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Hope: Real or Mirage?

It is important to appreciate the recent events in the Middle East starting with the Iraqi election. It doesn’t matter if you are for or against military action, if you believe this will solve the religion’s problems or believe it will make no difference in the long run. The hopeful spirit, while embryonic and uncertain, still deserves our respect. Let’s examine why.

Since the toppling of Saddam’s regime, terrorist attacks occurred on a daily basis with Iraqis as the primary target. The aim is simple: terrorize the Iraqi people into submission. Both Baathist fascists and jihadists seek power to establish the traditional repressive government that is typical of the region. From the day Saddam was removed, Iraqis were fearful of stepping forward and winding on the wrong side of the next dictatorship. Any flicker of hope for a civil society required confidence in their fellow Arabs that was non-existent. Resignation and cynicism suggested waiting for a clear victor before aligning one’s interest with the new regime.

If you remember, prior to the Iraqi election there were doubts that holding the elections as scheduled could produce a meaningful result given chaos and threats of violence. The result, however, was quite meaningful … to the “Arab Street”. What was shocking to the Arab world was seeing their fellow Arabs braving terrorist attacks to vote! How often have you wondered about the value of voting? Imagine having to vote when your life is threatened! Why did they do it? Could one vote matter that much?

Most explanations seek either a compelling concrete payback or chalk it up to some innate drive. Let me propose another explanation. The act of voting itself is a transformational act. It says that one wants to be worthy of living in a civilized society. By voting one acts like a member of a community where arguments are settled at the ballot box and under the protection of the rule of law. When Arabs saw that their fellow Arabs could act in such a manner they gained a confidence in a new future. And it sparked a sympathetic surge for democratic change in other Arab nations.

Of course, this is an aspiration that is emotional in nature. This isn’t an explicit understanding of what liberty is, what makes it important and how to secure it. However, there is a sense that the liberal societal model provides hope; there is, on some level, an awareness that living in a free society brings the good life. Despite all the propaganda and ethnic pride, the West still inspires hope.

But an emotional sense is not an articulated principle, program, or ideology. By itself, it cannot lead to clear and certain progress. At most, by mimicking the success of advanced societies a modicum of progress is possible. By osmosis, trial and error, feeling one’s way in the dark, one can take a few steps toward modernity. However, fear and cynicism are competing emotions. One ultimately needs explicit principles to secure that which is implicitly sensed, to guide specific actions and to defend against the enemies of liberty.

Standing in the wings are the devout Islamists, they have declared the liberal Arabs the enemy and their moral claims – backed by 1400 years of Islam – remains unchallenged. A liberal society will never be secure, if by some accident it is established, as long as these ideas are given respect.

I recently read a poignant example the captures the dilemma in the lives of today’s Muslims. An Iraqi father sent his son to live with relatives in Saudi Arabia in anticipation of the war. During that time he was taught about the Islamic tradition, became devout and adopted a strict puritan lifestyle. When he returned home, the father was saddened to see his joyous boy had become an angry dogmatic stern young man. There was nothing the father could say. His son knew the religion thoroughly and could refute his father’s notions of how a young Muslim should live his life. The only thing the father could do was hope that his son would wake-up from this horrible nightmare. The boy’s childhood friends were called in the hope that he would recall his more joyous days. With temptations and examples, slowly the boy started to soften. One only hopes he makes it back.

How far can emotion overcome dogma? Not for long. Sooner or later Arabs will have to explicitly attack and reject Islamic doctrine. The Islamists aren’t going away of their own free will; they will attack secularized Arabs (or any opponents of theocracy) as Infidels and that is exactly what they have been doing in Iraq. Eventually, if Iraqis ever hope to secure a free and modern society, they will have to aim for the heart of Islam and slay this vicious beast. Unless they do, they will not be able to maintain the joyous optimism of this post-election period. It will have been a fleeting moment – lost to the cynicism and fatalism so familiar in Arab and Islamic culture.