May 20, 2004


Is the Modern Era history?

That 500-year period, marked by the age of exploration, the creation of nations and the Enlightenment that unleashed ideologies designed to empower the individual, faces its last great challenge in the 50 disparate countries that constitute the Islamic world -- ruled by the last bloc of authoritarian monarchs, dictators and leaders-for-life. The Iraq war was supposed to produce a new model for democratic transformation, a catalyst after which the United States and its allies could launch an ambitious initiative for regional change.

But now, whatever America's good intentions may have been , that historic moment may be lost for a long time to come.

Over the past dozen years many factors favored transformation in the world's most volatile region. The buzz among students at Tehran University, editorial writers in Beirut and Amman, the leading human rights activist in Cairo, a feminist leader in Rabat, intellectuals in Lahore and teenage girls in Jakarta has increasingly been about democratic reforms and how to achieve them. New public voices, daring publications, occasionally defiant protests in widely diverse locales gave shape to an energetic, if somewhat disjointed, trend.

Thanks to satellite dishes, shortwave radios and the Internet, Muslims have longingly watched societies from South Africa to Chile to the former Soviet republics shed odious ideologies and repressive regimes. Many haven't wanted to be left behind; they've wanted much of what we've wanted for them.

And despite the initial flirtation with fiery versions of political Islam after they emerged a quarter-century ago, Muslims of vastly diverse cultures and languages, in areas stretching from North Africa through the Arab heartland into Asia, ended up rejecting the ideas propagated by Iran's "mullahcracy" in the 1980s and the Taliban's intolerant theocracy in Afghanistan of the 1990s.

The recent patterns of regional change -- education, a new middle class and a demographic bulge heavily favoring the young generation -- have pointed societies in another direction. In the end, the quest for genuine freedoms either left many militant movements on the margins or forced them to join the mainstream.

That's Robin Wright in last Sunday's WaPo Outlook section. She says she's scared, and her fear may be well placed.

Yet I am scared because the foundation for the region's democratic transformation has steadily eroded over the past year. Whether the U.S.-led occupation was wise or well-handled, the way it unfolded in Iraq has profoundly disappointed many Muslims both near and far from Iraq's borders. The accumulation of events threatens to undo rather than remake the region, in turn delaying or diverting the course of the Modern Era's final phase.

The occupation of Iraq has affirmed the worst fears of the Islamic world, reinforcing distaste for America and what it represents, and spawning wild conspiracy theories about the motives of the West. Many Muslims now see the American intervention as a devastating betrayal, starkly reflected by the Red Cross's recent conclusion that 70 to 90 percent of all Iraqis who were "deprived of their liberty" -- by the world champion of democracy -- "were arrested by mistake." Others in the region react with fury to the symbolism of a naked Arab male on a concrete floor tethered to a female American soldier looking down with disinterested arrogance on her prisoner at Abu Ghraib.

"Beyond those frolicking soldiers, there is a certain cavalier attitude toward Arabs and Muslims that has created a sense that Arabs are guilty until proven otherwise," reflected Hisham Melham, a Washington correspondent for al-Arabiya television. So while America's ambitious postwar initiative to promote democracy in the "greater Middle East," -- which includes imaginative proposals, such as training 100,000 female teachers to instruct and empower girls by closing the gender gap -- will probably still make its debut at three international summits next month, it's unlikely to generate much traction anytime soon.

Read the whole thing. Something's wrong with the Post's website, so you may have to scroll down a little to get to the copy, but it's worth it.

Posted by Linkmeister at May 20, 2004 12:01 AM