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Thomas L. Friedman: Ethic of pluralism missing in the Arab world

  • New York Times
  • Published Friday, Jan. 10, 2014, at 12 a.m.

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Every day the headlines from the Arab world get worse: An al-Qaida affiliate group, aided by foreign fighters, battles with seven different homegrown 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 criticizing Hezbollah’s brutish tactics. Another pro-al-Qaida 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 ironfisted 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, argues Marwan Muasher in his extremely relevant new book, “The Second Arab Awakening and the Battle for Pluralism,” none of the Arab uprisings will succeed.

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

If 500,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, and $1 trillion, could not implant lasting pluralism in the cultural soil there, no outsider can, said Muasher.

There also has to be a will from within. Why is it that some 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, D.C., 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.

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 the collective.

This will take time.

“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.”

Thomas L. Friedman writes for the New York Times.

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