In his article published in Asharq al-Awsat on 25 October 2012 about the magical formula behind America’s success, American columnist Thomas Friedman drew a comparison – which merits contemplation – between the US and the Middle East. In this article, Friedman focused on the glaring contradiction between what he considers the magical formula of the US political system – which is largely based on pluralism and trust – and the absolute lack of this in the Middle East and the Islamic world, which is dominated by what he described as the politics of rule or death. This is a political system where nobody trusts anybody else; a system of “my party or sect…or nothing!” Whilst in reality no society can develop without a degree of trust between its different sides, thereby allowing society to work collectively to everyone’s benefit.
Friedman is right in his description of what is happening in the Middle East and Islamic states whose local policies are dominated by political and sectarian rivalry, a lack of social harmony and severe tension between rival parties. This situation sometimes takes on a bloody or violent aspect, as can be seen in the series of daily killings in more than one Arab state. Of course, no one can imagine a developmental or civilizational leap taking place in a climate such as this where children grow up and view violence as something that is normal and part of their everyday lives.
What is strange is that some of these ills that are currently striking societies and local politics were not present in previous generations. In the past, there were greater capabilities regarding tolerance and coexistence, whilst the use of violence in this manner –explosions, car bombs, mass killings and other crimes – only emerged recently over the past decade or two, and were not present prior to this. If this reflects anything, this must be the state of severe –and worsening – complication and congestion. This is something that parties within society are unable to discharge or resolve and this congestion is therefore only intensifying. In some cases, such ills were used in an opportunistic manner by rival political parties, and this is like somebody who raises a beast to prey upon others, but in the end ends up in the belly of the beast himself!
The lack of trust and the inability to agree with others is clear to see in Arab societies that overthrew their political rules, namely the so-called Arab Spring states. The political parties there drowned in a faltering attempt to find a common vision for the future thanks to the principle of “it’s either my view or nothing”. This manner of thinking is one that does not make it easy to move forward or build modern societies.
Someone might say that respecting political pluralism, building trust and the ability to work together to respect differences of opinion are the results of a long cultural and civilizational process. After all, American society is the heir of a western civilization and culture that had a long history of bloody regional and international wars including civil wars, until it eventually arrived at this culture and ability, in terms of coexistence and pluralism.
This is true, as social change does not happen overnight, or even over a period of one or two years; however this does not necessarily have to take hundreds of years, as evidenced by the Western experience. Some of the scenes in the Middle Ages in the West are similar to what we are seeing today with regards to violence and extremist ideology in our region. However modern technology and the exchange of information is believed to cut this time short, and it is now possible for countries to witness huge civilizational developments in just one or two decades. This is something that we have seen with the Asian states, particularly in south-east Asia.
What is important is to put our feet on the right track, and this begins with the ability to coexist and work together, and manage our differences in a peaceful manner without resorting to violence or attempting to completely eliminate the other side.