For the short term, I expect the Middle East to be a close-fought battle between the forces of (relative) progress and the forces of religious obscurantism. Over the long term, I am more optimistic. The reason is that there are too many good ideas loose in the world, they are too easily available, and they are too inherently appealing to the young people of the world.
I occasionally get very pessimistic comments on my site from readers who are ready to write off the entire Middle East and everyone in it. Here’s a recent example:
“All of Islam has never gone through a Renaissance, never mind the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. To me they are all savages, and, we should stop talking about them as if they were part of western civilization or any civilization…. Let the Islamic tribes fight it out among themselves; let’s bring our own house in order.”
But here’s the thing: the Middle East doesn’t need a Renaissance or Enlightenment. They’ve got ours. All of the West’s radical ideas about reason, individual rights, representative government, equality of women, and so on—they are all out there and available.
Learning from them is so easy a child can do it.
That’s why last week I recommended a terrific viral video of 12-year-old Egyptian boy, Ali Ahmed, clearly and confidently explaining the basis for Egypt’s rebellion against the “Islamic fascism” of the Muslim Brotherhood. To be sure, Ali has clearly been raised among Egypt’s liberals and has encountered their arguments—though that, too, is kind of the point. But he is also not just parroting slogans. He speaks in a way that shows that he has been making a first-hand effort to understand the issues for himself. That’s why I called attention to his answer when he was asked who taught him to say these things: “I listen to people a lot, and I use my own brain.” As I said, the right ideas are out there, available to anyone willing to listen to people a lot and use his own brain.
If you don’t take this seriously, others do. The regime in China has been trying to block that viral video, for fear that there are kids in China who might also listen to it and use their own brains.
The there is Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl shot in the head by the Taliban for advocating education for girls. Thanks to top-quality treatment in London, she survived and on her 16th birthday gave a speech at the United Nations. This passage is extraordinary:
“We realize the importance of light when we see darkness. We realize the importance of our voice when we are silenced. In the same way, when we were in Swat, the north of Pakistan, we realized the importance of pens and books when we saw the guns. The wise saying, ‘The pen is mightier than the sword.’ It is true. The extremists are afraid of books and pens. The power of education frightens them. They are afraid of women. The power of the voice of women frightens them. This is why they killed 14 innocent students in the recent attack in Quetta. And that is why they kill female teachers. That is why they are blasting schools every day because they were and they are afraid of change and equality that we will bring to our society. And I remember that there was a boy in our school who was asked by a journalist why are the Taliban against education? He answered very simply by pointing to his book, he said, ‘a Talib doesn’t know what is written inside this book.’…
“So let us wage a glorious struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism, let us pick up our books and our pens, they are the most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world. Education is the only solution. Education first.”
You see the same issue behind a new round of attacks against schools by an Islamist group in Northern Nigeria.
“The attacks reveal much about the rebels who are fighting to revive a medieval Islamic caliphate in northern Nigeria, the type of state they are seeking to establish, and the impact of their efforts to do so on the African economic powerhouse. In a video uploaded to the Internet on Saturday, Boko Haram’s purported leader Abubakar Shekau denied ordering the latest killings, saying Boko Haram does not itself kill small children, but he praised attacks on Western schools. ‘We fully support the attack on school in Mamudo, as well as on other schools,’ he said. ‘Western education schools are against Islam…. We will kill their teachers.’
“Boko Haram, a nickname which translates roughly as ‘Western education is sinful,’ formed around a decade ago as a clerical movement opposed to Western influence, which the sect’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf, said was poisoning young minds against Islam.”
I am reminded of what Winston Churchill once said about the Nazis: “They fear the operations of the human mind.”
Judging from the sum of human history, setting up your agenda on the side that is against the human mind is a losing bet over the long term. The significance of what is going on in the greater Middle East right now, and the rise of secularism as a significant cultural and political force, is that it buys more time—possibly a lot more time—for that bet to play out.
One of my favorite writers on the Middle East, who you have seen quoted frequently here, is Michael Totten. I like him because he has traveled widely, and the people of the Middle East to him are not some overbroad abstraction seen from seven thousand miles away. He has met them and talked with them and seen the differences between Egypt and Tunisia and Morocco and Lebanon.
He, too, seems to get some overly pessimistic comments from his readers, and I can’t improve on his response.
“American conservatives always understood that the Muslim Brotherhood was bad news. Many also seemed to sense instinctively that the Muslim Brotherhood would win the election in Egypt. They were right on both counts.
“But then the narrative among some parts of the American right went off the rails. Many argued that radical Islamists were bound to triumph everywhere in the Middle East since they had just triumphed in Egypt, as if nearly everyone who self-identifies as a Muslim yearns for political Islam as a matter of course. This point of view regularly appears in my comments section.
“It didn’t seem to register that non-Islamists and anti-Islamists frequently do well in elections in Muslim countries, even in Arab countries and even in the wake of the Arab Spring. Tunisia’s Islamist party Ennahda won less than fifty percent of the vote and was forced into a coalition government with secular parties that block it routinely. Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated party lost big. In Lebanon, secular parties have won most of the votes since the nation’s founding, and, except for the Israelis, the Lebanese have held more elections in the region than anyone else.
“More recently, the citizens of Mali cheered the French as liberators when they invaded and routed Al Qaeda in the north. Mali, by the way, is not even close to being a largely atheist nation like the nominally Muslim countries of the former communist bloc.
“Islamist victories happen sometimes, but they aren’t inevitable. Karl Marx cobbled together psuedo-scientific arguments for why socialism was destined to triumph over capitalism. He claimed history was teleological, that its endpoint could be delayed but not forever resisted, but that’s not how it worked out for communism, nor is it working that way for radical Islam. The Muslim Brotherhood slogan ‘Islam is the solution’ is but one point of view among many. Sometimes its adherents win and sometimes they lose, just like the proponents of ideas everywhere else.”
So if this is what is going on, politics is going to be interesting in the Middle East for a good long while.