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Political Reform in the Muslim World:
Internal or External?

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  • Changes Come from Outside, Unless They Emanate from a Perpetual Vitality from Within
    Raghida Dergham examines the debate of internal or external political reform in the Muslim world. Dergham, posits the question of "whether reform should come from inside or be imported" and concludes that "realistically, there is no way to avoid a blend of the two." (Al Hayat 010803)
  • Yes, It Is In Amro's Hands*... Unless We Hurry To Make A Change
    *The phrase "it is in Amro's hands" is an Arabic expression that implies that the outcome is out of your control and dependent on someone else.
    In response to Raghida Dergham, Saad Eddin Ibrahim extends the debate on whether reform should come from inside or outside the Arab world. Ibrahim explains that movements for change have already begun, particularly U.S. led initiatives to invoke change. He discusses the role of Arab intellectuals in the transformation and encourages serious dialogue amongst them "to question and criticize the reality we are living, and to call for a better one."
    (Al Hayat 010803)

Changes Come from Outside, Unless They Emanate from a Perpetual Vitality from Within

Raghida Dergham
Raghida Dergham is a senior diplomatic correspondent for Al Hayat.

There is currently a struggle going on among Arabs who desire - and are ready for - basic change. One group believes that no change can happen unless it comes from outside. A second group believes that outside change is an imported commodity that aims to force Arab countries into submission. A third group believes that there should be a merging of both internal and external forces for change. But the third group is in conflict about how to carry this out. Dialogue over issues like these is healthy, and everyone should join in.

To begin, those who want change should shift from being observers to participants. As long as the majority remains aloof or subservient, change is likely to be imposed from the outside, and this is not necessarily compatible with Arab aspirations. Consequently, if this group remains passive, it will lose its right to complain. Indeed, it will be worthy of blame.

Change is undoubtedly coming to the region through a "road map" - or subjugation or dismemberment - even through wars or chaos. There is now an opportunity to examine how, why, and whether to play a role in this change process.

Politically active Islamists are clear what they want, and they have every right to work for their goals. However, it is important that the public understands the long-run implications of what Islamists advocate. This, in turn, will require honesty from the Islamists. Unfortunately, it is more likely that the Islamists will try to deceive the public and that the public will accept fundamentalism, not as a matter of choice, but in response to oppressive Arab regimes.

The difference between maintaining an Islamic identity and governing as an Islamist is vast.

Recently in Amman, there was a three -day meeting, called "Partners in Humanity," organized by Prince El Hassan Bin Talal and Search for Common Ground, an American-Belgian NGO. Discussions focused on how to promote dialogue between Muslims and the West, especially the United States, in order to promote mutual respect and understanding. The very idea of Muslims and Americans being "partners in humanity" contradicts the basic approach of Islamic extremists.

Participants came primarily from the United States and across the Islamic world - from Mauritania to Indonesia. They included representatives of civil society, clergy, academics, human rights activists, development agency officials, and media leaders. Participants recommended a series of specific work programs to promote better relationships between Muslims and Americans and to improve the image of Muslims in the US. There was particular focus on strengthening cross-cultural education and establishing working relationships between Christian and Muslim development aid organizations. The basic theme was "promoting moderation in an era of extremism and intolerance."

Muslim participants spoke proudly about their religious and cultural belonging, even as they protested against the Islamist agenda, which they viewed as detrimental. This is their right, just as it is the right of Islamists to disagree.

Participants stated that reform needs to be discussed on the basis of Islamic values, which stress knowledge, flexibility, and problem solving - and not on the basis of ignorance and conservatism. Christianity undertook reform over five hundred years ago. Muslims need it today.

US neo-conservatives and fundamentalists are currently promoting the "clash of civilizations." Fortunately, their intolerance is not supported by most Americans.

Reform that comes from inside the Islamic world is much better for Muslims than reform coming to the area through wars and chaos.

Nevertheless, reformists automatically face resistance when they bring up women's rights. They are told that addressing women's issues hinders or halts progress in other areas. This is nonsense. A major factor in the degeneration of Islamic societies is the predominance of men who use religion to maintain their authority. They exclude women from societal development.

If Islamic countries do not want change imposed on them from outside, they must halt the pattern of restricting freedoms and rights. This requires an intellectual awakening. The problem is that, to date, there is little evidence of such an awakening - or of a readiness to challenge the status quo.

Even before the Iraq War, many Arabs in civil society began expressing their desire for change. They were frustrated with how governments were violating basic rights. In the aftermath of the war, governmental voices also began calling for change - particularly as it became clear that the United States was serious about reform.

This brings us back to the question of whether reform should come from inside or be imported. Realistically, there is no way to avoid a blend of the two. Those who call for foreign intervention believe that Arab societies are not ready for internally generated change. Such people welcome American intervention and see "regime change" as deliverance of oppressed Arab nations. They do not mind if change originates with intolerant neo-conservatives.

People who reject all foreign intervention take a patriotic approach and question the pro-Israel agenda of neo-conservatives. This group believes that democracy should be a purely local product and that importation represents an imposition. This group, intentionally or otherwise, allies itself with regimes that resist reform - from inside or outside.

There is yet another group, frustrated with the debate over whether change should be internal or external, who would welcome reform. Unfortunately, most of these people do not become involved and wait for the deliverance brought about by others.

There is nothing wrong with using foreign momentum to effect internal change, just as there is nothing wrong in welcoming an internal-external partnership. But if the present lack of change persists, external forces will take the opportunity to impose an agenda that those who talk - and do not act - will deeply regret.

Yes, It Is In Amro's Hands... Unless We Hurry To Make A Change

Saad Eddin Ibrahim
Saad Eddin Ibrahim is the head of the Ibn Khaldoun Center in Cairo.

As usual, Raghida Dergham raised taboo subjects in her exceptional article published in Al-Hayat on 1/8/2003, issues we find in "conversations between intellectuals" and in "deceitful" Arab political experts. In light of the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003, and the Quartet's initiative otherwise known as the Roadmap for Palestine in the summer of 2003, as well as the European-American auspices for the Machakos agreement in Sudan in the fall of 2002, Raghida Dergham is right to raise the question and respond: Changes come from abroad if they do not emerge from a continuous internal vitality.

The three cases mentioned above (Iraq, Palestine and Sudan) are dramatic examples of enflamed and persistent conflicts in the heart or the extremes of the Arab nation. Each one of them has been going on for at least 30 years, and Arabs have obviously still not resolved them with war or peace, knowing that hundreds of thousands of lives and billions of dollars have been wasted in this regard, and despite the fact that it has paralyzed the course of growth, development and democracy in the countries in question, even in the entire Arab world. The Arab ruling regimes might not be the only ones responsible for triggering these long-lasting conflicts, and the Arab intellectuals might have nothing to do with it. However, these rulers (the decision makers) and intellectuals (who raise ideas) are responsible for the continuation of these conflicts, as if they served their interests, or as if they were unable to confront their people with the impossibility of settling the situation through a war, and unable to be honest with their people regarding the need to accept moderate solutions based on historic conciliations between the conflicts' protagonists.

One of the tragedies of the Arab world is that the demagogy of some of its leaders have made the people addicted to the worst in a situation, to the point that any accomplishment short of these extremes is considered to be the death of the cause, the abandonment of "sacred rights" or the waste of "principles"!

The most tragic in all this is that the Arab intellectuals have fallen into the trap of this demagogy, which rulers have turned into their profession. Some of these intellectuals have even turned into experts to promote this demagogue merchandise, and most of them did not stop to ask the rulers about the results of such a failing trade: why did not one of them succeed in achieving one of the many slogans they and their allies have been raising since the 1950s? Why did they not liberate one inch of Palestine? Why have they not succeeded in solving the Kurdish problem in Iraq? Why have they not solved Sudan's problem, which led to almost two million victims throughout 40 years of civil war? Why did they not succeed in ending the criminality of Saddam Hussein? Isn't the primary duty of any intellectual who deserves to be considered as such, to question and criticize the reality we are living, and to call for a better one?

The tragedy reaches a peak when intellectuals bid against their rulers within the demagogy of demanding the outmost extremes in every public case, disregarding the balance of force or capacity, and ignoring many human values, which have become part of the world's conscience. Even worse, some intellectuals blackmail their rulers if the latter tend to accept these conciliations; hence, those intellectuals who have fallen in the trap of their rulers' demagogic slogans, have turned with time into keeping these governors from reducing their demagogy, even if they try to, and so they lead to nothing but a trilogy of oppression, corruption and destruction. This trilogy is based on oppressive rulers, on intellectuals plotting together and on unconscious Arab populations terrified by foreign enemies, real or imagined.

The resistance to change is understandable, if not justified, when rulers practice it. However, this resistance is not understandable or justified when "intellectuals" practice it. This is what Raghida Dergham angrily pointed out, as she also mentioned that this resistance is practiced by Arab "intellectuals" who hide behind the fact that they are fighting the "Western attack" or "globalization" or defending Arab "principles." Hence, they forget, or pretend to forget, that the prevalence of political Arab stagnation, the social conservatism and religious chaos have all facilitated the Western forces of hegemony, namely America's infiltration inside the Arab body.

We have reached the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, just like we were at the end of the 18th century moving on to the 19th, when an Ottoman-Mamluk pitch black shadow hung over us, and deprived the Arab-Islamic body from its capacity to move, and from most of its cultural, spiritual and material immunity. Napoleon invaded Egypt and the Arab East like a knife in a stick of butter, followed by successive colonization invasions during the 19th century and early 20th century. Eventually, the Arab world drowned under Western hegemony (British, French and Italian).

The strategic importance of the Arab region has made it a vital international interest during the past three decades. This importance increased in the last century, with the discovery of oil and the creation of the state of Israel. The great forces in the international system could no longer tolerate oppressive regimes that oppose or disregard their interests. The Cold War ended, knowing that one of its poles was supporting and protecting some oppressive regimes, no matter how unjust they were. With the end of the Cold War, the American pole remained the sole power controlling international developments. Nothing can stop this sole superpower but the American public opinion itself, as well as its democratic institutions (the Congress) and the civil community organizations. Even America's traditional allies in Western Europe no longer have the same effect on Washington's decisions.

Following the 9/11 attacks, the decision-making circles in Washington reached the conclusion that the Arab Middle East was producing terrorism and exporting it, and that it is all the result of the ruling regimes that have failed in modernizing their societies at the political, economic and social levels. The UNDP issued a report in 2002 on the Arab human development, which came to confirm this hypothesis. In fact, the report highlighted three imbalances that held the Arabs backwards, while others were moving forward. The main imbalance (or shortage) is the absence of freedom and democracy, as well as the gender inequality and the underdevelopment of the educational system. The UN report was credible because those who worked on it are Arab experts and scientists.

The important thing is that the 9/11 attacks gave America the strategic motivation to move against the oppressive Arab regimes, and the UNDP report gave it the moral justification. What we witnessed in Afghanistan in 2002 and Iraq in 2003 were the first drops of this "American anger." Regardless of the ideological stances on the U.S. intervention, it has become a fact in some of the countries in the region, an expected incident in others, and a probable event in a third group. Unless some of these regimes change their ideas, policies and practices in a palpable way, as a result of internal factors, and other parties will continue to bring change.

The Arab scene was and still is pregnant with the "fetuses" of change, fetuses which seeds we planted before the 9/11 attacks and that were and still are waiting to be born; the question that Raghida Dergham raised can be reformulated: will the birth of change be operated at the Arab or American level? Is it in our hands or in Amro's? This is something that is worth a serious dialogue between Arab intellectuals, in which they would go beyond cursing darkness (America and globalization) by lighting at least one candle. I hope that some of them will do that.

From the Common Ground News Service
hagalil.com 18-12-2003

hagalil.com 18-12-2003



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