Death to Dictators
Sometimes you're reading the newspaper and a quote just jumps out at you. I had that experience last week while reading an Associated Press story from Iran about the mounting student protests against Iran's hard-line clerical leaders. Deep in the story, I came upon this sentence: "On Sunday, more than 2,000 protesting students chanted `Death to dictatorship' and condemned anew the death sentence against a prominent university professor."
I had to rub my eyes. Did I read that right? The Iranian students who had practically invented the chants "Death to America" and "Death to the Great Satan" had on their own changed the tape. Now they are chanting "Death to dictatorship." And because they are, there is hope for the post-9/11 world.
No, I am not getting carried away by one chant. Iran's hard-line clerics have the power to crush the student-led democracy movement anytime they please. Yes, Iran's bad guys have all the power to do that but none of the legitimacy to do it. And that is why they are hesitating. The hard-line clerics have lost their legitimacy with a wide swath of Iranians, particularly the young, who have concluded that it's their own hard-liners not America who are to blame for Iran's economic woes, political paralysis and isolation.
The Iranian students chanting "Death to dictatorship" may not be able to do anything about it, but the fact that they've identified their real problem as their own bad mullahs, not outsiders and their real solution as true democracy, not some rigged Islamic version is a big change. When Arab Muslims on the other side of the gulf draw the same conclusion that it is their own autocrats, religious fanatics and education systems that are holding them back, not America we will be on the road to curing the madness of 9/11.
What are the chances of that? Some days they feel very low. Look at the shameful comments just made by Saudi Arabia's interior minister, Nayef bin Abdel Aziz, who told a Saudi weekly that the Zionists "are behind these events" of 9/11. Yes, yes, there were 15 Saudi hijackers, but the Jews did it. How pathetic. It is that sort of escapism "Death to the other guy" that has retarded Arab development for decades.
But here's the good news. The events of 9/11 have had a bigger impact than you might think. They have intensified something I would call "the conversation" among Arabs and Muslims. It has been going on in private for years, but lately some courageous voices are taking it public shouting in their own press, "Death to the old lies."
Consider a strong piece that just ran in Okaz, a major Saudi daily, by the columnist Abdullah Abu Sameh, who decries the fact that Muslim extremists "have stuffed the minds [of some of our youth] with a fanatic ideology and a faulty interpretation of Jihad that it is a tool to oppress and dominate others." He quotes an essay in the Saudi daily Asharq al-Awsat by the gutsy Abdul Rahman al-Rashed, who said that while Saudis were shocked to find so many of their youth involved in 9/11, "it is better to confront the fact than make excuses. . . . The cause of the radicalization of [our] youth was the culture of violence that has infiltrated religious education, deviating from the traditions of the conservative . . . Saudi society." To regain peace and reconciliation with the world, Mr. Abu Sameh said, "our youths must be re-educated and violence a concept alien to our society must be discarded." [Translation by Memri.]
Or consider a fine piece in Al Ahram, the main Egyptian paper, by Usama Ghazali Harb, who says the Muslim world's predicament today is not the result of some external plot but the fact that "while the vast majority of Muslims keep silent, an extremist minority has hijacked the faith and is steering it into a confrontation with the world. . . . These extremists are supported by conservative forces that fear progress and modernity." What the Muslim world desperately needs, Mr. Harb says, is a progressive model that works a role Egypt could play even better than Iran. "But," he asks, "is Egypt ready to assume such a role?"
We should not exaggerate the influence of these writers or ignore it. We should understand that they are there, that 9/11 has emboldened them to emerge and that the quicker we get this Iraq thing over, and the more we can quiet the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the more their "conversation" will gain momentum.
Wish them well. They're our best hope for change from within which is the only change that matters.