Thursday, June 27, 2013

What's Really Wrong With the Middle East

[By Aaron David Miller, of whom I remain a fan.]

The Middle East really doesn't need any more bad news.
Still, it's official. The region now has its own disease: a dangerous virus called MERS, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome -- perhaps related to the SARS virus, but apparently deadlier.
This sad news started me thinking (again) about the sad state of the region. There are some bright spots -- or at least some spots that are not as dark. Tunisia seems to be making a relatively stable transition without paralytic violence and incompetent governance. And there's a younger generation of Arabs and Muslims who seem bent on freeing themselves from the old ways, demanding not only personal freedom but dignity, too. I'm reminded of Howard Beale's famous rant in Network: They're mad as hell, and they're not going to take it anymore.
Nevertheless, much of the region looks bad: violence in Iraq; civil war in Syria and violent spillover into Lebanon; growing popular despair in Egypt; repression in Bahrain; lack of central authority in Libya; and an impasse in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Even in Turkey, the wonder state, things have become unhinged.
What's going on here? Why, when much of the world seems to be moving forward, is the Middle East being left behind? And why has its big transformative moment -- the Arab Awakening -- seemingly been lost amid a jumble of violence, sectarianism, and incompetence? There may be many reasons for this sorry state of affairs. But here are my top five.
Mistreating Women
The status of women -- what they can and cannot do -- in theory and in practice varies widely in the region. But there's far too much inequality and discrimination. Countries that systematically discriminate against half their population, intentionally or otherwise and for whatever reason (culture, religion, tradition, inertia) try to hold women back, keep them down, or just plain ignore them aren't going to be as moral, productive, creative, or competitive as those that empower women -- whether in the Middle East or anywhere else. And their futures won't be nearly as bright. Period.
No Separation of Religion and State
I know it's politically incorrect to point out, but show me one truly healthy and successful society run according to divinely mandated religious rules based on the idea that its god is better than any other -- or where extremist religious groups intimidate and wage war against fellow citizens, sometimes using terror and violence. I thought Turkey might be an exception. But Prime Minister Erdogan's recent my-way-or-the-highway behavior makes me wonder.
The societies that have proven the most durable and successful over time (all of which are outside the Arab world) are those where the realms of god and man/woman remain separate, where institutions are inclusive, and where freedom of religion, but perhaps even more important freedom of conscience, prevails. Indeed, freedom of expression is a critically important element in realizing human potential, inventiveness, and creativity. And it must be respected and safeguarded by the state, not restricted by it. Go into Times Square and, unless you're threatening public order, you can say just about anything you'd like about Judaism, Christianity, or Islam without fear of arrest or worse. Don't try that in Tahrir Square.

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