Modern history


The competition between democracy and fundamentalism will have a direct bearing on another choice—between outward and inward modernization. Outward modernization means accepting the devices, the amenities, the conveniences provided by Western science and industry while rejecting what are seen as pernicious Western values. All too often, this means also rejecting the science that produced these devices and amenities and the way of life that made that science possible. One might put it this way: outward modernization means buying and firing a gun; inward modernization means learning to manufacture and ultimately design one. This is not likely to happen in countries—like some in the region—where science is taught in schools from 50-year-old textbooks.

Catching up with the modern world means more than borrowing or buying modern technology. It means becoming part of the process by which that technology is created—that is, undergoing the intellectual revolution, the economic, social and eventually political transformation that precede, accompany and follow technological change.

In this respect, the Middle East still lags far behind other more recent recruits to modernity such as Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. It lags much further behind Japan, whose first contact with the West came centuries later than that of the Middle East. The transformation of the "Asian tigers" is even more dramatic, and the gap between them and the economies of the Middle East is widening every day. In a region where hundreds of universities turn out tens of thousands of engineers every year, it has become normal for governments and corporations requiring high-tech construction work to bring in contractors from Korea—a country that only recently emerged from a long period of oppressive colonial rule followed by devastating years of war. Unless the countries of the Middle East are able to make the transition to the new age, this gap will grow ever wider.

There are three factors which could help transform the Middle East: Turkey, Israel and women—the first previously aloof, the second previously excluded, the third previously suppressed.

Of these, the most important is women. They will, if permitted, play a major role in bringing the Middle East into a new era of material development, scientific advancement and sociopolitical liberation. Of all the people of the Middle East, women have the strongest vested interest in social and political freedom. They are already among freedom's most valiant and effective defenders; they may yet be the region's salvation. As in other parts of the world, some women defend and even acclaim the subordination of their sex. Others, never having known anything else, meekly submit to it. But growing numbers, touched by the ideas of freedom and equality and increasingly open to outside influence and example, will rebel against it. Muslim countries cannot hope to catch up, let alone keep pace, with the advanced world, as long as they deprive themselves of the talents and energies of half the population and entrust the early nurture of most of the other half to uneducated and downtrodden mothers.

The women's movement will still suffer serious reverses in the Middle East. But these, like the excesses of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the murderous repression of women in some Arab countries, will not succeed indefinitely. Even in Iran, where antifeminism was a major theme in Khomeinist ideology, women are already beginning to play an increasing part in some aspects of public life. The influence of women from among the expatriate Muslim communities in Europe and America will also make an important contribution to the emancipation of their sisters who stayed at home.

Turkey today stands before important choices. It may choose, as some of its leaders would clearly prefer, to turn its back on the West and return to the Middle East, this time not leading but following, in a direction determined by others. This would appear to be the preferred choice of the Justice and Development Party that came to power in 2002 and strengthened its position five years later when it claimed the presidency for one of its own. It may choose, as other Turkish leaders would clearly prefer, to tighten its ties with the West and turn its back on the Middle East, except for those countries that share Turkey's westward orientation and democratic aspirations. In either case, Turkey can and probably will play a growing role in the region. The Turks have greater political experience, a more developed economy, and a more balanced society than the Arab states. The Turkish example, perhaps even Turkish leadership, may play a crucial role in influencing Arab choices. The decisions made in Turkey in the near future will determine in which direction Turkish influence will point. An Islamist Turkey is bound to tip the balance in favor of the theocratic model of government. This would be a huge setback for Turkey's modernism and for the prospects of modernity in the Arab states as well.

The Arab-Israel conflict, too, in one way or another, will profoundly influence the development of the region as a whole. This could be positive or negative. If the struggle becomes more bitter and acquires the enduring quality of some of the other, more ancient quarrels of the region, it will have a corrosive effect on both Israeli and Arab societies, diverting energies and resources from creative to destructive purposes and preventing the progress of the region toward a new age of advanced technology and political freedom.

Peace, in contrast, would help and speed that progress. Even the negative aspects of Israeli rule may unintentionally contribute, in some respect and in some degree, to this process. Almost every day, radio and television—including, especially, Israeli radio and television—report on Palestinian protests against Israeli repression, in parliament, in the courts, in the media, and in the street, where demonstrators gather to vent their anger. It will not escape notice that all this is an innovation in a region where normally citizens do not sue the government in the courts and critics do not denounce the policies they dislike in parliament and in the state-run media. Even more important, in most of these countries youths do not throw stones at soldiers, and the latter do not respond to attack with water cannon and rubber bullets. These differences are being seen and understood.

If there is peace, then the peoples of the Middle East, working together, might achieve their own breakthrough as other regions have already done and resume the creative role which they once played in the history of civilization. One way that this might happen was described in a remarkably prophetic article, entitled "The Changing East," by T. E. Lawrence—Lawrence of Arabia—published in 1920: "The success of [the Zionists'] scheme will involve inevitably the raising of the present Arab population to their own material level, only a little after themselves in point of time, and the consequences might be at the highest importance for the future of the Arab world. It might well prove a source of technical supply rendering them independent of industrial Europe, and in that case the new confederation might become a formidable element of world power. However, such a contingency will not be for the first or even the second generation."

With peace and cooperation between the nations of the region, it might be possible to resolve many problems and inaugurate a great economic expansion. In this, Israel, with its advanced and sophisticated technological and scientific base, would be able to make a substantial contribution. Such cooperation would require the overcoming of many psychological barriers—the allaying of mistrust, the forgetting of grievances, the swallowing of pride. All these are difficult, perhaps impossible, but without them the region has little hope of moral or material advancement.

In the 1990s the combined G.N.P. of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, that is, all Israel's Arab neighbors, was significantly smaller than that of Israel alone. The per capita discrepancy is even greater. The most recent figures, for the year 2009, show some comparative change. But Israel's per capita G.N.P. is still 3.8 times that of Lebanon, 7.5 times that of Jordan, 9 times that of Syria, and 13.7 times that of Egypt. Cooperation could lead to the fulfillment of Lawrence's prophecy and narrow the gap between Israel and her Arab neighbors. A continuation of conflicts and boycotts would surely widen the gap.

A realist would argue, with reasonable certainty, that the odds against an Israeli-Palestinian settlement are discouragingly long. Dictatorships that rule much of the Middle East today will not, indeed cannot, make peace, because they need conflict to justify their tyrannical oppression of their own people and to deflect their peoples' anger against an external enemy. As with the Axis powers and the Soviet Union, real peace will come only with their defeat, or preferably collapse, and their replacement by governments that have been chosen, and can be dismissed, by their people and that will seek to resolve, not provoke, conflicts. At best, the dictatorships that have made the Israeli-Palestinian conflict their cause and their alibi for political and economic decay would countenance an armed peace. It would be wishful thinking to bet on economic and political progress in the shadow of this kind of uncertainty.

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