflected in much of the present institutional context, and by ineffective policies that have produced the substantial development challenges facing the region; or whether prospects for an Arab renaissance, anchored in human development, will be actively pursued."

• John Hughes, former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News.

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