Dr. Mariam Al-Oraifi
Every time there is some kind of policy proposal or strategic vision
for the Middle East region, it becomes a controversial issue here. The
reason is that people in the Middle East see things differently from what
the West envisions for them and believe that Western governments do not
fully understand their political culture. This is usually followed by
accusations of conspiracies and allegations of neoimperialism to subdue the
region to serve the West's economic interests and impose its political
Recently, the United States proposed a Greater Middle East Initiative in
reaction to the last 2002 UN Arab Human Development Report, which sets forth
the roots of Arab underdevelopment: A deficit of freedom, lack of women's
empowerment and educational backwardness. Observers in the area perceive
this new US initiative as resembling the Helsinki accord, signed in 1975 by
35 nations including the US, Soviet Union and almost all European countries.
Helsinki was designed to recognize disputed post-World War II borders and
establish a mechanism for settling other disagreements to improve security
and promote cooperation. The Western countries then believed that by
protecting human rights and encouraging freedom, they would instigate the
demise of Communism in the East.
The Bush administration wants to introduce the new initiative to minimize
the appeal of Islamic fundamentalism, which is spreading. The United States
has made it clear it does not want to "go it alone" but would like the
collaboration of EU countries. It indicated it would try to lobby for
support during the NATO and G-8 summits in June. Yet the Europeans view the
initiative with skepticism. They insist that it should not be dictated to
them but rather presented, in agreement with the parties concerned, within
the framework of a security partnership in support of reform and democracy.
They also believe that political change and reform cannot progress in the
Middle East without settling the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The initiative produced conflicting reactions in the Greater Middle East.
Some believe that this is a continuation of what the Americans started in
Iraq but through peaceful means. Others argue that it is more like a
US-sponsored neocolonialism and that Washington is trying to involve Europe
only to guarantee UN and global support.
People in the region acknowledge that other countries have surpassed them
in development; they lag behind in economic productivity and have not been
able to move ahead with political reform. However, they insist that the
blame is not solely theirs but should also be placed on US policies in the
Middle East over the past decades.
Throughout the second half of the 20th century, numerous wars were fought
in the Middle East, ignited directly or indirectly either by West European
states or the United States. The 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973 wars were related
to the Arab-Israeli conflict which cost human lives, drained resources, and
left the region with economic difficulties, crushing deficits and arrested
development. The countries involved directly in these wars were Egypt,
Syria, and Jordan. But the Gulf countries took part indirectly by funding
military programs or imposing the oil embargo. Then, there was the 1975-1989
Lebanese civil war, the US-sponsored Mujahedeen fighting against the 1979
Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the 1978 Iranian uprising against the Shah's
regime, the 1980-1988 Iraqi-Iranian war, the first Gulf War and, last but
not least, the second Gulf War and the US occupation of Iraq. This was the
straw that broke the camel's back.
Apart from these major wars, there are numerous other conflicts such as
the Algeria-Morocco dispute over the Sahara desert, the Pakistani-Indian
conflict over Kashmir, the Algerian civil war, the north-south war in Sudan,
the Yemen war, border disputes between several Gulf states, the
Eritrea-Ethiopian war, the Somalia war. All this had its impact on the
greater Middle East as a whole.
Not only did it traumatize families with the loss of lives of loved ones,
it also devastated many others psychologically, their feelings of anger and
hostility exacerbated by depression and humiliation.
Muslims in times of crisis tend to turn to God and His Holy Book looking
for salvation. This is probably a reason for the surge in conservatism in
most of the countries in the Greater Middle East area including secular
Turkey. The greater the interference or pressures from the West on these
countries - whether peacefully by encouraging reform and democracy or
militarily by invading them or economically by imposing sanctions and
isolation - the more people turn to fundamentalism. This can eventually turn
into militancy, as was the case in Iran during the Shah's regime, leading to
the Islamic revolution.
Ideally, defending freedom, encouraging political reform and ensuring
human rights are all popular demands that should come from within. They are
not strategic goals for countries from without. If the United States and the
West seek security partnerships with the Greater Middle Eastern countries
and propose economic cooperation in the sincere hope of achieving progress
and prosperity there, shouldn't the West make peace with Islam first?