US Mideast plan: right idea; wrong, ham-handed approach

When the Arab-TV version of "Big Brother" aroused widespread opposition among Bahrain's Muslim population, it was not too surprising. A commercial attempt at introducing the Arab world to the Western concept of reality television, it contained a first-meeting kiss between a young Arab man and a young Arab woman.

To most Americans, this might not seem particularly shocking. But in parts of the Muslim world such behavior borders on depravity, and the show was taken quickly off the air.

Throughout much of the Muslim world, members of the same sex might hold hands in public, but members of the opposite sex generally may not.

In many Arab countries it is rude to gesture or eat with the left hand. In Egypt, pointing at a person is impolite, as is walking in front of a person in prayer. In Indonesia, a mainly Muslim, but not an Arab country, crossing the legs is usually inappropriate; but if crossed, one knee should be over the other, not an ankle on the knee. As in many Arab lands, the bottom of the foot should not point toward another person.

To many Westerners, such cultural differences might seem quaint. But to many Arabs, customs of the West seem just as quaint - even bizarre. And the violent, sex-laden depiction of American culture portrayed and exported by Hollywood is downright offensive.

Despite such intriguing cultural differences, there are basic desires common to all mankind. One of the most compelling is the desire for freedom. Freedom to pray as one chooses; to travel where one wants; to follow a profession of choice; to prosper and provide safety and education for one's children.

But the collapse of a Bush administration plan for the Arab world that promoted just such goals offers a sharp lesson for US diplomats in dealing with the Muslim world. The "Greater Middle East initiative," as it was called, was shot down barely after takeoff by governing regimes of countries whose citizens might most have benefited from it.

The plan sought to have other industrialized nations join the US in promoting economic development, political freedom, equality for women, and other democratic institutions in the Middle East. The new Iraqi constitution calls for such basic human rights. The constitutions of other Arab countries sometimes have similar provisions. The problem is that the provisions are not enforced.

Criticism of the Bush plan came swiftly from influential Arab leaders who saw it being imposed on them heavy-handedly. Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak charged the Bush administration as behaving "as if the region and its states do not exist, as if they have no sovereignty over their land, no ownership."

Another criticism was that there had been no movement in resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which overshadows the whole Middle Eastern political situation. The Bush administration was to seek support for the plan at a meeting of the eight leading industrial nations in June at Sea Island, Ga. That idea is now dead.

It's naive to suggest that Arabs are a branch of mankind untouched by the desire for freedom. It's insulting to conclude that, despite the backwardness into which the Arab world has lapsed, it is incapable of embracing and practicing democracy. In various Arab lands, intellectuals and brave reformers are watching, waiting, and working for the constructive changes they dream of. The stake in democracy-building begun in Iraq is too valuable for the rest of the Islamic world to be allowed to founder.

But democracy cannot be imposed like a Coca-Cola marketing plan. It must have grass-roots support, and by suasion and diplomacy come to be accepted by testy, proud, protective Arab societies that have a culture that is often very different from those of the West.

Abdullahi Gallab, a former director-general of information in the Sudan, now a professor of sociology at Brigham Young University here in Utah, says reform must be the Arabs' own initiative, not be imposed on them. He recommends round-table talks with religious and political leaders in the region, seeking response and dialogue.

The Islamic concepts of consultation (shura), consensus (ijima), and independent interpretive judgment (ijtihad), he argues, are totally compatible with democracy.

Despite the Bush program's failure, its underlying ideals and goals must not die.

John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor.

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