I’d like to plea for a new mindset toward the Middle East — not a new policy, which only a handful of government officials can set, but a better attitude from ordinary people when we turn on the evening news. I realize that few people see any reason to want a better outlook. Our attitude is at a low ebb because of all the bad things we see, from Afghan forces killing the soldiers who are trying to help them to Al Qaeda’s latest act of hatred in Benghazi.
The entire Middle East is in danger of arousing only suspicion, mistrust, and anger. The same could have been said in 1948, 1988, or any year since, except that “only” wouldn’t apply. For decades the suspicion, mistrust, and anger were tempered by other feelings. Israel inspired idealism. The Arab Spring inspired hope. The nearly obscene wealth that oil brought to the region had the upside of lifting whole nations out of poverty. But these positive feelings, already weakened before 9/11, have been erased by radical Islam.
We need new reasons to find an upside. I think they exist, but they require stepping back from the daily barrage of isolated outrages and simmering hostility.
1. A world that includes Muslims is the only world that has a future.
2. There is no real danger to the security of the West in stateless terrorism.
3. The West is stable enough to watch over the birth of democracy in the Arab world.
4. The forces of modernism have taken hold in backward societies.
5. The younger generation throughout the Middle East yearns for freedom and prosperity.
6. Our mission, to support the aspirations of everyone, is the right cause.
7. Someone must stand for peace or it won’t be achieved.
When we stop being inflamed by every bad story that comes out of the Arab world, these seven points are ones that most people will agree to. But it takes a willingness to stop being as hostile toward Islam as Muslims believe we are. When used as a political football or a pawn for right-wing ideology, Muslims give no reason to be understood. But that is tantamount to racial prejudice. Before the Supreme Court under Earl Warren found the courage to speak up for civil rights, before Nelson Mandela became a symbol for freedom in South Africa, the rationale for treating blacks as inferior, untrustworthy, dangerous, and so on, filled everyone’s mind. Attitudes don’t reflect reality. They are mindsets you choose to have.
The opposite of choice is reaction. Instead of choosing how they feel toward the Arab world, most people react to what they see from the other side. They let Al Qaeda’s intolerance define their own; they witness the anti-American demonstrations in the Arab street and automatically want to push back.
If you sincerely want to choose an attitude that reflects reality, consider this: the dispossessed of the world are rising. They want to be fully human and fully included. This involves struggle, not just economically but inside the mind. The gap between modernism and the medieval state of many Muslim communities is enormous. It’s unfair to expect a population that has lived impoverished, ignorant lives for centuries, dominated by the mosque on one hand and political dictatorships on the other, to change overnight – or to be nice about it.
There is as much murderous rage within the Arab world, a rage directed against one another, as there was when India was partitioned in 1945. In that turmoil, the same scenes we witness today took place, with bloody riots, religious conflict, mass killings, and fanatical outrages (one of which was the assassination of Gandhi). But look at the outcome. Hatred lost out to aspiration. India may contain simmering violence beneath the surface, yet more than a billion people live in a democracy where prejudice has been outlawed and opportunity exists. The same outcome is possible in the Arab world. Unless we believe that and work toward it, a bright outcome has no hope of being born.