There is no shortage of thorny problems needing solutions in the Middle East but few get the attention they deserve. The Arab- Israeli conflict understandably grabs most headlines, even though the attention is usually slanted and the reports are designed to generate sympathy for one side, Israel. When the interest deigns digging deeper into the condition of some of the victims, it is usually just another way to condescendingly blame the latter for bringing this unto themselves and for preferring to hate their enemy over loving their children. Sometimes reports go as far as decrying the state of, say, human rights in the Arab world. This allows for a necessary reprimand of Arab regimes in general, but also provides another rationale for why Arabs should really concentrate on their own development and leave Israel in peace, letting bygones be bygones.
It would be foolish to claim that the Arab-Israel conflict does not, directly or indirectly, influence decisions that ultimately affect the wellbeing of people. Until it is resolved in a just and comprehensive manner, life cannot improve for the people involved in it, and no amount of spin is going to change the fact that this is the most basic of existential issues.
The problem is that this is not the only problem or the only reason why the region has the potential to get a lot worse. Politicians, academics and media pundits have gotten accustomed to generalizations, rehashing the same old story lines and following preset terminology and language. Because of this short-sightedness, they are failing to see when Israel is wrong, failing to understand how its security is best served by resolving these issues and failing to recognize that issues much more important than Israel’s security will be the headaches of the future.
The region stands at the edge of an existential precipice. It has a huge young population running out of options for education, employment or economic security, often denied the most basic of infrastructure (in terms of health, sanitation, water, transport, etc.) and turning increasingly to religiosity and idleness (a dangerous combination) with nothing better to do than watch a multitude of mind- numbing or indoctrinating satellite television channels. Still, political myopia continues to point to "progress" in the area and to frame the stakes in terms of what the US is trying to peddle. This month, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice informed the audience of al-Arabiya television that the Bush administration had helped, among other things, to bring democracy to Iraq, sovereignty to Lebanon and women’s liberation to Kuwait. Dr. Rice did not mention the appalling situation of Palestinians under siege, a condition that seems to have become a norm, or the human rights violations, to put it mildly, by several of its strongest allies (including the Saudi and Egyptian regimes).
If they could, civil society activists and advocates–those who are not in jail– would remind Dr. Rice that American labeling as "moderates" cannot begin to camouflage the fact that America’s democratically-challenged friends differ little from their "axis of evil" enemies and that those who really need to live side by side in peace are the ruled and the rulers in these countries. People need freedom of speech, among other basic rights, to feel they are part of a society, and that they can and must contribute to its advancement. Being able to discuss governmental actions or inaction or to criticize a king’s brother, a president’s cousin or a prince’s consort without being charged with near-blasphemy is a precursor to contributing to a society in need of development.
At the same time, a person’s propensity for success in any given field cannot continue to be dependent on his or her "belonging" to one or more regime cronies or on the extent of the praise he or she lavishes on the leader or his clique, mostly amounting to sickening glorification of third-rate people. As seen in numerous pan- Arab publications singing the praises of their respective backers and in national media undeserving of the name, this sycophancy merely perpetuates an archaic modus operandi that rewards submission and punishes achievement-based work ethics. That a sheikh dares to name his ruler inside the mosque, even during Ramadan or Eid prayers, practically elevating him to holy status (a shocking occurrence all over the Arab world) speaks volumes about the way the wind is blowing.
If we were to delve deeper into the mechanism behind a viable society and decide what to change, these details would be most representative of how deeply ingrained the system has become and how little attention has been paid to the deteriorating situation.
The empowerment of civil society is indeed an existential issue, but the pursuit of democracy as understood by George W. Bush is not–neither the democracy that is peddled by American (and European) governments nor the democracy that Arab dictators claim is not what their people want. Social equality is the existential issue of concern and it automatically demands a drastic application of justice with no exceptions. Several Arab countries already boast of judicial system reforms, all of which are moot exercises when equality remains relative; it is not the written laws that need changing, it is the way they are applied, and the prerogatives of the judges, which need to disappear.
For independent, honest judges to be able to interpret and apply justice, there needs to be a society that accepts it and abides by it and that builds its future by law. This is why the biggest existential issue is that of education, because only an educated people can safeguard and be saved by a just system, leaning on it to develop its institutions.
Indeed, the greatest of all existential issues facing the Middle East is the spread and improvement of education, in the widest sense of the word. It is from a good education that basic infrastructure is built, that a healthy living code is rooted and that a moral, social, economic and political work ethic can be adopted.
It may already be too late to save one or two generations from the decades of neglect they faced, but there is no reason why the next generation cannot begin to benefit from an education similar to those offered in developed states and a raised standard of living. Instead of complaining about increased fundamentalism and anti- Americanism, maybe the US could give young Arabs a reason to give thanks.
* First published by Bitterlemons-international.org