Thursday, December 18, 2014

Context is Key

After yet another (rather lengthy) reprieve, I'm back. I think I left off talking about a comparison of the Somali and Afghan constitutions. Well, that discussion may get tabled, while we adjust the focus to a broader scope to include the larger matter of the so-called Arab uprisings, or seasonally unchanging "Arab Spring."

Without a doubt, what has been unfolding throughout the Middle East and to an even greater extent, the oft-referred Muslim world, has been significant.  However, to what extent are the events a function of civilization clashes, western influences, the war in Iraq, or some other external geopolitical force? One could easily get a narrow view of the various uprising individually and collectively throughout the region when one views them through a Western lens focusing on the last ten years or less. What is taking place has roots many decades old. Moreover, what is taking place may be largely related to internal adjustments to economic and cultural opportunity through structural reformations of rule.

Over the coming weeks and months, I am going to highlight some reading recommendations that will provide more background, more history, more substance to help frame a better sense of the context in which today's global challenges are taking place. Marwan Muasher's The Second Arab Awakening:And the Battle for Pluralism is the first such book that I recommend to begin re-framing one's thoughts and perspectives about what has been happening in the Arab world for the past few years. He asks the question, "is the Arab world moving toward democracy?"[1] It’s a good question, but the answer is neither simple nor clear. This is where context is key. Muasher makes the following observation related to the way many are mistakenly viewing today's events:
one's answer depends on the prism one uses... a three-year window is probably no the best prism through which to  view the recent developments in the Arab world. The question over the long term is whether the present change, however uncertain and difficult, will lead to democratic societies. After all, the first "awakening" of the Arab world succeeded in getting rid of foreign autocratic rule, but if failed to produce pluralistic governments. Why should we expect the second awakening to do so? Can we detect signs that indicate whether countries of the Arab world are moving toward democracy and pluralism or away from them? Despite the despair and cynicism that has seeped into thinking about the Arab uprisings so far, the developments are not all negative.[2]

Jordan's former foreign minister makes the case that an intellectual awakening at the turn of the twentieth century failed to materialize into positive structural changes to governance. Instead authoritarianism filled various voids where popular control was needed. Unfortunately, those authoritarian models based on degrees of ethnic, religious, and secular principles have done more to exclude majorities from the same opportunities retained by ruling elites.

He emphasizes the concept of pluralism as a key ingredient for tolerance of ideas and inclusion in democratic governance. He also emphasizes that today's changes will rely largely on "third forces" namely a new generation of idealists who are committed to finding peaceful means to reform political structures and processes.[3] A key takeaway from Muasher interpretation of this second Arab awakening is that it has only begun. Therefore, it is too early to tell what is really transpiring and how this story will actually unfold.

As we observe the events taking place in the Middle East and throughout the rest of the Muslim world, we must place today’s situation into a much broader context of political struggle and ideological reformation. Consider Marwan Muasher’s brief analysis of this second wave of new generations demanding a pluralistic polity. Then ask this question: what happened with the first awakening?

[1] Muasher p. 78
[2] Muasher pp. 78-79
[3] Muasher pp. 163-168