I interviewed a U.S. diplomat a while back about U.S. aid to Muslims in France. He told me that America decided after 9/11 to put more emphasis on its relations with younger Muslims and Arabs in general.
This, he said, is being done in order to improve future relations between America and the Muslim and Arab world, adding that France was not a particular priority. The initiative – which is ongoing – has not pleased the French authorities as you may imagine. (You can read that article here.)
But America is not just reaching out to young French Muslims, it is also engaged in a softly-softly hearts-and-minds attempt to foster democratic ideals among Arab youth everywhere, from Gaza to Algeria.
Moreover, that policy is being imitated by several European countries and by Britain in particular. It could of course be seen as cynically manipulative policy because at the same time as the West has been trying to reach out to the younger populations of the Middle East it has been underpinning various dictators and unsavory regimes in a slew of countries. Indeed, it is manipulation, but it is also a pragmatic attempt to influence the future, and in that sense it would be foolish not to follow its development.
Younger Arabs have been living in a time warp for over twenty years. On the one hand they have been constantly fed anti-western propaganda by leaders who need scapegoats for their countries’ lack of social progress and nepotism, and on the other they spend as much time as possible on the Internet, which they use assiduously. And the Internet shows them what life in the West consists of.
Some westerners would like to ensure that young Arabs remain the pawns of their geopolitical heroes whatever that may entail for their standards of living, but many Arabs would most likely retort “Western culture and ideals are bad? If you say so, but I want to experience an Arab version of it and decide for myself if that’s all right with you.”
Muzzled by tradition, hierarchy and religious excesses, many are extremely poor, without jobs, and they have no future. Corruption is endemic in their countries, as has been the violent suppression of any dissent. Domestic terrorism has kept tourism away in quite a few Mideast countries and exit visas remain a distant dream.
That is why Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and a host of other social networking sites, as well as WikiLeaks, slowly became the lifeblood of dreams for millions of younger Arabs crowded into Internet cafes across the Middle East. And those sites were instrumental in helping to ignite the fires of change. Used as a call to arms, they have been an indispensible tool in their organizational arsenal (although contrary to what many think, saying that these are “Facebook/Twitter revolutions is woefully simplistic and erroneous.)
Behind all this though, watching and – where possible – helping, have been western interests, and those of the United States in particular. Aid schemes, foreign schooling and university programs, cultural exchanges, forum-discussion visits by western personalities to universities and companies, Democrat and Republican foundation grants to organize symposiums on democracy, local government, social services and other facets of the fabric of western societies, not to mention loans to businesses, online Internet training, and local investment and implantation by western business and industry giants. The list of ways in which the West is reaching out to the young Arab world – where stagnation reigns – is long.
This patient bridge-building cannot be said to have been a tipping-point factor in the current unrest which is engulfing the Middle East, but it is a contributing element which is now seeing the possibility of a payoff.
I read an editorial in a French paper a couple of years ago which lamented the inability of European countries and institutions to consider the creation of organizations – both governmental and non-governmental – to analyze and influence long-term geopolitical strategy trends and options and, within that context, to develop the necessary policies to adopt in order to respond to them. That editorial also very pertinently pointed out that the United States has been doing exactly that for the last 50 years at least via government think tanks, institutions, foundations, aid agencies, defense and CIA departments, military and economic entities, and all that has resulted in the action I described earlier.
America and the West may well turn out to have a very long future ahead of them in the Middle East depending on the outcome of the current movements for democracy going on there, because those movements’ leaders know that they are now at a crossroads.
They will either be defeated - in which case they will be back to square one - or they will succeed in winning and forcing change.
And if they win, they may likely have to choose between accepting what will surely be increasing pressure from radical Islamic elements to turn their countries over to pure theology or embracing those western ideas and ideals which they consider could be adapted to suit their own countries and societal models, thus opening up the Middle East to a host of new possibilities.
I sincerely hope they choose the latter.