Thursday, December 2, 2010

Changing the Conversation

All this frenzied sparring going on in the Middle East makes you think small. In the instant. Day by day, the better to catch an oblique, do or die nuance, a hidden turn in a one-way, face-down tumble. Miss a moment, a word, a gesture, and, God forbid, you might just be missing the purpose of it all. The temptation is to keep tabs, in the hope that the tally somehow will weave a story worth knowing.

But frankly, as needlepoint intricate as this book’s authors would like to think it is, there is nothing remotely subtle in the narrative. On its surface lives a certain kind of senselessness that is at once immovable and incapacitating. In the deep of it runs, like a violent undertow, that incessant matter of religion.

Politics here has become nothing more than a very heated argument between warring faiths and sects. Even among members of the same creed and tribe the race is on in the name of prostration and reverence.   

Islam, in the Middle East, is a brooding king harangued by too many squabbling princes. Ours feels like a march of folly, to borrow some from Barbara Tuchman, and irony is almost beside itself that none other than religion is actually leading the throngs.

Massacres in Iraqi churches; rumored simulations of a Hezbollah take over of Lebanon; unabashed and apparently daily conversations between AhmadiNejad and the hidden Mahdi; talk by the Egyptian Muslim Brothers’ Supreme Guide of “cleansing the system since we carry within us the pure water of the heavens;” women in Hamas’s Gaza being banned from smoking shisha in public cafes…These are just a sample from the latest entries in a years-long running account of puerile, sex-obsessed fatwas, pious rants and sectarian bloodletting.

In this way, the utterly silly has been conspiring with the downright unnerving in the behavior of decision makers from whose hands the lives of so many of us hang. And would that politics here were local and its devastating aftereffects pressure point precise. Would that we the people were mere innocent bystanders and victims without a single bone in this dogfight.

Words like secularism have become blasphemy, privacy in faith proof of heresy. Religion is now practically interchangeable with identity; it has become our highest attainment and our lowest common denominator.

If you are looking to lead and compete in politics nowadays, this is the only game in town. There are no independent forces here—at least none that our best public opinion polls can identify--that amount to anything more than a few brave voices whispering every once in a while from the sidelines, “Is it too much to ask?”

I suppose it hasn’t occurred to our leaders and fundamentalist gatekeepers, who are apoplectic about Israel’s reassuringly blunt Loyalty Oath--which makes allegiance to a Jewish Israel compulsory for non-Jewish aspirants to citizenship--that it made more sense to welcome Israel into the region’s Muslim fold rather than condemn it as an outcast.

After all, what could possibly be offensive to them about this new Israeli measure, which crows atop a growing pile of Israeli laws that scream of discrimination, when searching our own legal codes for examples of religious prejudice would be like picking one’s way through a cotton field in season.

What are we lamenting when we protest this latest show of Israeli bigotry? That they have finally officially come out in the open as one of us?

It seems almost beside the point, in the midst of all these deathly my God is better than yours rows, that people here are actually very hard at work at the business of living—and with barely a serious or sensible public policy in sight.

Water, electricity, a proper education, health, the need to create at least 50 million new jobs over the next 10 years if we are to stay put, rich estranged from poor, living galaxies apart…All beside the point. And we haven’t even broached the testier issues of transparency, the rule of law, women’s rights…

In Egypt, you can almost hear the sound of fragile dreams being crushed by a state and an Islamist opposition doing battle over everything that actually does not count.

And so it goes, with varying degrees of pain and embarrassment, in practically every other Middle Eastern destination.

In Bahrain, the few Sunnis battle way too many Shiites, cosmetic reforms going the way of the fight’s other casualties.

In Iraq, the goose that is threatening to lay a million golden eggs, sectarian wrangling has been turned into a fine, if hideous, art.

In Lebanon, close to four million people flail this way and that, like hapless crowds on a sinking deck. As the entire country flounders between clashing cults, the well off work, curse, travel and obsess about the tumult; the poor curse, scramble for crumbs of a living, fret and wait.


These are the lifeless landscapes you are sure to behold if you were standing and peering down.

Crouch and you begin to brush against the faint gusts of wind delicately working their way through them.

Over the last few years, NGOs, by the hundreds—literally—have been sprouting in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan…offering everything from balsam for the destitute to step-ups and beachheads for those who have the remotest readiness (and chance) to want out.

Everywhere you go, there is a loud buzz, growing louder still: entrepreneurship conferences in Dubai (I’ve just come back from a superb one), business incubators in Palestine, youth activism in Amman...
It feels as if civil society is awakening from a decades-long slumber to fill a void carved wide by cruel, old hands.

The private sector is not too far behind. Though still palpably dormant and happy to follow the state’s cue (and orders), you can see it, slow and shy, walking into arenas long abandoned by derelict governments.  

Corporate Social Responsibility is making an appearance on every other company’s website and advertising material. Social entrepreneurship is now our sexiest piece of jargon, an enticing presence in the parlance of the rich and powerful.

Charity has always had a nice pull in this part of the world, but it is becoming at once generous and bottom-line smart to offer the less fortunate a sustainable leg up.

And did you notice? Nary a mention of politics in these circles, except for a few daring bloggers giving officialdom a very mild case of the runs. 

Engagement is seeking different friends, since Democracy and her daughters (political parties, elections, protests, rallies…) have turned out to be pretty rough company.

As is typical of noise that begins as a restless stirring that promises to be a trend, it is almost impossible to tell where this is all going, what it signifies and how far it might reach. As usual, Western commentators have brought out their pens in celebration of the change that is coming. And, as usual, they’re way too excited by the hype.

Serious doers are being lumped with chatty ones, marketing gimmicks are being applauded as a thing of substance (remember that glossy ad campaign that became Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution?).  

The US wants a piece of whatever it is we are witnessing. Islamist movements 
are walking around with pensive faces and raised eyebrows. Traditional leftists are screaming that this is neoliberalism in disguise blurring sacred divides. Populists are furious that money is daring to exhibit a conscience with a plan. The state is looking for an angle…

Yes, I am exaggerating for effect…but not that much.

The hullabaloo aside, all that one can say in these very, very early hours with near certainty is that it would appear that an increasing number of very determined and visionary individuals are trying very hard to change the conversation.

That’s it for now.

For their sake, the urge is to mount the table and scream down at the nattering, heedless pundits: “Will you shut up for once and just listen!”