8.15.2005

Research: Arab Media: Tools of the Governments; Tools for the People?

The United States Institute of Peace has issued a report “Arab Media: Tools of the Governments; Tools for the People?”

Following is the last section of this report:

Full report

Possible Destinies

The June 30, 2004, move to recognize Iraqi autonomy in the form of a U.S.-appointed government and the January 30, 2005, elections—which happened on schedule and in a mostly free-and-fair way—have gone far to release the insurgents’ psychological grip on the region’s blind acceptance of U.S. malevolence. Add to this the mostly free-and-fair election of Abu Mazen in Palestine and the however-limited local elections recently conducted in Saudi Arabia, and we begin to sense a tectonic political shift in the region. It is still too much to hope that Western-style democracy is around the corner, but something fundamentally new is emerging in Arab politics. However tenuous the tie, it seems to have something to do with the awakening of the Arab public to its own power. Could it be that Arab media, for all their warts, have played a part in that awakening?

Despite emergent signs that regime reform may indeed be gaining ground in the region, regnant regimes have much to lose in power and wealth, threat of bloody insurgencies by jihadists, or retribution from those who replace them. What regional institution would be capable of midwifing this transformation? Will it be left to foreigners or insurgents? Is it plausible to hope that the public will find its voice and challenge the regimes to transform into a just rule of law? Not until the public recognizes itself as an institution and a change agent. Only the media can provide a reflection of their public’s values, which, once recognized, could empower citizens to claim their rights and obligations. Can these hobbled media, perceived a lackeys to their governments, perform this role?

Notwithstanding the deeply moving images of throngs of Lebanese youth attempting to usher in the “Cedar Revolution” or Hosni Mubarak’s recent gestures toward expanding human and civil rights to other candidates in the upcoming Egyptian election, it is prudent to remain merely cautiously optimistic. Whatever shifts are afoot, they will take a while to become anchored in the civic understanding of citizen responsibility and political accountability of just governance. The regional press has a critical role to play in this transformation. It is not at all clear whether this press has the wherewithal to transform itself, much less the citizenry of its respective countries.

Yet regime transition is occurring in the region. To some degree it is occurring in spite of recent U.S. encouragement, but to some degree because of it, too. One of Egypt’s most prominent human rights activists, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, just released from three years of imprisonment for having questioned Egyptian electoral procedures, observed that President Bush midwifed a process that was already in formation. Despite breathless attempts by U.S. pundits to recast the direction of regional politics from tyranny to democracy since January, more prudent observers will still query the volatility of these publics’ political affiliations. It is not plausible that widespread suspicion and hatred associated with the U.S. government’s occupation of Iraq and historical support of Israel have evaporated in the sunlight of purple fingers, Mubarak’s election promises, or Syria’s agreement to withdraw, however gradually, from Lebanon. Too, as Richard Haass argued, “Democracies are not always peaceful. Immature democracies—those that hold elections but lack many of the checks and balances characteristic of a true democracy—are particularly vulnerable to being hijacked by popular passions. Post-communist Serbia is but one illustration of the reality that such countries do go to war” (Washington Post, January 24, 2005, A15). Islamists have not lost their influence in the region, especially among the mostly illiterate, poor, unemployed youth who comprise one-third of the region’s population.

Consequently, as change in the region advances, it is likely to become bloodier and even more confusing. Bloody because so much is at stake for the regional actors, confusing because no one is quite sure who the actors are and what they represent. In an analysis of the political dynamic of insurgency movements, Michael Vlahos wrote in Terror’s Mask: Insurgency Within Islam (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002, pp. 28; 26), “The [radical Islamist] insurgency is an authentic Islamic renewal movement and central to change.” Accordingly, “a successful Islamist revolution today is possibly the best way to defuse ‘radical’ Islam—because of necessity it will do the defusing itself.” In other words, reform may not come through liberal democracy ushered in by moderate Islamists. It may have to come through the turbulence of a French Revolution that turns what exists for a political space in on itself and comes out the other side. That, of course, is a truly scary prospect.

Robin Wright explored this argument in the Washington Post “Outlook” article (September 12, 2004), “After Grief, the Fear We Won’t Admit.” She quotes Ellen Laipson, president of the Stemson Center, as saying, the reality perimeters are that “it’s hard to imagine political evolution in the next twenty years that does not include the Islamists. They have established legitimacy and a following and you won’t make them disappear overnight by supporting the activities of a small elite of secular modernists...you have to image a political space that has both.” How, then, would that political space become less threatening for the West? To answer this question, Wright turns to regional expert Olivier Roy, who responded, “Conservative and even fundamentalist views of religion are manageable in a plural environment, as shown by a host of Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish cases. A pluralist approach allows civil society to reach the cadres of youth who could be ideal targets for radicals and neo-fundamentalists groups.”

How do we get there from here? Wright points to Chairman of the National Intelligence Council, Robert Hutchings’ reasoning in a recent issue of Foreign Policy magazine, “Even as it wages a resolute campaign against international terrorism, America should not believe that it is engaged in a fight to the finish with radical Islam. This conflict is not a clash of civilizations, but rather a defense of our shared humanity and a search for common ground, however implausible that may seem now.” Without doubt, until political reform toward classical liberal values occurs in the region, the media will never become an objective fourth estate to ensure good governance. To a greater extent than we would like to acknowledge, most of the work toward that end is for the people in the region to do themselves. Fouad Ajami observed, “For at heart, this war for Islam is one for Muslims to fight. It is for them to recover their faith from the purveyors of terror” (“Facing up to unholy terror,” USNews.com. September 20, 2004. Online. Available http://www.usnews.com/usnews/news/articles/040920/ 20fouad.htm.).

In some respects, such reflections remove the burden of having to answer the question about why they hate us by saying that all of this boils down to an internal struggle over ascendancy in the region. Yes and no. Whether or not revolution is inevitable, the United States could ease the path to regime reform and a freer life for the Arab peoples by pursuing policies that these populations do not see as a threat to their lives and identity and that encourage their efforts to work for legitimate, responsible, accountable, and representative governments of their own. David Brooks (“War of Ideology,” New York Times, July 24, 2004, A13) provided a tough reality check for Americans as we ready ourselves to take on this newest burden:


We now need a commission to analyze our intellectual failures. . . .We need to see that the landscape of reality is altered. In the past, we’ve fought ideological movements that took control of states. Our foreign policy apparatus is geared toward relations with states: negotiating with states, confronting states. Now we are faced with a belief system that is inimical to the state system, and aims at theological rule and the restoration of the caliphate. We’ll need a new set of institutions to grapple with this reality, and a new training method to understand people who are uninterested in national selfinterest, traditionally defined.

Although through the years, U.S. policies toward the region have exacerbated a festering indignation among diverse Arab populations, who are only broadly unified by their common language, it is their shared religion that represents their greatest political challenge. Arabs, who inhabit the heartland of Islam’s sacred sites and who must show appropriate stewardship of this divine providence to the rest of Islam, are politically conflicted. They are quite naturally drawn to the defiant hope of the radical and violent resurgence of the religious and cultural hegemony of a “restored” Islam offered by the ideological movement of al Qaeda. Yet, their own rich history as handed down through the writings of such thinkers as Al Farabi, Averroes, and Ibn Khaldun could guide them to governance based on toleration, rule of law, reverence for truth, as well as piety—a much sounder reclamation of a golden age of Islam.

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