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US reform threatens Arab identity by Dr Sami Zebian Tuesday 18 May 2004 9:38 AM GMT
The Middle East remains in a state of turmoil
It could have been possible for any reform initiative, including the Greater Middle East Initiative proposed by the US, to succeed had it not been proposed in the present climate.
The Middle Eastern climate is volatile both politically and militarily from Palestine to Iraq, and even to the countries surrounding it - Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kashmir. The responsibility of such a climate is ironically, both directly and indirectly, that of the current US administration led by President George Bush - the same administration that proposed the initiative.
Therefore, not surprisingly, the American initiative comes saturated with the political hallmarks of that administration, which is perhaps best described as completely self-centred with no regard for Arab and/or Muslim societies led on by promises of reform while at the same time being existentially threatened.
Here the contradiction within the initiative becomes apparent: How can the people of the Middle East trust the American administration to be loyal in its initiative when they have been subjected to threats as a result of that administration's strategies?
Reform initiatives - economic, social or administrative - proposed for any country or region have always gone hand in hand with political agendas. However, what is striking about the much needed and awaited current US initiative is that first and foremost it is based on political goals. This must be taken into account before it is accepted or refused.
And if I personally favour the rejection of the initiative, then it is because it is obvious that the hidden goal is to further weaken and intimidate Arab and/or Muslim societies - a kick them when they are down approach and make sure they stay down.
What is striking about the US initiative is that first and foremost it is based on political goals
If not, then why is it that such an initiative was not proposed at a time when its acceptance was much more likely, ie in the many years leading to the present explosive climate as opposed to during such a climate?
Therefore, the present American intention does not aim at reforming the situations of these Arab and/or Muslim societies but rather to achieve that double intimidation that I referred to, and which is two-fold.
The aim of such strategic intimidation is to eliminate any form of Arab or Muslim unity considered as a threat to the US strategy, and that of its strategic ally, Israel. For that reason, the administration tried drowning any Arab or Muslim unity into the proposed US initiative, the Greater Middle East Initiative.
One US aim could be to break Arab and Muslim unity
The US term for the success of such reform is that Arabs and Muslims were to forget what they have in common, moreover, also to forget Islam and its revered values.
The US initiative is to convince Arabs and Muslims that what they have in common is geographical not historical.
In addition, the US wanted, through its initiative, to include the Arab countries with the Muslim ones such as Iran, Turkey, Pakistan and Afghanistan and to unite them in a secure frame, the frame of the North Atlantic coalition, therefore having total domination and control over its security, similar to what it did with emerging eastern European countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
No nation excluded
The second aim of the American initiative is intimidation inside each country.
The American reform means to disturb the position of each Arab and Muslim country through forced development without considering its humanitarian, structural or social identity and culture, such as the woman's situation in these culture or attitude towards mixing between the two sexes.
This is similar to what the Shah's regime tried in Iran when it launched the White Revolution, applying the western way of life to Iranian society. The majority of Iranians refused such oppressive change and stayed faithful to the Islamic rules and way of life.
Is the West's political model another Shah of Iran?
The same happened in Malaysia and other countries, where a natural social development occurred instead of a categorical change suggested by the American initiative.
One disturbing feature of the initiative is the concept of "no boundaries" between societies, therefore disregarding any human or social structure of such societies.
Such a concept is very dangerous. The level of freedom and rights varies from one Arab and/or Muslim country to another depending on the relationship and amount of communication between it and western culture.
In addition, political circumstances could hinder any prominent political openness: Syria, for example, is under pressure with the Israeli occupation of its Golan Heights.
The continuing war on Iraq and its negative consequences deny its neighbouring countries political openness. The war with Israel and the situation in Iraq both cause huge financial drains to the countries concerned, forcing them to put security and military needs before development projects.
This is the dangerous side of the American project. As for equality, pluralism, job opportunities, liberty for all citizens and women's rights in Arab and Muslim societies, they are the daily call in the writing of every Arab and Muslim writer.
The first step in any reform is to separate government resources from the personal benefits of leaders
The problem is not in depicting these problems, but in implementing them. A successful way of applying them is through a precise understanding of these societies that seem to be struggling under familial, tribal and sectarian groupings.
These characteristics obstruct democracy in some Arab states and have turned others into countries ruled by families and sects.
Therefore, the first step in any reform is to separate government resources from the personal benefits of leaders and reduce the authority of families and sects on it, making it a regime for all citizens.
Rule of law
The government should not be controlled by people getting their power from their sectarian background, but must be ruled by law and regulations.
And this requires time and money to be accomplished, to reach a state that will offer national health systems, pensions, maternity benefits, etc - like in Europe and the United States - to each and every citizen, irrespective of his/her sectarian identity.
If the intellectual Arab elites as well as the politicians reject this US project, it is because they clearly understand it. All members of the societies reject this project, since they perceive that its aim is to change their social habits. These habits need time to transform, unlike any political or economical issues that can be changed based on short-term plans.
Social change takes longer than it does to vote in a government
Arab and Muslim societies have witnessed many political changes in the past 25 years, but social status has stayed more or less the same.
Any political situation can be easily changed through elections, and this can be done in less than a year. However, changing the social, cultural and behavioural structure of societies takes longer and cannot be done in the same way.
For instance, 50 years ago Turkey changed its political structure from an Islamic system to a European secular one, and still not much has changed in its social behaviour, evident by its having an Islamic party governing once again.
The hijab remains a dominant feature in Turkish society with the secular government unable to remove it, since secularism could not affect social composition at all its levels, leaving it with many of its old Islamic habits and behaviour.
Many Arabic and Muslim countries are similar to Turkey in preserving their Islamic identity.
Although it is highly recommended that we develop our societies and encourage change, this must be initiated from inside and not imposed from outside.
It is evident that the US project is rejected, since it does not recognise the true structure of the Muslim social order nor its identity. As a result, I think that the common people in the Middle East refuse this project more than the political elite.
Dr Sami Zebian is the author of many books and editor-in-chief of Al-Hawadeth Weekly magazine.
Aljazeera By Dr Sami Zebian
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