Let’s assume for a minute that in 20 years from now the Middle East conflict will be resolved and Saddam Hussein will be gone. Israel and Palestine will have found a mutually acceptable agreement of peaceful coexistence and the Iraqi president will have been toppled by his own people or by outside forces.
Those are the two dominating obstacles holding back development in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Governments from Saudi-Arabia to Iran, from Egypt to Indonesia are holding back on reforms of their constitutional framework, in large parts with reference to the tragic situation of their Muslim brethren in the West Bank.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict unifies the Muslim world in general and the Arab world in particular. It functions as a rallying point: every opposition or dissenting political idea is immediately dismissed as undermining the common stance against Israel. It is therefore easily used in some countries as an excuse to delay changes in society, the political and legal systems or corporate governance. Without the conflict, furthermore, the Arab world might actually have found the strength themselves to oust Saddam from office instead of having to watch the U.S. do it militarily.
So, once those two obstacles are gone, massive energies for change will be released. Not necessarily for increasing democracy and human rights or a modernisation of Sharia law, the legal framework governing social life of Muslim communities. But for change in general. Even loyal citizens will start asking ‘Why’ more often, questionning the status quo more readily.
Of course, existing governments know this and some leaders are not too unhappy about the current stalemate, which is indirectly helping them to block reform and secure their political survival. Therefore, they can not be expected to embrace or even initiate reform themselves. Rather, reform will be driven by opposition forces, the media, students and entrepreneurs.
Reform may be slow in coming. But change there must be. It may be world’s biggest challenge: a way to reconcile the progressive interests of Muslims all over the world to live a modern life on the one hand with the restraining forces of Sharia law and vested interests of Muslim clerics on the other hand.
Once reform starts to happens, the West must resist the temptation to lecture and should not expect immediate democracy and open markets. Americans and Europeans are already perceived as condescending, patronising and being unable and unwilling to understand that Muslim states need to develop forms of society that are different from the western model. There is a lot of circumstantial evidence to suggest the West is abusing its economic and political power to coerce other parts of the world into thinking and acting the ‘western way’.>
Instead of trying to ‘educate’, western organisations should believe in the intellectual power of Arab citizens. The Palestinian diaspora alone, only half of whom are actually living in the West Bank or the Gaza strip, would – given its highly educated people – unleash enormous creativity and vitality once released from their current situation.
The Arab world has enormous influence on the rest of the Muslim world, not just through its religious history and geographical importance to Islam, but also through its large amounts of economic aid to countries like Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia(?) and in Africa. Should they embark on a reform of civil rights, education systems and economies, then other Muslim countries could feel encouraged to pursue similar routes.
The West should support any request for information on western political, social or business models and should try to build as many grass-roots ties as possible through exchange programmes, corporate joint ventures and common social events. It could also lend its experience in running transnational networks and should encourage building these formal networks within the Arab/Muslim world, both between civil servants and between citizens.