By Khaled Diab
If we suspend scepticism and take up Barack Obama's invitation to dream of change, what Middle East can the audacity of hope help to forge?
Since Barack Obama's victory, I have been somewhat at odds with myself. The realist and sceptic tells me that, despite the euphoria, it may well be back to business more or less as usual once the president elect actually takes office.
Still, the dreamer and romantic urges me to savour the symbolism of Obama's victory, with the way it has energised US voters and inspired people around the world, and allow myself the luxury of dreaming that change really can happen. This leads me to wonder about my native Middle East, one of the world's most troubled regions, and what kind of change there could I and would I believe in.
The most immediate dream I have – and one that is probably shared by most of the region – is to dispel the spectre of conflict which has destroyed Iraq and locked Israelis and Palestinians in a spiralling death dance. Although there is much more to the Middle East than the wars and disputes that grab the headlines, the threat of the spread of conflict – to Iran, Syria and Lebanon – or the shadow ongoing conflicts cast on the entire region has a massive destabilising effect.
Peace will encourage stability, and stability will trigger change and progress. But what change does the Middle East need?
Well, the region is a diverse and complex place, and there is no general panacea. But to take up Obama's challenge for people to have the audacity to hope, I will suspend my disbelief and allow myself the luxury to flesh out my own Middle Eastern dream.
The Middle East I dream of is one of greater equality and empowerment, where the fruits of economic development are shared more equally among citizens, where people have more power to make a difference and where governments better reflect the will of their people.
I dream of societies that have the self-confidence to look to the future, and take assured strides into the unknown, rather than fixating on the past, whether in terms of glories or grievances. I desire societies that put more trust in innovation, and less in tradition, and where change is something to be striven for and not just emulated. I wish people would realise just how inappropriate, counterproductive and indecorous it is for them to let religion out on to the streets to make a nuisance of itself and intimidate others, when its rightful place should be at home and in the heart, where it can engage in private affairs with the faithful.
I hope that the failed dream of pan-Arabism can be resurrected in a more inclusive form to build a loose trans-national union between all the peoples of the region: Arabs, Persians, Turks, Israelis, etc. I aspire to a future in which national and ethnic identity become less important and more blurred, so that a non-Muslim can become the leader of a Muslim majority country, or a non-Jew the prime minister of Israel.
These prospects seem like fantasy at the moment, but, after much blood, sweat and suffering, what was once deemed impossible, sometimes does become possible. Pre-Obama who would've thought that America could overcome the legacy of slavery and segregation to elect a president with some African blood? Who would've thought apartheid or Soviet communism would end so suddenly and unceremoniously? In the wake of the Second World War, who would have thought that a borderless union in which Germany and France are the strongest allies would have emerged out of the wreckage?
Since Obama triggered this train of thought and since we shouldn't get too carried away with dreaming, let's start with the United States. What can America do to improve the Middle East?
There are hopes that, under Obama's tutelage, America will become more positively and benignly engaged in the region. My wishes are rather different. Instead of wanting America to play a more positive role, I merely wish for it to play less of a negative one.
Given America's own aversion to foreign meddling in its affairs and the clear evidence that the most enduring change is that which comes from within, why do so many Americans believe that other countries need or welcome American interference?
The major difference America can truly make is to withdraw from Iraq and offer Iraqis support through international mechanisms to clean up the mess the American invasion has caused. In addition, the best way the United States can serve the cause of political reform and peace in the Middle East is to phase out its support for authoritarian and semi-authoritarian regimes that oppress their own citizens or other peoples, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel.
Left to its own devices, the shaky regime of the ageing Hosni Mubarak in Egypt would soon buckle to growing grassroots pressure for reform. Similarly, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would sooner be resolved if Israel did not benefit from such excessive American largesse and almost unconditional support.
Nevertheless, the outlook of the Pax Americana empire is unlikely to change all that much, and the United States is likely to continue to believe that its narrow imperial interests are served by continued support for forces that are ultimately not in the interests of the Middle East and its people.
Of course, America, whose citizens possess a strong and admirable sense of idealism, can make a positive contribution to the region and the world by mobilising the US's significant ‘soft power' in concert with the international community and through multilateral mechanisms. This can help meet global challenges and create a sense that there is an international order that no one stands above or outside, even a superpower. Luckily, this is something Obama is more likely to do than his predecessors.
This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 30 November 2008. Read the related discussion.
This is an archive piece that was migrated to this website from Diabolic Digest