A change of Arab hearts and minds
Amid gloom, a scholar glimpses signs of democratic awakening
Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle East and international affairs at Sarah Lawrence College, has traveled the Arab world during the past five years, researching social and political movements. Behind what is seen from the West as a violent caldron of anti-American Islamism, Dr. Gerges sees signs of a nascent era of civic opening in the Middle East. If cultivated wisely by the US, he says, this movement could actually become something genuinely democratic. Monitor editors interviewed Gerges last week - excerpts follow:Skip to next paragraph
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GERGES: In the same manner that the socialist Arab paradigm was discredited in the late 1960s, I think the Islamist paradigm - using religion in order to justify violence and to capture the state - was also discredited in the late 1990s.
We're in the throes of the beginning of a new wave - the freedom generation - in which civil society is asserting itself. Its vanguard is the generation under 30 years old, which represents more than 60 percent of Muslim population.
The rhetoric we're hearing from this generation is very reassuring. In my interviews with young people, they say they're fed up with the autocratic political order, and they're demanding a voice in shaping their countries' future. They're rebelling not just against the political authoritarian order, but also against patriarchy, the social structure, family relations. While their fathers and elders accepted the social contract of the ruling Army officers in the 1950s, young people today would like a new social contract based on representation. They want to be heard, to be in charge of their destiny. If there's one word I often hear, it's inclusion. They'd like a new transparent system - though not fully secular, a system that takes into account the basic strengths of freedom.
The gap in the Arab world has never been wider between those who govern and the ones who are governed.
Do you include Iran in this wave?
Iran really has led the Muslim world in this respect. [Reformist President] Khatami was elected with the support of almost 70 percent of young Iranians. And we're witnessing the beginning of similar signs throughout Arab lands.
In Iran, intellectual debate has included how Western philosophy can mesh with Islamic principles. Is that debate happening in the Arab world?
It's been happening in civil society - particularly in the 1990s. I've interviewed scores of young Islamists, and the biggest question in the Arab world today is: How do you combine modernity and Muslim authenticity?
Do you use "modernity" to avoid saying "Western..."
In the eyes of many, Westernization has negative connotations.
Arab Islamists weren't able to carry out such a coup as their counterparts in Iran. They tried and almost succeeded in Egypt and Algeria. But by the end of the 1990s, they were strategically defeated, because they alienated the main social strata with their militant tactics, ambitions, inability to patiently build alliances, and use of terror on large scales. Political Islamism was discredited as a result of the use of violence and terrorism and its main victims have not been Westerners, but Arabs and Muslims.
But were their ideals defeated?
Arab society appears to have become Islamicized from within. Young Arabs say they'd like to be democrats, but that they are also Muslims. And I catch my own biases, thinking that somehow democracy is incompatible with any kind of politicized religion. But they don't see it this way.
Why now? What's behind the change?