Egyptian-American writer Youssef Ibrahim argues that the silent majority in the conflict between modernity and radical Islam may be ready to stand up on the side of modernity:
Yes, world, there is a silent Arab majority that believes that seventh-century Islam is not fit for 21st-century challenges. That women do not have to look like walking black tents. That men do not have to wear beards and robes, act like lunatics, and run around blowing themselves up in order to enjoy 72 virgins in paradise. And that secular laws, not Islamic Shariah, should rule our day-to-day lives.
And yes, we, the silent Arab majority, do not believe that writers, secular or otherwise, should be killed or banned for expressing their views. Or that the rest of our creative elite – from moviemakers to playwrights, actors, painters, sculptors, and fashion models – should be vetted by Neanderthal Muslim imams who have never read a book in their dim, miserable lives.
Nor do we believe that little men with head wraps and disheveled beards can run amok in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq making decisions on our behalf, dragging us to war whenever they please, confiscating our rights to be adults, and flogging us for not praying five times a day or even for not believing in God.
More important, we are not silent any longer.
It is rather interesting that a prominent Wahhabist cleric has issued a fatwa against supporting Hizb’Allah. Sheik Nasrallah finds himself alone and isolated as the Israelis continue to destroy his terrorist organization. This conflict will not end until Hizb’Allah is incapable of harming Israel or Lebanon – and it looks like that will be a matter of no more than weeks. Nasrallah may have thought that he was going to create a massive pan-Arab war against Israel with his actions: instead his miscalculation is likely to turn out to be a fatal error.
At the same time, as much as I’d like to believe that Mr. Ibrahim is right, I’m not so sure that he is. The reality is that democracy in the Middle East is not going to necessarily produce the good life right away – witness the anarchy in Iraq, the electoral victory of Hamas in the Palestinian territories, and the popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Ultimately that may be the price that has to be paid for true democracy down the road, but the costs to everyone will be high. The current round of instability has raised global oil prices to unprecedented highs, ensured a length and difficult American commitment to Iraq, and led to thousands of deaths. The naïve belief that democracy would spread full formed in the Middle East – a belief I myself sometimes fell into – was never realistic. The current state of Iraqi anarchy is an example of what happens when a nation whose entire civil and ethnic makeup had been systematically suppressed by the state suddenly finds itself struggling to redefine its identity.
However, I do see some signs that Ibrahim’s argument is right. What has the decades of fiery rhetoric brought the Arab world? The Palestinian “struggle” has left the Palestinian people backwards, oppressed, and bloodied, and they’ve gained nothing. The idea of pan-Arab nationalism has been shattered. Sunni and Shi’ite struggles are once again reemerging, most violently in Iraq. The autocracy of the Middle East divorces the people from the government, seducing some into the hands of the Islamists, but also creating that “silent majority”. Certainly the fact that the Arab world has failed to unite with Hizb’Allah indicates that the idea of some pan-Arab or pan-Muslim unity against the West is an illusion.
Ultimately, the only way that things in the Middle East will get better is if the old ideologies of religious intolerance, radicalism, autocracy, and racism are replaced with a vibrant and active civil society – and that is a long-term process. The only ones who can effect such a change are the people of the Middle East themselves – and ultimately the Middle East will succeed or fail based on their willingness to create a society rooted in the 21st Century or the 8th.