HOPE AMIDST TURMOIL IN MIDDLE EAST

Georgie Anne Geyer

WASHINGTON -- Think of the "good ol' days" when kings or princes in France or England wanted to insult each other. More than likely, the deed 'twould be done over ample samplings of beer and ale. It would take time for the insult to arrive at the other's castle, but once arrived, the offended man would likely take months preparing his swords for war, and within more months, his serried ranks would march.

But not today, my chaps! Today, in this obviously inferior age, you need only a criminally daft preacher in Gainesville, Fla., with 30 full members in his congregation, to throw important parts of the world into turmoil by burning an Islamic Quran, thus insulting every Muslim on the planet with one act!

Evangelical Pastor Terry Jones had threatened to burn a Quran last fall -- he was delighted with the publicity, but then didn't do it. This time, two weeks ago, he burned one, perhaps to symbolize Americana, in a barbecue pit. Strangely enough, he didn't get a lot of publicity until Afghan President Hamid Karzai mentioned it in a speech. (Yes, calm yourself, we also had thought he was on our side.) Then all hell broke loose.

Taliban cadres in Mazar-i-Sharif, a northern city where there has been so little anti-American feeling that troops were not even deployed in the town center, immediately charged up crowds to attack the U.N. office downtown. At least 20 people of the U.N. and elsewhere were killed, and the purposeless slaughter is continuing as of this writing. Two of the U.N. workers were reportedly beheaded.

It is the kind of sickening picture of that part of the Middle East and Central Asia that we have seen for many years. Americans can do any number of fool things, knowing the locals overseas will respond as heinously as they did in Mazar-i-Sharif, and then cause our own citizens to respond with arrogant hatred. Yes, Virginia, there ARE people who depend upon this kind of stupidity for their own promotion and self-aggrandizement.

But has this same kind of hate-filled reactionary response to American actions spilled over into the part of the Middle East that is closer to the West?

The extremely well-informed professor Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland writes in April's The National Interest that, "For a region that has been obsessed with Western imperialism, and to a degree still is, one of the most striking aspects of the current Western-led international intervention in Libya has been the absence of major opposition to it in the Arab world.

"Moammar Gadhafi himself labels the intervention a 'colonial crusader' war, trying to capitalize on two of the biggest fears among Arabs and Muslims. Yet there is little evidence that his message is resonating. Arab media and blogs, and wider public sentiment seen in the ongoing demonstrations remain decidedly against him."

Is it possible that President Obama and the Western European former colonialist powers, like France, England and Germany, are finally learning how to deal with super-sensitive, sometimes-mouths-frothing, Third World nations struggling to develop?

Telhami answers: "The seeming reluctance of the international community, especially the United States, to intervene, made it hard to argue that the West was itching to act. In fact, until the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 was passed, Arab commentaries, including headlines on Al-Jazeera, were beginning to criticize the West for walking away from their 'responsibilities.' In some ways, one can say that the U.S. attempt not to make the Arab revolutions about Washington early on helped reduce the suspicion that Washington and the West are now intervening for the wrong reasons."

So, let us, without undue hope and without exaggeration, look at what we can now know about this wondrous, but dangerous, winter of the "Arab awakening."

  • Even in the most hopeful countries, like Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan, all infinitely reasonable compared to the Syrias and Yemens and Afghanistans, events are not quite turning out the way the rebels wanted.

    Egypt always fears a takeover by the Islamic Brotherhood, and already that organization is working closely with the Egyptian military, cutting out the young secular rebels. Tunisia, already a middle-class country, is the most hopeful, with 40-plus political parties already formed and political discussions taking place about the future. Jordan's relatively moderate King Abdullah will most likely hold, although he has both Islamists and Palestinians to his back.

  • Thus, this is not going to be a case of "one winter of change." No, this is one of those great tides of history like the French or American revolution, when systems and structures crash into new forms bearing new principles, and real change takes time.

  • The West has to be on the lookout for the Pastor Terry Joneses and his ilk, for they too easily destroy much of the hope that now infuses the Middle East. American leaders have already said they can do nothing legally about him, that he has the right of free speech. But isn't there some rule against "crying fire in a crowded theater"?

    Regardless of these problems, it's a good time to be alive. And I'll try to be patient.

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