ALTHOUGH many in the West point to Saddam Hussein and Islamic fundamentalism as Bill Clinton's main challenges in the Middle East, the new president's real challenge is to have the courage to advance democracy and human rights.
In a way, he has to choose between J. William Fulbright, the US senator from Arkansas who influenced Mr. Clinton's intellectual development and set up the Fulbright international fellowships, and Cecil Rhodes, the British colonial administrator and financier who founded the scholarship program that took Clinton to Oxford.
To many people in the Middle East, Fulbright and Rhodes represent two faces of the West.
Because of the many Fulbright professors who have taught in the region, young Middle Easterners (myself included) learned of the America of Thoreau and civil disobedience, and of Walt Whitman's choice of being a nurse rather than a soldier. Clinton's opposition to the war in Vietnam evoked this image of a decent America.
But Middle Easterners, especially those from North Africa, know that Clinton was also a Rhodes scholar. The scholarship program aside, Rhodes as a man calls to mind bitter colonial memories. He advocated democracy for the "higher races" and peonage for the "lower races."
When democracy is advocated for the Middle East, many Western analysts suddenly become modern versions of Rhodes. They raise the red flag of Islamic fundamentalism and assert the entirely untested hypothesis that Islam and democracy are incompatible. Some analysts point to Iran for proof. True, the "Islamic" government of Iran is no more respectful of human rights and diversity than the one that preceded it. This does not prove, however, that democracy and Islam are incompatible - any more than the secul ar government of Iraq shows that democracy and secularism are incompatible.
To reject the results of a democratic election in Algeria because the Islamists won a clear majority undermines the very essence of democracy. When the King of Saudi Arabia declared that free elections are un-Islamic, his statement was met by a wave of Islamic interpretations, most of them pointing out that nothing in Islam rules out democracy.
Western analysts need to read these arguments against the Saudi king's position to understand the motives behind the current Islamic movements. Many of these movements are not about establishing an Islamic state; they are about power sharing and protecting human lives.
Unfortunately, Western misconceptions about the incompatibility of democracy, human rights, and Islam jeopardize lives, since they give dictatorial regimes in the Middle East carte blanch to imprison opposition groups demanding reform or power-sharing. A despot has only to say, "I am fighting Islamic fundamentalism" and the West keeps silent.
According to human rights reports, Egypt has 10,000 political prisoners, Algeria has 8,000, and similar numbers are imprisoned in Saudi Arabia and Tunisia. Israel recently deported 415 Palestinians, primarily educated men who could organize resistance to Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. It locks up thousands without any due process of law, all under the banner of fighting Islamic fundamentalism.
For its Middle East policy to be successful and moral, the Clinton administration should rely on real analysis rather than stereotypical views that favor violence as the only way of dealing with Arabs and Muslims.
Both Saddam's brutal regime and the phenomenon of militant fundamentalism are products of mistaken policies prevailing both in the Middle East and in Washington. Uprisings after the Gulf war showed that many Iraqis are against Saddam. This Iraqi resistance has been active for decades. But while Saddam was brutally suppressing his opposition and engaging in a virtual genocide against the Kurds, policy makers in Washington were locked into the inhumane geopolitics of the cold war. They ignored Saddam's cri mes under the assumption that he would counter the spread of fundamentalism coming from Iran.
The solution is not to remove Saddam and bring in another dictator who is pro-American. The Middle East is full of those. King Fahd of Saudi Arabia is one example; President Assad of Syria (as of late) and President Mubarak of Egypt are others. Yet the people of these countries are not pro-American, primarily because the US supports leaders who violate human rights. If America truly wants stable governments in the region it must win the respect of the Arab people, not the compliance of the despots who cu rrently rule them.
The arrest, torture, and execution of Islamists in Egypt and Algeria, while Muslims are being victimized abroad, helps create a perception among Arabs of a worldwide assault on Islam. International events seem to verify this suspicion. The Serbs are killing Muslims in Bosnia; Israelis and Burmese are deporting Muslims; and Hindus are destroying Islamic places of worship.
In this context, Islamic groups are likely to seize power in one or two Middle Eastern countries. America should disassociate itself from the perceived international crusade against Islam if it wishes to deal with those who may one day hold power in Egypt or Algeria; otherwise, these countries will be written off in the same way that Iran has been written off for the last 12 years.
Clinton's emphasis on democracy during the presidential campaign has made him the favorite of even some of the most conservative Islamic intellectuals in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Arab world. Yet at the same time, many in the Arab world are ambivalent about the Rhodes side of Clinton's democratic message. It will not be enough for the new president to preach democracy and human rights to the people of the Middle East; he must enact these ideals in America's Middle Eastern policies as well.