Can the Arabs Join the Modern World?
A crucial question now being debated by politicians and thinkers in many parts of the world is how to resolve the grave crisis between the international community and the Arab and Muslim world. The debate takes many different forms, but the underlying theme is the same.
The heart of the matter is this: Can a friendly accommodation be found, or must the relationship be one of hostility and conflict, as Samuel P Huntington predicted in his famous – or perhaps notorious – 'Clash of Civilizations'?
Aggressive stance of the US
Under President George W Bush, the United States adopted a deliberately aggressive and confrontational stance, which was no doubt inevitable after the devastating attacks on the United States by Islamic extremists on 11 September 2001. Bush's immediate riposte was his global 'war on terror', and the forcible change of regimes in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
Now, somewhat late in the day, the United States is attempting to soften its tone with such recent initiatives as its programme for 'democracy' in the 'Greater Middle East'. Another example is the emergence of the Washington-sponsored TV channel Al-Hurra. But these initiatives have failed to convince and US relations with the Arab and Muslim world remain marked by mutual fear, suspicion and incomprehension.
EU's fear of unwanted Muslim immigrants
The European Union is wrestling with much the same problems. Its worry about importing violence and unwanted immigrants from the Arab and Muslim world was the rationale behind the Association Agreements which, under the so-called Barcelona Process, the EU has concluded in recent years with countries around the Mediterranean.
It is also the impulse behind the current debate aver the role of Islam in Europe's emerging identity. Europe has a large and growing Muslim population. A key challenge is how to integrate this immigrant population into Europe's secular political structures. If one looks ahead a decade or so, the problem is likely to become even more critical.
France: Muslims to confirm secular values of public life
In France, the debate has taken the form of whether or not Muslim girls should be allowed to cover their heads in state schools. A law has now been passed forbidding them to do so.
This should not, however, be understood to mean that France has no wish to integrate its five or six million Muslims, nor does it suggest that it wishes to prevent them from practising their religion. It merely means that France is asking its Muslims – as it has asked its Christians and Jews – to confirm to the secular values of French public life.
Another far bigger aspect of the same problem is whether or not Turkey should be admitted as a member of the European Union – a question which is likely to be settled positively if the EU agrees to start accession negotiations with Ankara this December.
In the last three or four years, Turkey has made enormous efforts to demonstrate is suitability for EU membership. It rightly expects these efforts to be recognised and rewarded.
The West cannot leave the Arabs alone
The future of the Middle East is of immense importance for Europe, and indeed for the Western world as a whole. The inescapable conclusion from events of the past two or three years is that the Western world is not going to leave the Arabs and Muslims alone. It cannot afford to do so. There is too much at stake for the West's own way of life.
The lesson of all the major events and initiatives now unfolding in the region – the 'war on terror', the occupation of Iraq, the efforts to check nuclear proliferation, Europe's Barcelona Process, the question of Turkey's EU membership, America's 'Greater Middle East' project – is that the Arab and Muslim world must reform itself or have reform imposed upon it from outside.
The Arabs have not so far followed Turkey's example of initiating bold reforms. They talk timidly about reforms, but have not yet converted words into action. Turkey has a working parliamentary democracy, a free press, considerable civilian control over the military, a flourishing civil society represented by workers' trade unions, employers' organisations, and numerous non-governmental bodies.
It has abolished the death penalty and has recognised Kurdish identity, thereby showing that it has been able to surmount the traumas of a painful civil war in which no fewer than 35,000 people died.
Turkey has proved that it is an autonomous nation
In spite of its ties with the United States and the Atlantic Alliance, Turkey has also proved it has an independent foreign policy (as was seen when it refused to allow US troops across its territory to attack Iraq). In a word, Turkey is moving fast towards adopting international norms in its economic, social and political life.
In Cyprus, it is leaning hard on the Turkish Cypriots, and on their stubborn veteran leader Rauf Denktash, to accept the plan for the reunification of the island proposed by the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. In all these ways, Turkey has chosen to respond to the demands of the European Union.
The Arab world is lagging behind
How can these developments fail to affect Turkey's Arab neighbours? Syria has recently improved its relations with Turkey, a development which must be welcomed. But it has shown no sign as yet of following Turkey's example.
This week, Syria arrested a group of civil rights activists whose 'crime' was to hold up placards outside the parliament demanding an end to the state of emergency in force for the past forty years! These arrests were a blow to Syria's already poor international image.
They were a retrograde step which made nonsense of the regime's declared intention to modernise and reform the country. How can its friends defend Syria when its actions point to mistaken national priorities and to a fossilized and blinkered culture of security?
The world is moving ahead, leaving the Arabs far behind. The United States is absorbed in a campaign for next November's presidential elections which could re-define America's relations with the rest of the world, under strain because of the Bush doctrine of preventive war.
Europe is on the verge of expanding to 25 members in May – a spectacular enlargement which is forcing Europeans, perhaps for the first time since the launch of the European project half a century ago, to ask themselves what they are doing.
Turkey's membership would integrate Islam into Europe
Turkey's admission to the Union would help define Europe's borders, would help overcome the complex traumas of 11 September, and could speed the process whereby Europe accepts Islam as part of its social and cultural identity.
The presence of a stable and prosperous Muslim country inside the EU is bound to have an enormous effect – both on Europe itself and on Europe's Arab and Muslim neighbours.
If negotiations start with Turkey in 2005, admission is likely to take place in 2010 or 2012. These are years which the Arabs must put to good effect as they seek to solve the glaring problems of their own societies.
Social and political structures under enormous pressure
What is clear to most outside observers is that the present political and economic structures of the Arab world cannot last. These structures are under enormous pressure and will crack unless governments take urgent measures to tackle the mounting frustrations of their populations.
In almost every Arab country, a crucial problem is the absence of jobs to match the population growth, which continues largely unchecked.
Arab economies urgently need reform in order to create jobs. Political freedoms, good governance, better education and a serious attack on the corruption and shameless profiteering of an elite – these are essential reforms if Arab societies are to join the modern world.
US, Europe's and Arab world's future intimately bound up
The United States and Europe are anxious to create stable, secure and prosperous societies. The rise of Islamic terrorism – the great new phenomenon of the 21st century – has brought home to them that their future is intimately bound up with the evolution of the Arab and Muslim world.
That is why I say that the lesson staring one in the face is that Arabs and Muslims must reform their own societies or risk having radical change forced upon them.
© Patrick Seale/Qantara.de 2004
Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs. He studied Arabic in Lebanon at the Middle East Centre for Arabic Studies and worked for Reuters for six years, mainly as a financial journalist, and more than a dozen years for The Observer.