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