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Thursday, September 09, 2004

The Middle East's lost resources (Arab expat conference at Oxford)


Arab blues at Oxford


LONDON Last Saturday, 100 of the best contemporary minds in the Arab world sat down to lament the state of the region's political leadership - united by the devastating reality that not a single one is able to return to work in his or her native country. Worse, whether legally or from fear, a majority cannot go home at all.
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So much for the protestations about reform in the area - and the effect of Washington's pressure on Arab governments.
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This was no collection of fatwa-thumping Islamists, dedicated to the downfall of the current regimes. Instead they came together as liberal academics and businesspeople, men and women exiled by nothing more revolutionary than their belief in a fairer and more democratic world. Most now live in Europe, but they brought an array of painful baggage from Tunisia, Sudan, Syria and Saudi Arabia: Some have been shot at, others jailed, harassed or intimidated.
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Together they represent the lost resources of an Arab world that is fast becoming isolated by illiteracy, ignorance and repression.
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For the last 14 years, members of the group, the Project for Democracy Studies in Arab Countries, have assembled quietly at Oxford University to discuss what is not available for public discussion in their native region, even in countries that cultivate a more liberal face, like Jordan and Lebanon. As one participant murmured sadly, "Nowhere in the Arab world would such a gathering be possible.”
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While news reports are dominated by Iraq, Al Qaeda and the Palestinians, speakers focused on the structural weaknesses in Arab regimes: despotism, corruption and excessive government interference in the lives of ordinary people. “We were on about this long before the Americans started talking about reform," a physician living in Germany said. “And we'll be on about it long after they've lost interest.”
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That sense of managing alone contrasts sharply with the attitude of most Arab commentators, who delight in blaming the rest of the world for every misfortune, real or imagined, and look to it to right all wrongs. The Oxford delegates believe that it is only Arabs themselves who can create the institutions in their societies that can lead them to a better future.
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What is especially lacking, they point out, is a range of civil organizations to safeguard and monitor the rule of law, human rights and education, as well as sectarian and ethnic diversity. Honest, publicly accessible information about the shortcomings in Arab societies is almost nonexistent. No longer is ignorance bliss - it now translates into paralysis and stagnation.
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More worryingly, a new generation, denied the opportunity to participate in a range of democratic institutions or other vehicles for public self-expression, is finding more dangerous outlets for its passions.
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“It's easier for a young Arab to blow himself up, rather than sweep the area outside his house," said a Saudi researcher from an English university. “He doesn't feel he belongs to anything.”
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Of all the obstacles to reform, none is trickier than the interpretation of Islam itself. Religious dogma is variously used in the Arab world as a cover and an excuse for coercion. With no central Islamic authority, each regime feels free to manipulate the scriptures as it sees fit and to claim justification for the most ludicrous excesses. How else could Saudi Arabia get away with banning the gift of flowers on Valentine's Day or forbidding women to drive?
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The only solution, the Oxford group says, is to redefine the relationship between politics and religion - in effect, a house-cleaning operation, to be carried out by civil institutions as yet unborn.
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Oxford is a good place to dream, but this group didn't come for that. They came to exercise the fundamental right of free speech, in an atmosphere devoid of intimidation and surveillance.
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They remain unknown in the West, because neither are they terrorists nor do they have oil. But the Arab world cannot ultimately move forward without them. It's time the international community recognized that and helped them get a ticket back home.