The Greater Middle East: Moving Beyond Mutual Refutation to What is Required

by Hazem Saghiyeh
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An old joke that has been translated into a number of languages talks about two folk characters, a Turk and an Iranian, known for their extravagant exaggeration of national bravado. According to the joke, the Turk tells the Iranian that the Turkish Sultan Abdul-Hamid had started building a palace twenty years before, and that a nail that fell from the builder's hand when work started, is still on its way to the ground.

The Iranian responded that the Shah had planted a cabbage which grew and expanded and pushed north towards Russia, then to Europe, crossed the Atlantic to America, then to Japan and the rest of Asia. At this point, the Turk made a hand gesture indicating that the Iranian was exaggerating, to which the Iranian soon responded that the cabbage has reached Turkey, and unless he let the nail reach the ground, he will stuff it into Abdul-Hamid's tummy!

Current talk about "The Greater Middle East" reminds us of this joke, for we do not need exceptional brainpower to realize that anyone who fails to establish a little Palestine cannot possibly succeed in building a Great Middle East. Furthermore, how can we believe that the current American administration intends for Arabs to become "democratic" at a time when it does not share the global will to cleanse the environment, rid the world of landmines, establish an international criminal court, or accommodate millions of poor African farmers because it insists on supporting its agricultural monopolies?

How can it be so enthusiastic about democracy in Islamic countries when it knows fully well that democracy will, undoubtedly, bring radical Islamists to power?

The contradictions are endless. Peace between Egypt and Israel, though lukewarm, has survived for over a quarter of a century without Egypt being a model of democracy. In return, any empirically-oriented mind knows that it is more practical to deconstruct the concept of democracy into its basic components, such as to promote the rule of law, support the independence of the judiciary, to empower civil society, support the middle class, and to adopt these elements gradually, instead of the ready-made ideological recipe called "democracy." But when it comes to terrorism, it becomes obvious that the war in Iraq, as is proved daily, has become a hindrance in the war on terror, providing Osama Bin Laden's followers and comrades a new land from which to practice their criminal activities. Not to mention when it comes to weapons of mass destruction, some of Washington's closest allies, in Israel, India and Pakistan, are sitting cross-legged inside the front door of the worrisome club.

There are other liars, as well. Reform-resistant Arab regimes have found, once again, their excuses in Palestine. Although they pay no real attention to Palestinians, they play to the tune of: "as long as Washington has not provided them with a solution, we shall not adopt reform."

From Arab people’s circles, who feed on anti-Western popular mythology, the answer came swiftly: Reform is rejected because it comes from the United States. This gives meaning to a statement ascribed to the late Tunisian president, Habib Bourguiba, during the sixties of the last century, criticizing Arab behavior by saying it resembles a man amputating his own penis to spite his wife.

Yet we live in a suicidal era. Either everything is done our way, or not at all. This is as much a suicidal logic as it is a totalitarian one, for one may not indulge in solving any problem, be it educational or related to women’s rights, or even religious-reform related, unless the problem of the Ummah (nation) is resolved.

This mutual refutation, however, should not obscure certain facts. Obviously, the United States wants the "Greater Middle East" to accomplish certain initiatives of strategic benefit to it. Most likely, targeted changes are much more realistic than "The Greater Middle East," and less related to democracy. Regimes like that of Vladimir Putin in Russia, or Zain al-Abidin Bin Ali of Tunisia, that combine combating terrorism with a degree of instrumental modernity, help in accomplishing the mission. The emerging relationship with the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi may fall within the same category.

Yet the American voice was sufficiently loud to create innumerable ramifications within the Arab body structure. Due to its frailty, this body is incapable of absorbing any tremor, or even the possibility of one. George Bush might not be like Napoleon Bonaparte – and he is not - but our Arab regimes and societies are of the type established by Saddam Hussein, who, only a year and some ago, was said to be one of the most powerful Arab leaders. Yet in spite of that, he was overthrown rapidly, as we witnessed, before being so humiliatingly captured in that hole.

We therefore set aside the much-talked-about Middle East, and aspire to one of a different type. For within this promised bond, a quiet heredity of nationalisms that proved, for the millionth time, its inability to repeat the nineteenth century European model, may emerge. This specifically applies to Arab nationalism, which has surrendered the last remnants of its spirit. Muslims who are proud of the cultural dimension of their religion can only welcome the expansion of this dimension through the Middle East formula. The matter, however, transcends the cultural tone, and enters the realm of resolving devastating conflicts and planning for economic development. It is sufficient to mention that the mounting water crisis, which may evolve into a future conflict, will not find a solution within a nation-state formula, nor within nationalistic formulas dominated by rhetoric and zeal, for the simple reason that the main rivers are not merely national wealth shared by two nations, but rather represent Arab/non-Arab shared wealth. Irrigation projects, investments in the water sector, and canal and dam construction are also very costly projects that cry for cooperation by different states, and fall in the same category.

Yet the more imminent and pressing issues are the ones related to national and regional disputes. The emerging Kurdish problem in Syria reminds us once more of the intricate links binding four or five states, in such a way that makes it impossible to completely solve the problem in one country without a concurrent solution in the others. Before Syria, the Turkish response to political changes in Iraq, especially the post-Saddam Kurdish factor, represented unmistakable proof of this interconnectedness. The same can be said about the Shi'ite problem that could potentially become more complicated, starting in Iraq, and expanding into the various corners of the Gulf, where Arabs and Persians still disagree over its name.

The Palestinian-Israeli problem, and its repercussions throughout the Palestinian Diaspora and neighboring countries, including another Arab land suffering from occupation in the Golan Heights, is not to be overlooked here. Resolution of these problems cannot be attained unless all countries in the region adopt it, and move toward dissolving the fearful elements found in the pluralism of this region in its many components.

The presumption of a parallel process in resolving the many national and nationalistic conflicts of the Middle East, within the framework of a peaceful and open region, should, by definition, produce significant economic impacts. Only then can the inflow of international capital create investment and job opportunities in this otherwise stagnant region that curses globalization much more than it suffers from it or enjoys it.

The bottom line is that a flexible formula, viewing the Middle East as an economic, cultural and political whole, based on its sovereign nation-states, may be a horizon worthy of pushing towards, in a manner that defuses the alienation and repulsion embedded in the current policies of the United States.

- Writer, commentator, and columnist for the Arabic newspaper al-Hayat in London, and author of books on Pan-Arabism and Political Islam. This article is part of a series of views on the US "Greater Middle East" initiative for reform, published in partnership with the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).
 
 
 
 
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OTHER ARTICLES IN SERIES
The Greater Middle East 21st Century Trust—A new partnership
A Small State for Palestinians: A Great Step for the Greater Middle East
A view from Washington
Reform in the Arab World: Tensions and Challenges
Promoting Reform Efforts in the Middle East
The Greater Middle East Initiative, a Turkish Perspective
Let us be Democratic about Democracy
The Greater Middle East Initiative
Reform in the Arab World Requires that True Intellectuals Speak Out
Difficult but necessary: a joint strategy to promote political reform in the Middle East
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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Other articles in this series

The Greater Middle East 21st Century Trust—A new partnership by Senator Richard G. Lugar
A Small State for Palestinians: A Great Step for the Greater Middle East by Gidi Grinstein
A view from Washington by Pamela and Robert Pelletreau
Reform in the Arab World: Tensions and Challenges by Shafeeq Ghabra
Promoting Reform Efforts in the Middle East by Nizar Abdel-Kader
The Greater Middle East Initiative, a Turkish Perspective by Dr. Duygu Bazoglu Sezer
Let us be Democratic about Democracy by Dr. Abdul Aziz Said
The Greater Middle East Initiative by Richard W. Murphy
Reform in the Arab World Requires that True Intellectuals Speak Out by Daoud Kuttab
Difficult but necessary: a joint strategy to promote political reform in the Middle East by Dr. Steven Everts