Apr 11 2004

Reform in the Arab World Requires that True Intellectuals Speak Out

Published by at 12:00 am under Articles

Reform is not a new issue in the Arab world. It has been the demand of Arab democrats and human rights activists for years. Most of those fighters for democracy have been muzzled, detained, tortured, or have disappeared or been killed by Arab dictators and even leaders who are believed to be moderate in the eyes of the western world.

Visit any major European capital today and you will find a crowd of Arab thinkers, intellectuals, journalists, human rights activists, and scientists who have chosen exile rather than continuing to live under the tyranny of their regimes. Many independent Arab media outlets have thrived in capitals like Paris and London, and many regional Arab NGOs make their official bases outside the region.

Satellite TV and the Internet have been a godsend to many of those opposing authoritarian regimes. The independent TV station Al Jazzera made many of these activists known in the Arab world through programs like the Al Itijah al Muakes (Opposite Direction) and Aktar men rai (More Than One Opinion), and others. The Internet has also provided a censorship-free, difficult to trace, and inexpensive means of mobilizing and raising awareness.

With such a strong Arab democratic movement, an objective observer would expect a strong embrace from Arab intellectuals and human rights activists to the recent calls by the United States government to place serious pressure on Arab regimes to reform their governments. But an eerie silence has fallen on political opponents, both inside the Arab world and in exile. In fact, an unusually overwhelming comprehensive attack has been expressed against the new US reform plan. These attacks, which have appeared in the opinion pages of major Arab newspapers and in satellite talk shows, have focused almost exclusively on three areas. The attacks have questioned the credibility of Washington and expressed major misgivings in the real goals of the US government in general, and the Bush administration in particular. Critics have also attacked the Americans for their high-handed attempts, without consulting with Arab governments or independents, before offering their formula for saving the Arab world from itself. Finally, almost all attacks have called on the US to help solve the Palestinian problem, instead of shifting attention to the issue of the need for reform.

There is a lot of truth in the above mentioned criticism. The US, EU, and any other party interested in reform in the Arab world must take a serious and close look at the issues raised in reaction to the US plan. It seems that this has happened already; the US Secretary of State has been quoted as saying that the US is not trying to impose its plan, and it is clear that a wave of consultation is taking place directly and indirectly with the Arab world.

But while the criticism is correct at face value, I have two problems with it. Many of those expressing it, and most of the media that has carried these opinions, have their own credibility problem vis a vis democracy and human rights. When the Saddam Hussein regime fell, documents were revealed of an extensive network of payments to leading Arab journalists, commentators, and intellectuals. The independence of the media in the Arab world leaves a lot to be desired. I believe that many of the articles expressed in these papers represent many of the authoritarian regimes themselves. I am not saying that these articles were commissioned or paid for by the regimes, but that many Arab leaders seem to be happy with them, and must have privately encouraged them. Many of these regimes would not dare publicly oppose the US on any idea it presents. This is a rare case in which they can appear to be supporting freedom of expression while allowing seemingly independent intellectuals to be their proxies in opposing the US calls for reform.

I also have a problem with those wanting to link reform in the Arab world with a resolution of the Palestinian problem. For far too long, Arab regimes have hijacked the Palestinian problem to divert attention away from their own incompetence and internal troubles. The Palestinian cause will gain, not suffer, from real reform in the Arab world. If such reform would actually happen, and there is a real question that it will, Arab governments will have to be much more responsive to the demands of their people. And the demands of the Arab world today are that their governments support Palestine in deeds, and not just in words. Furthermore, the Palestinian problem is not a real issue when it comes to reform in many Arab countries that are not immediately surrounding Palestine. There is no need to link reform in, say Morocco or Oman, with the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Frankly, what is bothering me with the US call for reform, and the reactions to it, is the silence displayed by genuine Arab intellectuals regarding the substance of, and the need for, reform, rather than the parties behind it. It is true that in such horrible times such as the Arab nation is going through now, it may seem to some that silence is a very good remedy. But I beg to differ. Since Arab democrats have failed to reach their goals through their own efforts, it seems to me that there is no harm in supporting any idea that fits with theirs, irrespective of the messenger. If real intellectuals are not able to make this distinction, they allow hired intellectuals and disguised Arab spokespersons to do all the talking. With any disease, healing begins with the proper diagnosis. If intellectuals are unable or unwilling to properly diagnose our problem, and if they fail to speak, the problems in the Arab world will only worsen, and the desired reform will not take place, irrespective of whether it comes from within or as a result of pressure from without.

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