Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Between Dust and Deliverance

By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
June 13, 2007

Ramallah, West Bank

I’m sitting in Ramallah at The Yasir Arafat Foundation listening to Nasser al-Kidwa, the thoughtful former Palestinian foreign minister, talk about Palestinian society “disintegrating” around him. What pains him most, he explains, is that any of his neighbors today with money, skills or a foreign passport are fleeing for the West or the Gulf. As he speaks, an old saying pops into my mind — one that applies today to Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine: “Would the last one out please turn off the lights.”

The other day I wrote about how Israel was looking for a “Fourth Way” — after the collapse of the Israeli Left’s land-for-peace strategy, the Right’s permanent occupation strategy and the Israeli third way’s unilateral withdrawal strategy. Well, the Arab world also needs a Fourth Way.

The Arabs tried Nasserism, i.e. authoritarian-nationalism, and that didn’t work. It tried various brands of Arab socialism, and that didn’t work. It even took a flier with bin Ladenism. Bin Laden was the thumb that many Arabs stuck in the eye of the West and of their own hated regimes. But, I would argue, bin Ladenism, and its various jihadist offshoots, has died in Iraq. Yes, it will still have adherents, but it has lost its revolutionary shine, because it has turned out to be nothing more than a death cult.

In my book, the day it died was May 24, 2007, in Falluja, Iraq. Why? Because on that day, 27 people were killed when a suicide bomber in a car attacked a funeral procession for Allawi al-Isawi, a local contractor, who was killed earlier in the day. According to Reuters, “as mourners walked down a main street holding aloft al-Isawi’s coffin, the bomber drove into the crowd and blew himself up.”

Think about that. No — really think about it: A Muslim suicide bomber blew up a Muslim funeral. Is there anything lower? But that is what bin Laden and the jihadists have become: utter nihilists, responsible for killing more Muslims than anyone in the world today and totally uninterested in governing, only in making life ungovernable.

But who offers a way forward? Right now the best Arabs can hope for are the decent, modernizing monarchies, like Jordan, Qatar, Dubai and the United Arab Emirates. I do not see any secular progressivism — a Fourth Way — emerging in the big Arab states like Egypt, Syria, Algeria and Iraq, that is, a progressivism that would effectively promote more rule of law, global integration, multiparty elections, women’s empowerment and modern education to lay the foundations of decent governance. Far from it, Egypt had an election in 2005, and Ayman Nour, the candidate who dared to run against President Mubarak, got thrown in jail on phony charges.

I also don’t see a religious Fourth Way emerging — a progressive Islam articulated by the big, popular Islamic parties like Hamas, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood. Hezbollah took seats in the Lebanese cabinet and then proceeded to launch its own war with Israel. What a great vision.

“Sadly,” observed Middle East analyst Fawaz A. Gerges, in a recent essay on YaleGlobal Online, “mainstream Islamists have provided neither vision nor initiative to build a broad alliance of social forces and transform the political space. They arm themselves with vacuous slogans like ‘Islam is the solution.’ ” No wonder, he adds, that the average Arab citizen is fed up today with both their rulers and the opposition, “who promised heaven and delivered dust.”

But since the Islamic parties have monopolized the mosques and the authoritarian regimes have monopolized the public square, anyone trying to articulate an Arab Fourth Way today “is competing against either God or the state — and between God and the state, what room is left for secular democrats?” asked Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki.

Only weeds can grow there — small nihilist weeds, like Fatah al Islam in Lebanon or Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia in Iraq or Islamic Jihad in Gaza. And they are growing.

“Now any five guys who want to work together and believe they can uphold God’s name and have guns can start an army,” said Mr. Kidwa. “Money is all over the place. There is no money for the needed things, but there is a lot of money to finance [armed] groups.”

That’s why decent people, particularly Arab college grads, are leaving the area. They have no one to cheer for. The only hope for getting them back or for getting us out of Iraq — without leaving the region to the most nihilistic or impoverished elements — is an Arab Fourth Way. But it has to come from them — and right now, it is not happening, not inside Iraq, not outside.

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