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A fight for many voices

Every day the headlines from the Arab world get worse: an al-Qaeda affiliate group, aided by foreign fighters, battles with seven different home-grown Syrian rebel groups for control of the region around Aleppo, Syria. The Iranian embassy in Beirut is bombed. Mohamad Chatah, an enormously decent former Lebanese finance minister, is blown up after criticising Hezbollah’s brutish tactics. Another pro-al-Qaeda group takes control of Fallujah, in Iraq. Explosions rock Egypt, where the army is now jailing Islamists and secular activists. Libya is a mess of competing militias.

What’s going on? Some say it’s all because of the ‘‘power vacuum’’ – the United States has absented itself from the region. But this is not just about us. There’s also a huge ‘‘values vacuum’’. The Middle East is a highly pluralistic region – Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, Christians, Druze and various tribes – that for centuries was held together from above by iron-fisted colonial powers, kings and dictators. But now that vertical control has broken down, before this pluralistic region has developed any true bottom-up pluralism – a broad ethic of tolerance – that might enable its people to live together as equal citizens, without an iron fist from above.

For the Arab awakening to have any future, the ideology that is most needed now is the one being promoted least: pluralism.

Until that changes,  Marwan Muasher argues in his extremely relevant new book The Second Arab Awakening and the Battle for Pluralism, none of the Arab uprisings will succeed.

Again, US President Barack Obama could have done more to restrain leaders in Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran or Syria from going to extremes. But, ultimately,  Muasher argues, this is the Arabs’ fight for their political future.

If 500,000 US troops in Iraq and $US1 trillion could not implant lasting pluralism in the cultural soil there, no outsider can,  Muasher says.


There also has to be a will from within. Why is it that 15,000 Arabs and Muslims have flocked to Syria to fight and die for jihadism and zero have flocked to Syria to fight and die for pluralism? Is it only because we didn’t give the ‘‘good guys’’ big enough guns?

As Muasher, a former Jordanian foreign minister and now a vice-president at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, put it in an interview: ‘‘Three years of the Arab uprising have shown the bankruptcy of all the old political forces in the Arab world.’’

The corrupt secular autocrats who failed to give their young people the tools to thrive – and, as a result, triggered these uprisings – are still locked in a struggle with Islamists, who also have no clue how to deliver jobs, services, security and economic growth. (Tunisia may be an exception.)

‘‘As long as we’re in this zero-sum game, the sum will be zero,’’ Muasher says.

No sustainable progress will be possible, Muasher argues, without the ethic of pluralism permeating all aspects of Arab society – pluralism of thought, pluralism in gender opportunities, pluralism in respect to other religions, pluralism in education, pluralism toward minorities, pluralism of political parties rotating in power and pluralism in the sense of everyone’s right to think differently from thecollective. The first Arab awakening in the 20th century was a fight for independence from colonial powers, Muasher says. It never continued as a fight for democracy and pluralism.

That war of ideas, he insists, is what ‘‘the second Arab awakening’’ has to be about. Neither the autocrats nor the Islamists can deliver progress.

‘‘Pluralism is the operating system we need to solve all our problems, and as long as that operating system is not in place, we will not get there. This is an internal battle. Let’s stop hoping for delivery from the outside.’’ This will take time.

Naive? No. Naive is thinking that everything is about the absence or presence of US power, and that the people of the region have no agency. That’s wrong: Iraq is splintering because Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki behaved like a Shiite militiaman, not an Iraqi Mandela. Arab youths took their future in their own hands, motivated largely by pluralistic impulses. The old order proved to be too stubborn, yet these  aspirations have not gone away, and will not.

‘‘The Arab world will go through a period of turmoil in which exclusionist forces will attempt to dominate the landscape with absolute truths and new dictatorships,’’ Muasher writes.

But ‘‘these forces will also fade, because, in the end, the exclusionist, authoritarian discourses cannot answer the people’s needs for better quality of life ... As history has demonstrated overwhelmingly, where there is respect for diversity, there is prosperity.

‘‘Contrary to what Arab societies have been taught for decades by their governments to believe – that tolerance, acceptance of different points of view, and critical thinking are destructive to national unity and economic growth – experience proves that societies cannot keep renewing themselves and thereby thrive except through diversity.’’

Muasher has dedicated his book to: ‘‘The youth of the Arab World – who revolted, not against their parents, but on their behalf.’’

Thomas Friedman is a Pulitzer prize-winning columnist for The New York Times.