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:

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?

There are three factors driving this new wave. First, autocratic Arab regimes can no longer control the flow of information, thanks to satellite TV stations like Al Jazeera. The new media are challenging the status quo by telling what's happening at home and abroad.

The second factor is the Arab world's profound socioeconomic and political crisis. Unemployment among young men and women is reportedly 78 percent in Egypt; 68 in Syria; 58 in Jordan; 45 in Tunisia. Not having a job means you can't get married, start a family, or have a decent life. So this profound social crisis is mobilizing - forcing - young men and women to play a different role than their elders did.

Finally, Arabs see their world is being recolonized - you have very proud kids who feel outraged because their countries are being invaded, humiliated, and their religion conflated with terrorism.

Are they blaming their plight on the US or their own leaders?

While they fault the US for the injustices inflicted on Palestinians and other Muslim communities, they lay the blame for their plight squarely at the feet of their own repressive regimes. For example, in December at a Beirut conference of thousands of politicians, academics, and activists, one Saudi Arabian girl in her late teens said Arab leaders have failed and should be replaced by women. There was total silence in the big hall - you should have seen the look on the faces of the old guard. We're not talking about a [modern] Lebanese, Syrian, or Palestinian woman; it was a woman from [conservative] Saudi Arabia who reprimanded the autocrats.

You say militant Islamism is a spent force but the violence continues: We've had 9/11, foreign fighters going into Iraq, the promotion of violence from mosques, Palestinian suicide bombers. It doesn't feel as if it's waning.

Throughout the Arab world Islamists have concluded violence and terrorism not only hurt their movement but harm the interests of the Muslim community. Since 9/11 some of the most militant Islamists published books condemning Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri's tactics.

So if the US were to prod autocratic Arab regimes to liberalize, then would they be overrun by a wave of Islamists?

I think there is no danger, now, that any Middle Eastern government will be overrun by Islamists. Islamist movements are having second thoughts about their use of terror in service of the political. They've paid dearly for their miscalculation.

I'm not suggesting that the US should shift gears overnight and get rid of its autocratic Arab allies. But if the US is as genuine about reform as it says it is, if it believes authoritarianism played a decisive role in giving rise to bin Ladenism, it's in the US's own vital interest for its allies to gradually open up the political process, integrate the rising social classes into the fold, and liberalize from within. I suggest the US could also help by investing in education, academic exchange, training of teachers, and other aspects of civil society.

What Arab leaders do you think recognize the problem as you've outlined it and are responding to it?

As a result of social upheaval among young people, almost every Arab cabinet now includes a ministry of youth. For example, listen to Egyptian President Mubarak often talk of the importance of the youth, concern for their future, and how he wants to integrate them into the political process. The Tunisian and Moroccan governments are doing more than other Arab countries to open the socioeconomic and political system, to integrate women - an enlightened authoritarianism. Although other Arab rulers pay lip service to the idea of incorporating young men and women into political life, they're trying to find ways to control this new wave.

You frequently mention women's liberation as part of this movement. Are young men really on board with that?

Young men as much as young women argue that to really reform Arab societies you need to reform family structures and liberate women. In their minds, liberalizing means equality between the sexes.

How do you think they're going to be prepared to deal with the obvious backlash against integrating women?

I don't know how it will work in practice. But we're witnessing a dramatic shift. At almost all Arab universities more women than men are enrolling and graduating. Gender roles are bound to change as more women professionals enter the work force. This development says a lot about structural changes happening in the Arab world.

The fear is that war in Iraq has created a greater sympathy in the Muslim world for bin Ladenism.

Far from empowering the democrats or the reformists, the war in Iraq, has supplied more ammunition to militant elements and alienated moderate secular and Muslim public opinion. But anger is aimed at the US and the local regimes. Demonstrations in Egypt and Jordan against the invasion of Iraq were directed as much at local regimes as at the US. What's fascinating is that tens of thousands of Egyptians at war protests said "no" to Mubarak and shouted antiregime slogans. The Iraq war reinforced perceptions that reforms are urgently needed and that the entire structure must be overhauled from within because it is rotten.

Among Arabs, is Iraq becoming more important in shaping opinion about the US than, say, the Palestinian conflict?

For a moment, I expected Iraq to supersede Palestine in Arab imagination. Saddam Hussein was perceived as a brutal dictator, but most Arabs believe that the US didn't go to Iraq to liberate the Iraqis, that it had ulterior motives. Yet all the studies show that even after the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Palestine remains the most fundamental, critical question in the minds of Arabs. The question of Palestine goes to the heart of Arab identity because Israel is perceived as a creation of the West. As such, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and now the occupation of Iraq, is seen as a continuation of the onslaught against Arabs and Muslims.

Do you think the US investment in [the US Arab language] Radio Sawa and that kind of publicity is worth it?

Radio Sawa has a huge audience of young Arabs. They like the music but don't listen to the news - a huge gap between the cultural aspect and the political. In Arab eyes, the US suffers from a crisis of moral authority. Young Arabs admire American values but are deeply suspicious of US foreign policy. There is a great deal of attraction and fascination toward the American idea. Yes, the US could serve as a catalyst for positive change in the Arab world. But this requires more than propaganda. I'm talking about a long term strategy to assist reformists in tranforming civil society, to take risks on the younger generation's choices, and help resolve festering regional conflicts. The US is rethinking foreign aid strategy in the area. One would hope that, instead of military toys and other prestige projects, some aid would be channeled into civil society projects like reforming the educational and health systems, empowering women, and pushing rulers to open up the political system and respect human rights and the rule of law.

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