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The Changing Middle East

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Update from AIJAC

May 6, 2009
Number 05/09 #02


Today's Update features some new pieces discussing the overall future direction of the Middle East - especially in terms of the growing Iranian attempts to dominate the region, challenging the Sunni-dominated status quo.

First up is Iranian exile writer Amir Taheri, who says that Teheran is perceiving an American retreat from the region, and is increasing its campaign against US allies accordingly. He cites examples in Egypt, Lebanon, Bahrain, Kuwait, Morocco and Jordan. He says Teheran is trying hard to convey a simple message to the region's peoples - Iran is a rising superpower, which is coming in as the US departs. For Taheri's complete discussion of this strategy, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, the Arab states are so worried about Iran that they are expressing concern about US efforts at engagement with Teheran, and probably for the same reason, may be seeking a sort of alliance with Israel via a modified Arab peace plan involving direct engagement.

Next up, top analyst Jonathan Spyer, a recent visitor to Australia, challenges a key assumption made in many discussions about responses to the Iranian regional push for dominance - namely, that Iran has an interest in promoting stability at least in Iraq and Afghanistan. He stresses that Teheran sees itself as the "rising sun" in the region, and largely "operates according to the dictum that America's difficulty is Iran's opportunity." He points out that despite strong political and religious differences with Afghanistan's Taliban, Iran is apparently providing them with arms and support, as well as to Iraqi insurgent groups. For his full description of how Teheran apparently perceives its regional interests, CLICK HERE.

Finally, we offer an abridged version (the full version is by subscription only) of a new article, speculating about the future of the Middle East, by Prof. Bernard Lewis, doyen of Middle East scholars. He surveys the overall changes that have come to the Arab world since the end of the Cold War, the decline of Pan-Arabism, as well as socialism, as solutions to the region's problems, and the place of various regional factors in the scene - including the US, Iran and Turkey, and the Arab-Israel conflict. He says the region's future will now come down to the growing struggle between liberal and Islamist extremist diagnoses of the region's ills. For this important article from one of the world's leading regional experts, CLICK HERE.

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As the U.S. Retreats, Iran Fills the Void

By AMIR TAHERI

Wall Street Journal, MAY 5, 2009

Convinced that the Obama administration is preparing to retreat from the Middle East, Iran's Khomeinist regime is intensifying its goal of regional domination. It has targeted six close allies of the U.S.: Egypt, Lebanon, Bahrain, Morocco, Kuwait and Jordan, all of which are experiencing economic and/or political crises.

Iranian strategists believe that Egypt is heading for a major crisis once President Hosni Mubarak, 81, departs from the political scene. He has failed to impose his eldest son Gamal as successor, while the military-security establishment, which traditionally chooses the president, is divided. Iran's official Islamic News Agency has been conducting a campaign on that theme for months. This has triggered a counter-campaign against Iran by the Egyptian media.

Last month, Egypt announced it had crushed a major Iranian plot and arrested 68 people. According to Egyptian media, four are members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Tehran's principal vehicle for exporting its revolution.

Seven were Palestinians linked to the radical Islamist movement Hamas; one was a Lebanese identified as "a political agent from Hezbollah" by the Egyptian Interior Ministry. Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Lebanese Hezbollah, claimed these men were shipping arms to Hamas in Gaza.

The arrests reportedly took place last December, during a crackdown against groups trying to convert Egyptians to Shiism. The Egyptian Interior Ministry claims this proselytizing has been going on for years. Thirty years ago, Egyptian Shiites numbered a few hundred. Various estimates put the number now at close to a million, but they are said to practice taqiyah (dissimulation), to hide their new faith.

But in its campaign for regional hegemony, Tehran expects Lebanon as its first prize. Iran is spending massive amounts of cash on June's general election. It supports a coalition led by Hezbollah, and including the Christian ex-general Michel Aoun. Lebanon, now in the column of pro-U.S. countries, would shift to the pro-Iran column.

In Bahrain, Tehran hopes to see its allies sweep to power through mass demonstrations and terrorist operations. Bahrain's ruling clan has arrested scores of pro-Iran militants but appears more vulnerable than ever. King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa has contacted Arab heads of states to appeal for "urgent support in the face of naked threats," according to the Bahraini media.

The threats became sensationally public in March. In a speech at Masshad, Iran's principal "holy city," Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri, a senior aide to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, described Bahrain as "part of Iran." Morocco used the ensuing uproar as an excuse to severe diplomatic relations with Tehran. The rupture came after months of tension during which Moroccan security dismantled a network of pro-Iran militants allegedly plotting violent operations.

Iran-controlled groups have also been uncovered in Kuwait and Jordan. According to Kuwaiti media, more than 1,000 alleged Iranian agents were arrested and shipped back home last winter. According to the Tehran media, Kuwait is believed vulnerable because of chronic parliamentary disputes that have led to governmental paralysis.

As for Jordan, Iranian strategists believe the kingdom, where Palestinians are two-thirds of the population, is a colonial creation and should disappear from the map -- opening the way for a single state covering the whole of Palestine. Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have both described the division of Palestine as "a crime and a tragedy."

Arab states are especially concerned because Tehran has succeeded in transcending sectarian and ideological divides to create a coalition that includes Sunni movements such as Hamas, the Islamic Jihad, sections of the Muslim Brotherhood, and even Marxist-Leninist and other leftist outfits that share Iran's anti-Americanism.

Information published by Egyptian and other Arab intelligence services, and reported in the Egyptian and other Arab media, reveal a sophisticated Iranian strategy operating at various levels. The outer circle consists of a number of commercial companies, banks and businesses active in various fields and employing thousands of locals in each targeted country. In Egypt, for example, police have uncovered more than 30 such Iranian "front" companies, according to the pan-Arab daily newspaper Asharq Alawsat. In Syria and Lebanon, the numbers reportedly run into hundreds.

In the next circle, Iranian-financed charities offer a range of social and medical services and scholarships that governments often fail to provide. Another circle consists of "cultural" centers often called Ahl e Beit (People of the House) supervised by the offices of the supreme leader. These centers offer language classes in Persian, English and Arabic, Islamic theology, Koranic commentaries, and traditional philosophy -- alongside courses in information technology, media studies, photography and filmmaking.

Wherever possible, the fourth circle is represented by branches of Hezbollah operating openly. Where that's not possible, clandestine organizations do the job, either alone or in conjunction with Sunni radical groups.

The Khomeinist public diplomacy network includes a half-dozen satellite television and radio networks in several languages, more than 100 newspapers and magazines, a dozen publishing houses, and thousands of Web sites and blogs controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The network controls thousands of mosques throughout the region where preachers from Iran, or trained by Iranians, disseminate the Khomeinist revolutionary message.

Tehran has also created a vast network of non-Shiite fellow travelers within the region's political and cultural elites. These politicians and intellectuals may be hostile to Khomeinism on ideological grounds -- but they regard it as a powerful ally in a common struggle against the American "Great Satan."

Khomeinist propaganda is trying to portray Iran as a rising "superpower" in the making while the United States is presented as the "sunset" power. The message is simple: The Americans are going, and we are coming.

Tehran plays a patient game. Wherever possible, it is determined to pursue its goals through open political means, including elections. With pro-American and other democratic groups disheartened by the perceived weakness of the Obama administration, Tehran hopes its allies will win all the elections planned for this year in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

"There is this perception that the new U.S. administration is not interested in the democratization strategy," a senior Lebanese political leader told me. That perception only grows as President Obama calls for an "exit strategy" from Afghanistan and Iraq. Power abhors a vacuum, which the Islamic Republic of Iran is only too happy to fill.

Amir Taheri's new book, "The Persian Night: Iran Under the Khomeinist Revolution," is published by Encounter Books.

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Analysis: Teheran's stake in regional insecurity


Jonathan Spyer

THE JERUSALEM POST, May. 3, 2009

A month ago, US President Barack Obama announced a new strategy to address the current crisis in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Obama's plan to "disrupt, dismantle and defeat" al-Qaida and the Taliban in "Afpak" includes deployment of an additional 21,000 US troops in Afghanistan, and an increase in civilian officials to aid in developing the Afghan economy and governmental structures.

The strategy also contains a diplomatic element. The president said he intended to bring together all those countries who "should have a stake in the security of the region."

Among the countries he named as belonging to this group was Iran. Seeking Iranian cooperation in dealing with the grave and urgent situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan looks set to form a cornerstone in the US policy of engagement with Teheran.

The first tentative moves in the diplomatic dance between the US and Iran on this issue have already begun. Richard Holbrooke, the administration's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, recently had an "unscheduled" encounter with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Muhammad Mehdi Akhondzadeh, at a conference on Afghanistan.

The administration's approach rests on a crucial assumption: It is considered that since Iran and the Taliban are mortal enemies on the ideological and theological level, and since in the past, Iranians and Taliban have clashed, there ought to be a common Iranian-US interest in defeating or containing the Sunni extremists.

This, however, is highly questionable. Closer observation would suggest that, theological and historical matters notwithstanding, Iran has a clear stake in maintaining the absence of security - in "Afpak" and beyond it.

The issue is not simple. In certain, limited areas - on the issue of drug trafficking, for example - there is a genuine commonality of interest between Teheran and Washington with regard to Afghanistan.

But in the larger, strategic arena, Iran operates according to the dictum that America's difficulty is Iran's opportunity.

On this basis, in spite of the relations of mutual loathing that pertain between the Shi'ite regime in Teheran and the Sunni, Deobandi extremists of the Taliban, ample evidence points to Iranian covert assistance to the Afghan insurgents engaged in war against NATO forces in the country.

In April 2007, NATO forces intercepted two convoys carrying Iranian arms to the Taliban. A recent French media report noted the existence of three training camps for Taliban fighters in Iran. British forces in Afghanistan last year reported evidence that Iran has been supplying Taliban fighters with similar sophisticated roadside-bomb-making equipment to that given by Teheran to Shi'ite insurgents in southern Iraq. Both Centcom commander Gen. David Petraeus and NATO spokesman James Appathurai recently confirmed reports of Iranian assistance to the Taliban.

The assistance to the Taliban follows the familiar broader pattern of encouragement of instability across the region. Iran is in the business of challenging the US-dominated order in the Middle East. Preventing an American achievement in Afghanistan, and keeping NATO forces bogged down in an endless, bloody slogging match in the country represents a natural expression of this.

This strategy may be seen at work elsewhere. In Iraq, Iran is maintaining its support for Shi'ite insurgents in the Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous) organization. These forces suffered severe disruption at the hands of US troops in 2007 and 2008, with many militants taking refuge in Iran. Evidence suggests that their operations are now once again on the increase in Iraq. The Iranians make little effort to conceal their links with the Shi'ite insurgents. Ahl al-Haq militants are armed with Iranian made Fajr-3 missiles and explosive formed projectiles (IEDs) used in roadside bomb attacks.

So while the Iranians will be happy to talk if invited to, the talking will take place simultaneously with continued Iranian assistance to forces engaged in killing US troops in the two conflict zones in which they are currently deployed in the Middle East. Both the talking and the fighting are part of a unified strategy for building Teheran's influence and power.

A recent report by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy quoted a British official who recalled his experiences as a member of the EU's negotiating team on Teheran's nuclear program. The official, Sir John Sawers, noted that the negotiations were taking place at the same time that British soldiers in southern Iraq were under attack from Iranian made missiles and IEDs, in the hands of Iraqi Shi'ite insurgents. He recalled that "the Iranians wanted to be able to strike a deal whereby they stopped killing our forces in Iraq in return for them being allowed to carry on with their nuclear program."

This approach to diplomacy reflects the confident self-assertion of a regime that regards itself as the "rising sun" striving toward ascendance across the region.

The US administration thinks that Teheran "should" support regional security and stability. The problem is that the Iranian regime appears to have a different way of calibrating its interests.

In the Iranian approach, support for violence and insurgency brings with it myriad advantages. The Western powers, prevented from attaining their objectives, appear weak and helpless. The enemy, bogged down in conflicts elsewhere, has less time and capital to spend on containing Iranian ambitions. And finally - as Sir John Sawers's recollections indicate - proxies can always be abandoned at an opportune moment, in order to buy time for projects of truly central importance.

Jonathan Spyer is a senior researcher at the Global Research in International Affairs Center, IDC, Herzliya.

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The Arab World in the Twenty-First Century

Bernard Lewis

Foreign Affairs, March/April 2009 (Abridged by the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research- full version available to subscribers or for purchase here.)

As the twentieth century drew to an end, it became clear that a major change was taking place in the countries of the Arab world. For almost 200 years, those lands had been ruled and dominated by European powers and before that by non-Arab Muslim regimes--chiefly the Ottoman Empire . After the departure of the last imperial rulers, the Arab world became a political battleground between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. That, too, ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Arab governments and Arab dynasties (royal or presidential) began taking over. Arab governments and, to a limited but growing extent, the Arab peoples were at last able to confront their own problems and compelled to accept responsibility for dealing with them....

The United States , unlike Europe , has continued to play a central role in the Arab world. During the Cold War, the United States ' interest in the region lay chiefly in countering the growing Soviet influence, such as in Egypt and Syria . Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. troops have appeared occasionally in the region, either as part of joint peace missions (as in Lebanon in 1982-83) or to rescue or protect Arab governments from their neighboring enemies (as in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in 1990-91). But many in the Arab world--and in the broader Islamic world--have seen these activities as blatant U.S. imperialism....

Increasing U.S. involvement in the Middle East led to a series of attacks on U.S. government installations during the 1980s and 1990s. At first, Washington 's response to the attacks was to withdraw.... Even the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center , in New York City , brought no serious rejoinder. These responses were seen by many as an expression of fear and weakness rather than moderation, and they encouraged hope among Islamist militants that they would eventually triumph. It was not until 9/11 that Washington felt compelled to respond with force, first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq , which were perceived as the sources of these attacks.

Other powers, both external and within the region, are playing increasingly active roles. Two neighboring non-Arab but predominantly Muslim countries, Iran and Turkey , have a long history of involvement in Arab affairs. Although the Turks, no doubt because of their past experience, have remained cautious and defensive, mainly concerned with a possible threat from Kurdish northern Iraq, the Iranians have become more active, especially since Iran's Islamic Revolution entered a new militant and expansionist phase....

The political landscape within the Arab world has also changed dramatically since the end of the Cold War. Pan-Arabism, which once played a central role in the region, has effectively come to an end.... Since the death of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, in 1970, no Arab leader has enjoyed much support outside his own country. Nor has any Arab head of state dared to submit his attainment or retention of power to the genuinely free choice of his own people.

At the same time, issues of national identity are becoming more significant. Non-Arab ethnic minorities--such as the Kurds in Iran , Iraq , and Turkey and the Berbers in North Africa --historically posed no major threat to central governments, and relations were generally good between Arabs and their non-Arab Muslim compatriots. But a new situation arose after the defeat of Saddam Hussein in the Persian Gulf War. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 1991 had a strictly limited purpose: to liberate Kuwait . When this was accomplished, U.S. forces withdrew, leaving Saddam in control of his armed forces and free to massacre those of his subjects, notably Kurds and Shiites, who had responded to the United States' appeal for rebellion. Saddam was left in power, but his control did not extend to a significant part of northern Iraq , where a local Kurdish regime in effect became an autonomous government.... This posed problems not only for the government of Iraq but also for those of some neighboring countries with significant Kurdish populations, notably Turkey. ...

Another major problem for the region is the Palestinian issue. The current situation is the direct result of the policy, endorsed by the League of Nations and later by the United Nations, to create a Jewish national home in Palestine . With rare exceptions, the Arabs of Palestine and the leading Arab regimes resisted this policy from the start. A succession of offers for a Palestinian state in Palestine were made--by the British mandate government in 1937, by the United Nations in 1947--but each time Palestinian leaders and Arab regimes refused the offer because it would have meant recognizing the existence of a Jewish state next door. The struggle between the new state of Israel and the Palestinians has continued for over six decades....

The modern peace process began when President Anwar al-Sadat, of Egypt , fearing that the growing Soviet presence in the region was a greater threat to Arab independence than Israel could ever constitute, made peace with Israel in 1979. He was followed in 1994 by King Hussein of Jordan and, less formally, by other Arab states that developed some commercial and quasi-diplomatic contacts with Israel . Dialogue between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization led to some measure of formal mutual recognition and, more significant, to a withdrawal of Israeli forces from parts of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and the establishment of more or less autonomous Palestinian authorities in these places.

But the conflict continues. Important sections of the Palestinian movement have refused to recognize the negotiations or any agreements and are continuing the armed struggle. Even some of those who have signed agreements--notably Yasir Arafat--have later shown a curious ambivalence toward their implementation. From the international discourse in English and other European languages, it would seem that most of the Arab states and some members of the Palestinian leadership have resigned themselves to accepting Israel as a state. But the discourse in Arabic--in broadcasts, sermons, speeches, and school textbooks--is far less conciliatory, portraying Israel as an illegitimate invader that must be destroyed. If the conflict is about the size of Israel, then long and difficult negotiations can eventually resolve the problem. But if the conflict is about the existence of Israel, then serious negotiation is impossible. There is no compromise position between existence and nonexistence....

The state of the region's economy, and the resulting social and political situation, is a source of increasing concern in the Arab world. For the time being, oil continues to provide enormous wealth, directly to some countries in the region and indirectly to others. But these vast sums of money are creating problems as well as benefits. For one thing, oil wealth has strengthened autocratic governments and inhibited democratic development. Oil-rich rulers have no need to levy taxes and therefore no need to satisfy elected representatives....

Oil wealth has also led to the neglect or abandonment of other forms of gainful economic activity. From 2002 to 2006, a committee of Arab intellectuals, working under the auspices of the United Nations, produced a series of reports on human development in the Arab world. With devastating frankness, they reviewed the economic, social, and cultural conditions in the Arab world and compared them with those of other regions. Some of these comparisons--reinforced by data from other international sources--revealed an appalling pattern of neglect and underdevelopment....

One of the most important social problems in the Arab world, as elsewhere in the Islamic world, is the condition of women. Women constitute slightly more than half the population, but in most Arab countries they have no political power.... Some countries, such as Iraq and Tunisia, have made significant progress toward the emancipation of women by increasing opportunities for them. In Iraq, women have gained access to higher education and, consequently, to an ever-widening range of professions. In Tunisia, equal rights for women were guaranteed in the 1959 constitution. The results have been almost universal education for women and a significant number of women among the ranks of doctors, journalists, lawyers, magistrates, and teachers, as well as in the worlds of business and politics. This is perhaps the most hopeful single factor for the future of freedom and progress in these countries.

Another social problem is immigrant communities in the Arab world, which have received far less attention than Arab immigrant communities in Europe. These immigrants are attracted by oil wealth and the opportunities that it provides, and they undertake tasks that local people are either unwilling or unable to perform. This is giving rise to new and growing alien communities in several Arab countries, such as South Asians in the United Arab Emirates. The assimilation of immigrants from one Arab country into another has often proved difficult, and the acceptance of non-Arab and non-Muslim immigrants from remoter lands poses a more serious problem.

All these problems are aggravated by the communications revolution, which is having an enormous impact on the Arab population across all social classes.... [M]odern communications technology, such as satellite television and the Internet, has made people in the Arab countries, as elsewhere, keenly aware of the contrasts between different groups in their own countries and, more important, of the striking differences between the situations in their countries and those in other parts of the world. This has led to a great deal of anger and resentment, often directed against the West, as well as a countercurrent striving for democratic reform....

Most Westerners saw the defeat and collapse of the Soviet Union as a victory in the Cold War. For many Muslims, it was nothing of the sort. In some parts of the Islamic world, the collapse of the Soviet Union represented the devastating loss of a patron that was difficult or impossible to replace. In others, it symbolized the defeat of an enemy and a victory for the Muslim warriors who forced the Soviets to withdraw from Afghanistan. As this latter group saw it, the millennial struggle between the true believers and the unbelievers had gone through many phases, during which the Muslims were led by various lines of caliphs and the unbelievers by various infidel empires. During the Cold War, the leadership of the unbelievers was contested between two rival superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. Since they--the Muslim holy warriors in Afghanistan--had disposed of the larger, fiercer, and more dangerous of the two in the 1980s, dealing with the other, they believed, would be comparatively easy.

That task was given a new urgency by the two U.S. interventions in Iraq: that during the brief Persian Gulf War of 1990-91 and the 2003 invasion that resulted in the overthrow of Saddam and the attempt to create a new and more democratic political and social order.... In the eyes of Islamist radicals, both of these wars have constituted humiliating defeats for Islam at the hands of the surviving infidel superpower. This point has been made with particular emphasis by Osama bin Laden, a Saudi who played a significant role in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan and subsequently emerged as a very articulate leader in the Islamic world and as the head of al Qaeda, a new Islamist radical group....

Another claimant for the mantle of Islamic leadership is the Islamic Republic of Iran. The 1979 Iranian Revolution constituted a major shift in power, with a major ideological basis, and had a profound impact across the Muslim world. Its influence was by no means limited to Shiite communities.... These populations, even in those places where they are numerous, had for centuries lived under what might be described as a Sunni ascendancy. The Iranian Revolution, followed by the regime change in Iraq in 2003, gave them new hope; the Shiite struggle has once again, for the first time in centuries, become a major theme of Arab politics. This struggle is very important where Shiites constitute a majority of the population (as in Iraq) or a significant proportion of the population (as in Lebanon, Syria, and parts of the eastern and southern Arabian Peninsula). For some time now, the eastern Arab world has seen the odd spectacle of Sunni and Shiite extremists occasionally cooperating in the struggle against the infidels while continuing their internal struggle against one another. (One example of this is Iran's support for both the strongly Sunni Hamas in Gaza and the strongly Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon.)

The increasing involvement of Iran in the affairs of the Arab world has brought about major changes. First, Iran has developed into a major regional power, its influence extending to Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Second, although the rift between the Sunnis and the Shiites is significant, Iran's involvement has rendered it less important than the divide between both of them and their non-Arab, non-Muslim enemies. Third, just as the perceived Soviet threat induced Sadat to make peace with Israel in 1979, today some Arab leaders see the threat from Iran as more dangerous than that posed by Israel and therefore are quietly seeking accommodation with the Jewish state. During the 2006 war between Israeli forces and Hezbollah, the usual pan-Arab support for the Arab side was replaced by a cautious, even expectant, neutrality. This realignment may raise some hope for Arab-Israeli peace. ...

For much of the twentieth century, two imported Western ideologies dominated in the Arab world: socialism and nationalism. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, these worldviews had become discredited. Both had, in effect, accomplished the reverse of their declared aims. Socialist plans and projects were put in place, but they did not bring prosperity. National independence was achieved, but it did not bring freedom; rather, it allowed foreign overlords to be replaced with domestic tyrants, who were less inhibited and more intimate in their tyranny. Another imported European model, the one-party ideological dictatorship, brought neither prosperity nor dignity--only tyranny sustained by indoctrination and repression.

Today, most Arab regimes belong to one of two categories: those that depend on the people's loyalty and those that depend on their obedience. Loyalty may be ethnic, tribal, regional, or some combination of these; the most obvious examples of systems that rely on loyalty are the older monarchies, such as those of Morocco and the Arabian Peninsula. The regimes that depend on obedience are European-style dictatorships that use techniques of control and enforcement derived from the fascist and communist models. These regimes have little or no claim to the loyalty of their people and depend for survival on diversion and repression: directing the anger of their people toward some external enemy--such as Israel, whose misdeeds are a universally sanctioned public grievance--and suppressing discontent with ruthless police methods....

In some countries, democratic opposition forces are growing, but they are often vehemently anti-Western. The recent successes of Hamas and Hezbollah demonstrate that opposition parties can fare very well when their critiques are cast in religious, rather than political, terms.... In the mosques, they have access to a communications network--and therefore tools to disseminate propaganda--unparalleled in any other sector of the community. They are relatively free from corruption and have a record of helping the suffering urban masses. A further advantage, compared with secular democratic opposition groups, is that whereas the latter are required by their own ideologies to tolerate the propaganda of their opponents, the religious parties have no such obligation. Rather, it is their sacred duty to suppress and crush what they see as antireligious, anti-Islamic movements. Defenders of the existing regimes argue, not implausibly, that loosening the reins of authority would lead to a takeover by radical Islamist forces....

Today, there are two competing diagnoses of the ills of the region, each with its own appropriate prescription. According to one, the trouble is all due to infidels and their local dupes and imitators. The remedy is to resume the millennial struggle against the infidels in the West and return to God-given laws and traditions. According to the other diagnosis, it is the old ways, now degenerate and corrupt, that are crippling the Arab world. The cure is openness and freedom in the economy, society, and the state--in a word, genuine democracy. But the road to democracy--and to freedom--is long and difficult, with many obstacles along the way. It is there, however, and there are some visionary leaders who are trying to follow it. At the moment, both Islamic theocracy and liberal democracy are represented in the region. The future place of the Arab world in history will depend, in no small measure, on the outcome of the struggle between them.

(Bernard Lewis is Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies Emeritus at Princeton University and the author, with Buntzie
Ellis Churchill, of Islam: The Religion and the People.)

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