Events in the Middle East continue to unfold in ways that will have a tremendous impact on all of our futures. Most Westerners are still very skeptical that democracy can ever flourish in the Middle East or in Islamic countries. But this is ignorant. Democracy already exists in the largest Islamic Nation--Indonesia. It exists in Malaysia also. Morocco and Tunisia are moving quickly in that direction and Lebanon, which is a pluralistic society, has democracy. "Ah.." you say, "But those Democracies are all dysfunctional, run by cronies, big business, or not really Western."
Yes, you are right. But Western Democracies are not exactly doing so well either. Hardly any of the democracies in Eastern Europe are as politically open and free of corruption as we would like. Western Europe has an international structure called the "E.U." which is many ways limits democracy. And in 2000, the United States was not sure which president it had elected, and in 2008, it's financial system was revealed to be beyond corrupt. Democracy is always messy and the future of 21st Century democracy (as I have argued before) is not necessarily going to belong to "Western-style Democracy." Whatever that is.
For the countries of the Middle East, North Africa, and Islamic Asia, democracy may never arrive or it may arrive very slowly. It's very possible that democracy will come to the Middle East, slowly--over 3 generations, bit by bit. In a way, this is what is happening to China. Until the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1912, China was a monarchy. It went into a period of Civil War (which began the process of new ideas for governance taking hold), the Communists took over (which brought many problems, but also liberated women), and then entered into it's hyper-capitalist phase (which is creating a Middle-Class that is demanding more democracy and transparency from the government). It didn't happen with the first revolution in 1912, but bit by bit, many of the ideals of Democracy are spreading into China. This is how it may be for countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, U.A.E., and all the rest. We may be at that Qing Dynasty Collapse moment.
Instead of being negative about Arab Democracy (and Democracy in Islamic countries), let's look at 9 things that we can already celebrate about the changes in the Middle East in 2011.
1. Not everything is Israel's Fault.
Up until a year or so ago, the blame for the regions ills, it's lack of employment opportunities, its disconnection from the world, it's lack of innovation was based on the Israel-Palestine issue. Not anymore. Now, from Tunisia, to Libya, to Egypt, the people are taking a deep look into their own cultures and their own government's problems. This is a huge change and it should be celebrated. It's not that the Israel-Palestine issue still doesn't cause problems, but it is no longer defining the entire discussion. This should be celebrated.
2. Facebook is more fun than Being a Suicide Bomber
It's looking like the large number of Arab youths (part of the so-called "youth bulge") has been spending a lot of time on Facebook and on the internet in general, instead of joining terrorist camps. Yes, playing Angry Birds on your i-phone can be more fun when you are young, then blowing yourself up. As Arab and Muslim youth listen and now make rap music, connect globally, and play angry birds instead of being angry terrorists, we see that the pull of a free world is much stronger than one that is dictated to you by someone like Osama bin Laden or the Angry Mullah's of Iran. Most kids don't like taking orders from old bearded men in their 60's and 70's. We are being reminded that this is a cross-cultural truth; youth long for freedom and resemble James Dean more than they do Ayman Al-Zawahiri. This should be celebrated.
3. The Old Regime Does Not Always Win
Many of these countries have been under the impression (and rightly so), that the old systems of government cannot be replaced. The entrenched powers---the Royal Family or the Autocrat like Saddam or Mubarak--can never be dislodged. This is now obviously untrue, and for once, the government is afraid of the people instead of the other way around. This should be celebrated.
4. Islamic Nations cannot just pass leadership from Father to Son.
There has also been the belief, in this part of the world, that authoritarian rulers can just pass from Father to Son, as Saddam Hussein wanted to do, and Hosni Mubarak, and many others. But in the age of twitter and facebook, these kind of undemocratic successions don't work as well. Who wants to be the son of one of these guys now? Being Uday Hussein is just not that great, you know? This should be celebrated.
5. Women Matter.
At the heart of many of these revolutions have been women. Nada, the martyr in Iran, the articulate Egyptian women being interviewed by global media in Tahrir Square, and women demanding more rights in the Gulf States. The President of Islamic Indonesia is a woman. The empowerment of women is a revolution in itself and one that will pay great dividends in the future. This should be celebrated.
6. The Celebrated Martyrs are No Longer Terrorists.
Mohamed Bouazizi, Hamza al-Khatib, Neda. Are these names familiar to you? Probably not, but they are becoming household names in the Middle East. They are celebrated martyrs, but not because they blow people up for Islam. But because they were killed by their governments for simply protesting or committed suicide to make a point about internal problems. These are not killers of infidels in the name of Islam, they are people asking for internal political reform. This is a new thing. This should be celebrated.
7. Birth Rates are Slowing Down Fast
One of the biggest problems in the Middle East (that has lead to the rise of Fundamentalism but also to the chronic unemployment problems which are causing counter-reactions) is the population explosion in Arab countries. While this region of the world still has a large amount of angry, disillusioned, unemployed youth; population rates are decreasing at a very fast rate. From Europe to Pakistan, Islamic women are having less children, and the generation that is growing up on Facebook and Twitter will probably aim to have one or two kids at the most. Lower birth rates for this region of the world will eventually lead to greater stability. This should be celebrated.
8. The Dubai Factor
Despite issues of corruption, bad investments, oil money, and a myriad of other problems, the standards of living in the Middle East are getting better--at least in the capital cities. It may be from oil (the Gulf States), Chinese investment (Syria) or the creation of business parks (Egypt), but there is a middle class growing. And that Middle Class is becoming more visible and is finding ways to plug into the global economy. I call this The Dubai Factor. Dubai is not a democracy, or free of corruption, or free from dependence on oil revenues. Not by a long-shot. Neither is it a place constructed by Dubai people (third world laborers do the grunt work). But Dubai, is trying to move away from being a one-trick pony. It has become a hub for air traffic, it has invested in tourism infrastructure, and slowly but surely, it is becoming more than just rich sheiks with oil money. But best of all, it is a gleaming example of modernity in the Middle East. It is not the image of a chaotic Iran or a dirt poor Gaza, but it conveys to the whole Middle East, what a progressive, modern metropolis can look like in the heart of Arab country. Dubai may be surpassed by Qatar or Abu Dhabi, or a Saudi city--but it has projected an image that is an important counter-image to what we have seen previously.
I've long been a fan of Al-Jazeera. Why? Aside from providing the best, most global news (just try getting good pieces on Latin America from CNN, BBC, or FOX), Al Jazeera is showing images of the Islamic, modernizing, middle class and beaming them into every part of the Islamic world. It is also exposing corruption, and it's reporting during the Egypt crisis was amazing. Al-Jazeera is Al-Qaeda's worst nightmare. (And as a sidenote: They produce some absolutely fantastic documentaries). This should be celebrated.
So the road to democracy may be long for places like Egypt, Iraq, or U.A.E. And it may never look like our democracies, although ours probably won't look like our 20th century versions anymore either. But it is possible that as with the Collapse of the Qing Dynasty, we are witnessing some seismic changes in the Islamic/Arab landscape that will lead toward a better future for all of us. There's no reason for complete pessimism.
In the past few years, I've wandered around country after country that I never thought would be open to foreigners in my lifetime. And now I live in a city (Berlin) where a wall once stood and we thought it would be there our whole lives. But it's gone.
As Marco would say: "That's epic!"