SIGNS OF HOPE IN THE MIDDLE EAST
by Parvez Ahmed
American Reporter Correspondent
WASHINGTON -- President George W. Bush's grand idea of transforming the Middle East is looking better by the day. Whether the Bush administration deserves all the credit for the winds of change is a matter of another debate.
Elections in Iraq and Palestine, partial elections in Saudi Arabia (unfortunately without women being allowed to vote) and the beginning of a Syrian troop withdrawal from Lebanon - all point to freedom being on the march. One cannot help but be hopeful, even a little giddy, at the signs of democracy taking root in the Middle East. However, it is too early to celebrate.
Elections, no matter how fair and enthusiastic, do not necessarily usher in democracy, in the sense that we understand in America. Nor does the fall of autocratic regimes automatically signal the end of tyranny. From Hitler to Putin history is replete with 'democracies' waging extended wars either with their neighbors or with their own people. To assure peace, the task of building democracies must be coupled with the establishment of a civic society whose institutional framework protects liberty and promotes prosperity for all.
Freedom remains the best bulwark against terrorism. Noted foreign policy analyst, Fareed Zakaria recently wrote that the roots of terrorism are "dysfunctions caused by decades of repression and an almost total lack of political, economic and social modernization."
President Bush, to his credit, never bought into the chorus of his right wing friends that the lack of democracies in the Middle East was intrinsic to Islam. Either he was insightful enough to know that Islam provides a framework for democratic governance (the majority of Muslims today live under democracies), or he held a fundamental belief that choice is a universal value. Whatever the reason, how President Bush transforms his vision into reality, could well be the lasting legacy of his Presidency.
The success of President Bush's vision will come from getting the small things right - building coalitions and engaging in dialogue. This will require patience and conviction to stay the course even when things go wrong, as they invariably will sooner or later.
Additionally, President Bush should try some unconventional diplomacy - partnering with Muslims in America and creating people-to-people dialogue between America and the Muslim world. This can be institutionalized through educational exchange programs, reversing the post 9-11 draconian immigration policies (which incidentally can also partially solve our social security crisis), and expanding economic opportunities for people in the region.
Muslims living in America contribute to and benefit from American freedom, John Ashcroft's erstwhile Justice Department not withstanding. With their keen sense of the regional cultures, American-Muslims provide the best opportunity for communicating how liberty and democracy can be integrated into traditional societies without disturbing their common sensibilities. American-Muslims can provide the credible voice that America sorely lacks in the Middle East. Everything from slick ad campaigns to expensive satellite broadcasts having failed; it is time to try little bit of people power.
During his first administration, the Bush team failed to develop any meaningful relationship with the American-Muslim community. Window dressing and photo opportunities do not count. One assumes this was due to the paranoid fear of losing the right wing base, which is often virulently Islamophobic. Without a looming reelection and the need to appease this base, President Bush will do America's vital interests a world of good by partnering with American-Muslims to keep freedom on the march.
Where the objective is freedom, liberty, constitutional democracy, eradication of poverty and hopelessness, American-Muslims will assuredly be partners in his jihad. It is time to bury for good the Huntington paradigm of an inevitable clash of civilization and embrace the new reality of shared responsibilities.
Parvez Ahmed, Ph.D. is a board member of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, (CAIR). CAIR is headquartered in Washington D.C. and has 28 offices nationwide. CAIR is America's largest Muslim civil liberties advocacy group.