The Middle Eastern strongmen are back

The counterrevolution is in full swing. Islamists and secular liberals do battle. The Shiite and Sunni worlds confront each other writes ROGER COHEN
by ROGER COHEN | Oct 30, 2013

This is an extract from an Op-Ed piece antitled "The Middle East Pendulum" written by ROGER COHEN and published on the


The Middle Eastern strongmen are back. The counterrevolution is in full swing. Islamists and secular liberals do battle. The Shiite and Sunni worlds confront each other. A two-state Israeli-Palestinian peace looks impossible. Freedom is equated with chaos. For this region there is no future, only endless rehearsals of the past.

Poisoned by colonialism, stymied by Islam’s battle with modernity, inebriated by oil, blocked by the absence of institutions that can mediate the fury of tribe and ethnicity, Middle Eastern states turn in circles. Syria is now the regional emblem, a vacuum in which only the violent nihilism of the jihadi thrives.

Just two and a half years after the Arab Spring, talk of the future — any future — seems preposterous. Countries build futures on the basis of things that do not exist here: consensus as to the nature of the state, the rule of law, a concept of citizenship that overrides sectarian allegiance, and the ability to place the next generation’s prosperity above the settling of past scores.

Syria’s Bashar al-Assad has gassed his own people. Iraq is again engulfed in Sunni-Shiite violence. The U.S.-trained Egyptian Army has slaughtered members of the Muslim Brotherhood. It is hard to recall the heady season of 2011 when despots fell and Arabs spoke with passion of freedom and personal empowerment. The Arab security state has shown its resilience; it breeds extremism. As the political theorist Benjamin Barber has noted, “Fundamentalism is religion under siege.”

A scenario of endless conflict is plausible. Yet there are glimmerings. Repressive systems have survived but mind-sets have changed. The young people of the region (the median age in Egypt, where nearly one quarter of all Arabs live, is 25) will not return to a state of submission. They have tasted what it is to bring change through protest. As in Iran, where the deep reformist current was crushed in 2009 only to resurface in 2013, these currents run deep and will re-emerge.

Here in Turkey, the closest approximation to a liberal order in a Middle Eastern Muslim state exists. That is the region’s core challenge: finding a model that reconciles Islam and modernity, religion with non-sectarian statehood. So it is worth recalling that Turkey’s democracy is the fruit of 90 years of violent back-and-forth since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the Republic in 1923, and imposed a Western culture.

Only over the past decade, with the arrival in power of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has the idea taken hold that Islam is compatible with a liberal order. For many secular Turks the swing of the pendulum has been excessive. The protests at Gezi Park this summer were about Erdogan’s invasion in the name of Islam of Turks’ personal lives. This was democratic pushback from Turkey’s secular coast against the conservative Anatolian heartland.

If in Turkey it has taken 90 years for a democracy to evolve that is not anti-Islamic, then the 30 months since the Arab Spring are a mere speck in time. Moreover, as Mustafa Akyol points out in his book “Islam Without Extremes,” Turkey, unlike most other Muslim countries, was never colonized, with the result that political Islam did not take on a virulent anti-Western character. It was not a violent reaction against being the West’s lackey, as in Iran.

Now Iran, under its new president, Hassan Rouhani, is trying again to build moderation into its theocracy and repair relations with the West. Such attempts have failed in the past. But the Middle Eastern future will look very different if the U.S. Embassy in Tehran — symbol of the violent entry into the American consciousness of the Islamic radical — reopens and the Islamic Republic becomes a freer polity.

Nothing inherent to Islam makes it anti-Western. History has. The Islamic revolution was an assertion of ideological independence from the West. As power in the world shifts away from the West, this idea has run its course. Iranians are drawn to America.

The United States can have cordial relations with Iran just as it does with China, while disagreeing with it on most things. A breakthrough would demonstrate that the vicious circles of the Middle East can be broken.

I believe the U.S. Embassy in Tehran will reopen within five years because the current impasse has become senseless. With Iran inside the tent rather than outside, anything would be possible, even an Israeli-Palestinian peace.

If Arabs could see in Israel not a Zionist oppressor but the region’s most successful economy, a modern state built in 65 years, they would pose themselves the right questions about openness, innovation and progress. Israel, in turn, by getting out of the business of occupation and oppression, could ensure its future as a Jewish and democratic state.

There is another future for the Middle East, one glimpsed during the Arab Spring, but first it must be dragged from the insistent clutches of the past.


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