The subject of freedom in the middle east - that wide arc of countries from Iran to Morocco, and many points in-between - tends outside the region to produce a striking consensus: that it is absent. Many publications, reports, articles and analyses project the view that human rights have no place in the region; that the Arab and Islamic worlds are fundamentally inhospitable to values of peace, human dignity and freedom; and that any efforts at democratisation are bound to crash and burn.
This view reaches far into the official mindset of international institutions and agencies. For example, countless reports emanating from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and similar bodies have highlighted the many failings of the middle east-north African region in the areas of human development, values and governance. The UNDP report dealing with what it terms the “freedom deficit” in the area has received worldwide attention; so have the annual “freedom reports” published by the influential United States-based research and advocacy organisation, Freedom House. The reports of NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch also are filled with a wealth of detail on the human-rights and democratic deficits of the region’s states.
These reports are often well-researched and evidently well-intentioned. They also have overall a deeply depressive effect, in part because their balance is so much weighted towards description and taxonomy as opposed to prescription and recommendation. So much effort is devoted to the bad news that the space given to redressing and surmounting it always seems meagre and even irrelevant. The result is that the ever-mounting volumes on the subject (including academic books), for all the energy and care that goes into them, are left to gather dust rather than (as is surely part of their purpose) used to propel the middle east towards a free and democratic future.
The binary blind
If the problem ended there, it would still be serious but not fatal. What gives it a dangerous charge is that the consensus attitude on freedom in the middle east both pervades the world’s judgment of the region and leads it (especially the west) to adopt policies in relation to it that can inflict enormous damage. The low expectations that accompany the “absence of freedom” formula too often predispose blind support for disruptive forces of western interventionism.
The deeper assumption at work here is the notion that the “east’’ is inherently despotic and the “west’’ itself synonymous with freedom - a view that is rooted in much western thought but is both self-serving and historically erroneous. This assumption is a persistent element in the often fraught relationship between the west and the region for decades. It is present, for example - if often in an indirect and unobtrusive way - in the way Israel is cited as the “exception” to the middle-east rule, the sole example of a democracy in the region (though not truly “of” the region) available for the west to work with.
The idea of the middle east’s freedom deficit legitimised the intervention to destroy the oppressive regime of Saddam Hussein, though a selective political focus allows the same forces involved to support autocratic regimes in the same region in the name of “stability”. It is easy to point out the flawed logic at play here, as many have, but it is also part of what is becoming an ever more complicated matrix where middle-east problems and their possible solutions simply fail to intersect.
The spark within
The portrayal of the middle east as a sea of unfreedom - compounded by endemic wars, civil strife, and widespread poverty and unemployment - is so powerful that even where counter-trends are acknowledged they tend to be seen as anomalies. In this respect, there is a lot of work to do to see the reality of the region in its true perspective. Three steps can be suggested as a way of addressing the limitations of the consensus view we have identified.
First, it is vital properly to contextualise the problems of the region, from despotism to extremism. This entails recognising that many of these are symptoms of more fundamental realities, including the longstanding history of foreign meddling in middle-eastern affairs. It also means recognising that these problems are not features only to middle-east and Islamic societies, but exist in other parts of the world.
The condition of Iraq and Afghanistan after almost a decade of US-led wars is enough to demonstrate the case against trying to impose freedom and democracy by force. Such important values simply cannot be achieved or advanced by soldiers kicking down doors to terrorise entire families with their petrified children looking on - whatever justification is made for such practices.
Second, the west needs to understand that the realities of the middle east are moving beyond the stereotypes that too often imprison it. It is now a region of burgeoning civil societies whose populations are motivated by the same desires for personal, familial and social improvement as those anywhere. The elemental hunger for a decent life within a good society, which transcends political boundaries, is something the west should acknowledge and support - both in others’ interests and in its own. Mohammed El Baradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and a possible contender for the presidency of Egypt, offers wise advice here: “Only if you empower the liberals, if you empower the moderate socialists, if you empower all factions of society, only then will extremists be marginalised”.
Third, if the reports of such organisations as the UNDP and Freedom House tend to reinforce bleak views of the middle east and leave no space for optimistic ones, the lesson is also to assist the people of the region in empowering themselves to seize control over their own destiny and prove in practice that the aspiration to “freedom” - from local and foreign oppressions alike - is indeed generated from the inside.
Abdallah Laroui, the distinguished Moroccan scholar, says: “I reject [the idea] that the word ‘freedom’ is the translation of a foreign word. I say that the call for freedom is born, first and foremost, from a need from within middle east society, a need felt by vast numbers of people who deserve leaders who should make it their lifetime’s commitment to bring freedom and social justice to their people”.