MIDDLE EAST: Real intellectuals
Daoud Kuttab

Reform is not a new issue in the Arab world. It has been the demand of Arab democrats and human rights activists for years. Most of those fighters for democracy have been muzzled, detained, tortured, or have disappeared or been killed by Arab dictators – including leaders believed to be moderate in the eyes of the Western world.

Visit any major European capital today and you will find a crowd of Arab thinkers, intellectuals, journalists, human rights activists, and scientists who have chosen exile rather than to live under the tyranny of their regimes. Many independent Arab media outlets have thrived in capitals like Paris and London, and many regional Arab NGOs make their official bases outside the region.

With such a strong Arab democratic movement, an objective observer might expect US calls for reform to receive a strong embrace from Arab intellectuals and human rights activists. But an eerie silence has fallen on political opponents, both inside the Arab world and in exile.

Meanwhile, an overwhelmingly comprehensive attack has been launched against the new US reform plan.

Opposition to the plan – in the opinion pages of major Arab newspapers and on satellite talk shows – has focused almost exclusively on three areas: the credibility of Washington and major misgivings over the real goals of the US government in general, and the Bush administration in particular; second, America’s highhandedness, offering its formula for saving the Arab world from itself without consulting Arab governments or independents; and third, almost all attacks have called on the US to help solve the Palestinian problem, instead of shifting attention to the issue of the need for reform.

There is a lot of truth in these criticisms. Nonetheless, however, many critics, and most of the media that have carried these opinions, have their own credibility problem vis-a-vis democracy and human rights. When Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq fell, documents revealed an extensive network of payments to leading Arab journalists, commentators, and intellectuals. The independence of the media in the Arab world leaves a lot to be desired. I believe that many of the articles expressed in these papers represent many of the authoritarian regimes themselves. I am not saying that these articles were commissioned or paid for by the regimes, but that many Arab leaders seem to be happy with them, and must have privately encouraged them. Many of these regimes would not dare publicly oppose the US on any idea it presents. This is a rare case in which they can appear to be supporting freedom of expression while allowing seemingly independent intellectuals to be their proxies in opposing the US calls for reform.

I also have a problem with those wanting to link reform in the Arab world with a resolution of the Palestinian problem. For far too long, Arab regimes have hijacked the Palestinian problem to divert attention away from their own incompetence and internal troubles. The Palestinian cause will gain, not suffer, from real reform in the Arab world. If such reform were to come about, Arab governments would have to be much more responsive to the demands of their people. And the demands of the Arab world today are that their governments support Palestine in deed, and not just in word. Furthermore, the Palestinian problem is not a real issue when it comes to the question of reform in the many Arab countries that do not immediately surround Palestine. There is no need to link reform in, say, Morocco or Oman, with the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Perhaps the key cause for concern, then, is the ongoing silence of genuine Arab intellectuals regarding the substance of, and the need for, reform, rather than the parties behind it.

In this horrible time that the Arab nation is going through, it may seem to some that silence is a very good remedy. But I beg to differ. Since Arab democrats have failed to reach their goals through their own efforts, there seems little harm in supporting any idea that fits with theirs, irrespective of the messenger. If real intellectuals are not able to make this distinction, they allow hired heads and inexpert Arab spokespersons to do all the talking.

With any disease, healing begins with proper diagnosis. If intellectuals are unable or unwilling to properly diagnose our problem, and if they fail to speak, the problems in the Arab world will only worsen, and the desired reform will not take place, irrespective of whether it comes from within or as a result of pressure from without.

Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian journalist and director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University in Ramallah. Courtesy of Common Ground News Service.