Middle East

Their Audacity to Hope

Brave Individuals who challenge the status quo in authoritarian societies-and expect our support

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To judge by the gush of many commentators, President Barack Obama can do no wrong in the Middle East—in contrast, it is said, to George W. Bush, who supposedly could do little that was right. But when it comes to advancing political liberty in the region, the current president has been more ambiguous than his predecessor.

Take Mr. Obama's recent speech in Cairo, hailed as a foundational moment for a new American approach toward Arabs and Muslims. Mr. Obama uttered generalities about democracy and political liberty. Some of it was confusing. He admitted that Iraqis were "ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein," but he added that the Iraq war had shown why diplomacy and international consensus were preferable. Yet since neither diplomacy nor consensus would have ever rid the world of savage Baathist rule—which war did—what lesson did Iraq hold for American policy? Mr. Obama could not explain.

Such confusion is not new. Indeed, the Cairo speech inadvertently captured a long-standing problem of U.S. policy in the Middle East: America's allies and interlocutors in the region are often autocrats sitting atop decaying, illegitimate regimes. Mr. Bush, to his credit, removed a mass murderer from power in Baghdad and helped end 29 years of Syrian hegemony over Lebanon. Mr. Obama has shied away from endorsing any such action: "America does not presume to know what is best for everyone," he insists.

Joshua Muravchik has no qualms about presuming that liberalism and democracy are best for everyone. In The Next Founders he offers admiring profiles of seven individuals who have thought and behaved as liberals in Middle Eastern societies where that kind of thing can be dangerous. The result is a engaging work of group portraiture that is especially welcome at a time when there is otherwise so little interest in making democracy an American priority overseas.

Mr. Muravchik believes that "there is no reason why the democratic idea cannot have a rebirth in the Middle East," where democracy has been "upstaged by the false promises of utopian ideologies." A democratic rebirth, he says, will depend on courageous individuals, and America's role must be to "encourage and assist them and to protect them from persecution to the extent that we can." With help, he believes, democracy can come to the Middle East within a generation. If it does, the democrats he writes about may be among the region's "founders."

Such a scenario may seem simplistic in its optimism, but Mr. Muravchik has caught just how simple the essence of the democracy debate really is. When all it said and done, it is really about individuals who have the audacity to hope that they can break free from the oppressive institutions governing them and who expect that they can count on assistance from like-minded comrades in democratic countries.

Mr. Muravchik introduces us to Wajeha Al-Huwaider, a female Saudi activist who has fought for women's rights in the kingdom against hopeless odds; and Bassem Eid, a Palestinian human-rights activist and journalist who has investigated Israeli human-rights abuses over the years but also the abuses of the Palestinian Authority. There is also Rola Dashti, who played a key role in helping Kuwaiti women earn the right to vote in 2005; and Mohsen Sazegara, an Iranian once close to Ayatollah Khomeini. He turned against the post-Revolution system when he headed a state-owned conglomerate, where he saw the inefficiencies of a command economy. He came to reject Iran's statist economic principles and then moved to a deeper embrace of liberal thought in general. All the democrats in Mr. Muravchik's narrative have been harassed or threatened by the governments they live under, or indeed pressured by members of their own families.

What The Next Founders says, without saying it, is that at the heart of Middle Eastern despotisms are stunted societies that never create a sense of shared purpose for their citizens. Considerable attention has been paid to how such societies breed Islamists, sometimes dangerous ones. Mr. Muravchik prefers to highlight the liberal rejoinder—the citizens who reject the status quo on behalf of freedom and human rights.

Mr. Muravchik's group portrait helps to counter an idea that is gaining ground—that Western governments must engage Islamists to better advance Western aims. He asks that we spare a thought for the fragile liberals who would pay a high price if international legitimacy were to shift decisively to autocratic religious parties.

Mr. Muravchik might have said more about why Western states should support liberals, in all their vulnerability. Take the Syrian dissident Ammar Abdulhamid. Audacious and articulate, Mr. Abdulhamid abandoned a life of privilege in Syria (he is the son of a famous actress) and chose exile in the U.S. so that he could give full force to his criticism of the Assad regime. Yet like many of those described by Mr. Muravchik, he has committed himself to a liberal ideal, and sacrificed a great deal, in return for very little so far. When Western governments revert to so-called reasons of state—where "realism" and supposed self-interest often triumphs—Middle Eastern liberals become a vanguard easily discarded.

The Middle East does not need generations of democratic practice to absorb democracy. That argument, beloved of political realists, is a convenient device for allowing the U.S. to spurn a pro-democracy agenda, which is often seen as undermining national interests. It is an argument that Mr. Muravchik convincingly dismisses. But The Next Founders might have itself argued more strongly that, by ignoring what liberalism there is in the region, the U.S. not only abandons a part of itself; it also makes more likely the proliferation of violent Islamists pining to take revenge against America, the too-frequent defender of their despotic tormentors.

Michael Young is opinion editor at the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and a contributing editor at Reason magazine. This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

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  1. Kill the infidels!

    Liberalism in the Middle East

    Kill most of the infidels!

  2. Yo, fuck Michael Young!

  3. My heart goes out to your liberals who yearn to shuck the yoke of Conservatism in the Middle East. We too still battle the theocrats here – good Iranians.

    Our Wahhibi Christians are legally tempered by our liberal Bill of Rights (thanks – TJ) but your theocrats have no shame or constraint.

    Pat Robertson or Tom Coburn – same as your mullahs….

    Please people – let us shuck the yoke of Conservatism…

  4. dammit – “Wahhabi” instead. I must correct lest the sons of Abraham whack me in the desert.

  5. From what I’ve gathered from meeting lots of intelligent people from that part of the world

    There’s a concept called liberal democracy

    and then there’s democracy

    people in the middle east want democracy
    but not liberal-democracy

    They seem to want democratic Islamism

    I don’t see why we should pay so much money to prop up dictators and stop them achieving it

    once they get this shit out of their system
    the middle east has a chance of developing

  6. Go Middle East democrats! Go Middle East democrats!

    Is that enough help?

    Or does Michael Young have something else in mind — that he can’t or won’t explain?

  7. My heart goes out to your liberals who yearn to shuck the yoke of Conservatism in the Middle East. We too still battle the theocrats here – good Iranians.
    […]
    Pat Robertson or Tom Coburn – same as your mullahs….

    A little perspective here, shrike.

    I can write on this blog, Fuck Pat Robertson, and nothing will come of it. I can even produce an entire blog denouncing Pat Robertson as a buffoon. These things are a little harder if trying the same thing to a nationally known Mullah in Iran.

    When you tell the Iranian people that you feel their pain because we have the same problem here, it’s kind of like insulting Iranians by marginalizing their problems.

  8. MaterialMonkee:

    You’re very much onto the problem. Everyone in the West sees Moussavi as some kind of free-wheeling liberal reformer. He’s not.

    First off, he was chosen to run by the Supreme Ayatollah. Meaning that his ideology is well within the parameters allowed in the political process. Secondly, many people have either forgotten or don’t realize that he was a member of the Muslim Student’s Union that stormed the embassy in Tehran, and was an agitator and activist on the front lines which brought in the very Islamic regime Iran has to this very day.

    Project Runway would be appearing on Iranian television had Moussavi won the election.

  9. ahem, Runway would *not* be appearing on Iranian television…

    I will use the preview button
    I will use the preview button
    I will use the preview button

  10. I can write on this blog, Fuck Pat Robertson, and nothing will come of it. I can even produce an entire blog denouncing Pat Robertson as a buffoon. These things are a little harder if trying the same thing to a nationally known Mullah in Iran.

    Along those lines, I might as well plug this recent GlobalPost item

    They are, in no particular order, the son of a hardline ayatollah, a former cabinet minister, a women’s rights activist, and a husband and his pregnant wife. They are the bloggers and journalists arrested in Iran’s post-election crackdown, and they are being held at Section 209 of Tehran’s notorious Evin prison.

    And while two recent decisions by the Iranian authorities – to release the Greek freelance reporter Iason Athanasiadis, a GlobalPost [contributor], and to arrest Newsweek’s Maziar Bahari – have made headlines around the world, more than 30 Iranian journalists and bloggers remain in custody at Evin, well out of the international media spotlight.

    As focus shifts away from Iran’s post-election unrest, the chances of a timely release – if any – grow slimmer.

    …as well as this related feature

    I noticed the image as I scrolled down my Facebook page and it chilled me to the bone. Staring back at me from the screen was a younger version of me flanked by two Iranian photographer friends, in a personal photograph taken almost three years ago.

    What business did it have on a friend’s thread illustrating a very public Persian-language article?

    I squinted to make out the writing. The heading above the picture read: “Security Apparatus Conspiracy Against Journalists: Majid Saeedi Also Arrested.”

  11. “He admitted that Iraqis were “ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein,”

    I think a few hundred thousand dead Iraqis would not agree with this. Along with the million christian Iraqis that are having to flee their homes & country to keep from being slaughtered.

  12. Cabeza: Blood, tree, patriots, pro patria mori, purple fingers, etc.

  13. I wouldn’t know how to check the facts in Young’s article, but I notice how often, as a general rule, “realism” is a euphemism for cowardice. This tendency gives credibility to Young’s argument.

  14. “Cowardice”? What courage does it take for an author to advocate military action in support of democracy when the author’s ass isn’t on-the-line?

    I think that the more accurate description is that realism is another word for prudence.

  15. Why is it the business of the U.S. what type of government a country has? Because ours is such a raging success?

    Yo, fuck capitalist christian democracy supremacists!

  16. with a tip -o- the hat to Xeones of course ;}

  17. I think a few hundred thousand dead Iraqis would not agree with this. Along with the million christian Iraqis that are having to flee their homes & country to keep from being slaughtered.

    Remind me again: how is that the fault of the United States? Were those “few hundred thousand dead” mostly killed by American bullets? Were the christians run out by American bayonets?

    I didn’t think so.

  18. TAO,

    Both of these were foreseeable consequences of the invasion of Iraq. The US is responsible in the same way a grocery store is responsible for people slipping and falling in its parking lot which it fails to salt during an ice storm.

  19. Yeah, we just toppled a country’s government–yes, it was a horrible dictatorship, but a government nonetheless–knocked out infrastructure, and created a power vacuum in a country with different ethnic and religious factions, and we did this completely uninvited.

    We’re totally not responsible for anything that happens with that. It’s fun to break someone else’s country when it’s not yours.

    Tell me you’re not *that* dense TAO. If you have children, I really hope that you don’t teach them that they’re not responsible for the consequences of their actions.

  20. Cabeza de Vaca | July 15, 2009, 8:47pm | #
    “He admitted that Iraqis were “ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein,”

    I think a few hundred thousand dead Iraqis would not agree with this. Along with the million christian Iraqis that are having to flee their homes & country to keep from being slaughtered.

    I think a few MILLION living relatives of the MILLION Iraqis Saddam’s regime DELIBERATELY MURDERED would agree that you are indeed empty-headed and that our troops are the real peace-makers and patriots while cowardly and treasonous hypocrites like you should be tried and executed for your role in supporting their genocidal dictators with your every word and deed, just like your current god and dictator 0bama (piss be upon him). You are all the real war criminals.

    You murderous pacifascists with your damnable lies are a cruel blight on liberty and justice all the world over. Do us all a favor: crawl back under the rock from whence you came, curl up, and die of starvation, you miserable ticks and fleas.

    By the way, Nemo, what’s that about breaking OTHER people’s countries? Looks to me like you fool pacifascists have done plenty to break your own country. Just look what all your treasonous rants against this war of liberation and its architects have gotten you all now: 0bama and the Dhimmicrats!

    When your totalitarian pacifascist Kenyan god is herding you and your fellow traitors into a death camp (because a usurper can never allow fellow traitors who elevated him to his throne to live), may you cry aloud to God and man alike for help, and may all your cries be in vain, just as they were for all those Iraqis Saddam murdered in the 1990s while you congratulated yourselves for voting out Bush 41. Their blood is on your hands.

  21. Hey,

    Packed Head, take some sedatives.

    Has anyone noticed that Al Qaeda in Iraq has a banner that looks exactly like a pirate flag?

  22. Packed Head; I’m pretty sure you don’t know where you are.

    We’re not often actually pacifists here. Just non-aggression…ists.

  23. If Iranian or Syrian or anyone else wants “liberty” then they better get to work at it and stop expecting that Americans are going to provide it for them. Why should my liberty be limited to support others. Why should my money be stolen from me, why should efforts of my government be diverted from my interests to that of these others.

    If Michael Young want to put his money, his sweat, his life on the line for these people then he should do it, leave me out of it. My government has stolen my liberty and my money in self proclaimed efforts to slay dragons around the world and yet all I see is that I am more enslaved then ever.

  24. How does bringing democracy to a fundamentalist islam country bring about freedom?

    Won’t they just elect fundamentalist theocrats who will then take away all teh freedoms?

    ans then won’t we have jsut waste our lives and dollars…and when we indebt ourselves to Russia and China to pay for our misadventrue won’t we then just be empowering the two biggest potential threats to “american style freedom”?

  25. How come government power is a bad thing when it is used to give me health insurance but its a great thing to tell other governments how to govern their country?

    Since when does libertarianism stop at the water’s edge? If we truly respect other countries than we must respect their CHOICES even if we don’t agree with them.

    I also think Gabe is right…if we get into the business of removing non-democratic governments what do we do if the people elect a totalitarian regime?

    The bottom line is radio free whateverstan can’t give countries freedom…only the citizens of a country can do that. Clearly Iraq has shown us it is far too expensive for us to go around liberating countries..even if led by blood thristy dictators.

    If you get into this foreign policy as moral crusade we’ll be at war with over half the governments of the world before you can say “overextended”.

    Besides we still hold “enemy combatants” indefinitely without trail so who are we to go around lecturing others?

  26. But liberty and democracy are two different things… Besides, taxpayers money should not be spent to interfere in the affairs of foreign nations. “Liberty enlightening the world”, leading by example is the way to go.

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  28. If people don’t want freedom, you can’t force it on them. If they do want it, they don’t need your help.
    Americans are more than a little ambivalent about their own freedom (sloganeering aside), but they assume everyone else wants more of it. Some do, and good luck to them.

  29. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight…the Bible’s books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on…the Bible’s books were written by people with very different mindsets…in order to really get the Books of the Bible, you have to cultivate such a mindset, it’s literally a labyrinth, that’s no joke

  30. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane.

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