Modern history

A RETURN TO GREATNESS?

In antiquity, the Middle East was the birthplace of human civilization and of monotheistic religion. In the Middle Ages, it was the home of the first truly international and intercultural society, the source of towering innovations and achievements in almost every field of science and technology, of culture and the arts. It was the base of a succession of great and vast empires. The last of them, in many ways the greatest, was the Ottoman Empire. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was a mighty world power—its armies twice reached as far as Vienna, its ships sailed as far as Iceland and Sumatra. Since then there has been no Middle Eastern great power, nor is there likely to be one until the Middle East has resolved the political, economic, cultural and societal problems that prevent it from accomplishing the next stage in the advance of civilization.

The continuing struggle within the region, with the consequent diversion of energy and resources to the politics and weaponry of war, can only make a resumption of outside interference and domination more likely. If the Middle East falls under the rule of China or of a resurgent Russia, things will be different from the old days. Nationalist delegations will not follow each other to Beijing or Moscow, as they used to go to London and Paris, to negotiate with their rulers and put their case before public opinion in the metropolis. Gandhi succeeded against Britain; the Intifada worked against Israel. They would have had short shrift from such rulers as Hitler or Stalin, Mao Tse Tung or Saddam Hussein.

But there is another way—that of peace and progress. The second will depend very largely on the first. This requires from all parties a readiness to compromise on their own claims and a willingness to tolerate the claims of others. Compromise and tolerance have not been much in evidence in the Middle East in the past, but there have been intermittent signs of both among some of the key players. If the different peoples of the region really pool their skills and resources, they may once again make the Middle East, as it was in an increasingly remote past, a major center of human civilization. If they do not, they and their children face a grim future.

Perhaps the best hope for the region is the gradual if reluctant emancipation of women. Already in the nineteenth century some Muslim observers noted that one significant reason why their society was falling behind that of the West was that they were depriving themselves of the talents and services of half the population—the female half. Since then there has been some progress in some countries, but the problem remains a very difficult one, and in large parts of the Muslim world women are still subject to constraints and disabilities far worse than anything prescribed in Muslim scripture and law or even practiced in early Islamic times. Much will depend, notably, on the development of free and democratic institutions, including the level of participation of the previously excluded half of the population—the female half.

The creation of a free society, as the history of existing democracies makes clear, is no easy matter. The experience of the Turkish republic over the last six decades and of some other Muslim countries more recently has demonstrated two things: first, that it is indeed very difficult to create a democracy in such a society, and, second, that, although difficult, it is not impossible.

The study of Islamic history and of the vast and rich Islamic political literature encourages the belief that it may well be possible to develop democratic institutions—not necessarily according to our Western definition of that much misused term but according to one deriving from their own history and culture and ensuring, in their way, limited government under law, consultation and openness in a civilized and humane society. There is enough in the traditional culture of Islam, on the one hand, and the modern experience of the Muslim peoples, on the other, to provide the basis for an advance toward freedom in the true sense of that word. Even after the toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, the forces of tyranny and terror remain very strong, and the outcome is still far from certain. But as the struggle rages and intensifies, certain things that were previously obscure are becoming clear. The war against terror and the quest for freedom are inextricably linked, and neither can succeed without the other. The struggle is no longer limited to one or two countries, as some Westerners still manage to believe. It has acquired first a regional and then a global dimension, with profound consequences for all of us.

If freedom fails and terror triumphs, the peoples of Islam will be the first and greatest victims. They will not be alone, and many others will suffer with them.

For each and every country and for the region as a whole, there is a range of alternative futures: at one end, cooperation and progress toward peace and freedom, enlightenment and prosperity; at the other, a vicious circle of poverty and ignorance, fear and violence, tyranny and anarchy, hatred and self-pity, leading perhaps in the end to a new alien domination.

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