By Nir Boms
(Lecture notes given in Melbourne, Australia)
The main domestic objective of most Middle Eastern governments is to maintain the status quo regarding the balance between citizen freedoms and oppression.
Opposition movements can be roughly divided into two main groups: Islamist opposition, which think the governments are too secular, and the democratic or reform-minded opposition.
The Islamists seek to replace governments, but the democrats are not yet in that position. They seek reforms, the creation of greater freedoms and the like. There is an inherent difference between the ability of these two groups to achieve – or go about achieving – their goals; radicals are more focused in their objectives, and have easily defined goals. Intellectuals generally do not, nor do they have the infrastructure (such as mosques, access to money, etc.) to support their objectives.
Despite this, even though the democrats are neither united nor strong, they are potentially more influential than the West often gives them credit for.
The Islamist opposition doesn’t only constitute the violent groups we see on TV. There have been Islamic counter-reactions to Islamist violence. Just one example is seen on YouTube, which has videos of joyful Sufi praise to Allah, as opposed to the traditional, more sombre prayer. These clips are circulating around the Arab world. This is a form of theological warfare.
The West should understand that the democrats in the Middle East aren’t necessarily pro-West or pro-Israel. However, they are willing to ask important questions regarding these topics. These include asking, if Israel and the Arab world basically started in the same place, how is Israel’s GDP so much higher than that of the Arab world? The answer they frequently come up with is, Israel’s democracy. Again, this doesn’t mean they support Israel or its relations with the Arab world, but they are willing to learn from Israel’s successes and want to apply them to their own countries.
A lot of the moderates in the Middle East are paying dearly for their beliefs, by being beaten up or going to jail. However, a very few of these reformers are well known, as respected poets or intellectuals in the Arab world and, as such, can’t be touched by the governments. Others, such as Egyptian Sa’ad a-Din Ibrahim, are known in the West after having spent time in jail, and also can no longer easily be touched.
Islamists and reformers are not a new phenomenon. However, it has been the Middle East’s rapidly growing use of communication technology that has allowed these voices of change to be heard.
People have said use of the internet turned what would otherwise have been a cranky old man in a cave into the poster boy for global jihad.
But democratic reformers are using the same technology as bin Laden – internet sites, blogs, discussion forums and, perhaps most important of all, satellite television. Many in the West see al-Jazeera and al-Arabiyya as mouthpieces for al-Qaeda, but this isn’t necessarily the case. These stations are driven by ratings, and they’ll allow all sorts of voices on their shows, including those of democratic reformers. The stations have lots of political chat shows, and here, the reformers can say what they like. And since many of these shows are live, what is said can’t be edited.
It’s increasingly hard for governments to shut these alternative voices down – which isn’t to say that victory is close at hand for the opposition. But there are voices out there, and they are looking for new ways to be heard. And once their opinions are out there, it generates internal discussion – in blogs, in discussion forums and the like.
It’s this internal discourse happening in many despotic Middle Eastern countries that is forming what will eventually become an effective political force.
In limited ways, the West is beginning to help these reformers, but more can be done. Western leaders are beginning to mention by name some of the Arab reformers, particularly Ibrahim. Doing so makes it harder for the Arab regimes to imprison them.
The West, at both a governmental and NGO level, should attempt to engage these reformers (NGOs have been doing this for some time). Doing so will help create awareness in the West, but also train the Middle East reformers so they can better and more effectively agitate for greater freedoms. Another way to raise awareness in the West is for Western journalists to seek out these alternative voices. Reporting on them won’t make much of an impression in the Arab world, but if al-Jazeera or another station reports on the West reporting on the issue, then it becomes part of the internal dialogue.
Nir Boms is a research fellow at the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism and a board member of the Centre for Monitoring the Impact of Peace. He also serves as vice president of the Centre for Freedom in the Middle East and as a consultant and media commentator on Middle East policy. Mr. Boms was in Australia for the “Limmud Oz” conference and spoke to Melbourne journalists about prospects for democracy in the Middle East at an AIJAC sponsored luncheon in late June. This is a rapporteur’s summary of that meeting, prepared by Bren Carlill.