Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Disgusted of Damascus

Lee Smith, who wrote a whole series of utterly original and superlatively written articles (such as this) in his previous life as Slate's resident Arabist, profiles Syrian liberal dissident and one-time Sunni fundamentalist Ammar Abdulhamid in the New York Times magazine.

Again, the theme emerges that Iraq's revolution from outside has emboldened and strengthened the Arab world's reformists, although they face a harsh and unforgiving struggle rather than enjoying the leadership of civil society as the Eastern Bloc dissidents did:
For the last half-century, the Islamist movement and Arab regimes themselves have pushed Arab liberals to the sidelines. As a result, the Arab world's democracy activists and intellectuals do not enjoy the same advantages their Central and Eastern European counterparts did back in the 80's: whereas the generation of Havel and Walesa was backed by the Catholic Church and its Polish-born pope, Arab activists enjoy no such solidarity with any established Muslim institutions. Indeed, while militant Islamist leaders have called for elections in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, they typically see liberal, secular reformers like Abdulhamid as a threat to the traditional foundations of their authority.

Even so, the liberals seem to be gathering a little momentum. Recently, intellectuals from Iraq, Jordan and Tunisia petitioned the United Nations for a tribunal to prosecute both terrorists and the religious figures who incite violence. In Egypt, two new publications, Nahdet Misr and Al Masry Al Youm, fault the region's leaders and clerics alike for keeping Arabs from joining the modern world. The Iraqi election posed a stark challenge to regional autocrats. While Abdulhamid harbors mixed feelings about the United States' decision to invade Iraq, he says he believes that the American presence in the region is vital to the prospects for reform. "We are an important part of the world," he says, "and our inability to produce change on our own terms invites people in. The world is not going to wait for us."