The past 30 days may go down in history as among the most significant 30 days in modern history. The events occurring all over North Africa and the Middle East are pretty amazing, to be sure. On the other hand, all kinds of events which were seen as potential game-changers ended up changing very little. So perhaps the issue is less the past 30 days and more the next 30 weeks.
Despite all the over-blown claims about the “clearly” positive meaning of Egypt’s so-called January 25th Revolution by some, and the outright fear-mongering about the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood by others, the only thing that’s clear, is that the situation in Egypt and throughout the Middle East’s Muslims nations, is anything but clear. Whether or not the unfolding situation will bring positive change vis a vis the United States’ relations with those countries depends on the level of openness which the parties can maintain.
Egypt, Tunisia and any other countries which join them in overthrowing non-democratic regimes will have to channel their passion for change, not only into democratic government, but into democracies which value openness and some form of rights-driven government which puts individual citizens ahead of any particular religious system. Neither Egypt, Tunisia, nor any other Muslim country is the US, nor should they be.
They will however have to embrace unprecedented, for them at least, levels of cultural and legal openness if they hope to see a new era in relations with the United States.
United States policy-makers will have to figure out what it means to see hope where they have often trained themselves to see only hopelessness. They need to get past overly simplistic dichotomies which force us to choose between individual dictators and the dictatorship of a particular faith. We need to embrace the notion that there are many ways to create the kind of political and legal cultures which we treasure, including the possibility of doing so within an Islamic context. To be sure, no nation in the Muslim world has really done that, but places like Turkey are trying and we dare not declare impossible that which is simply unprecedented.
The future of US relations with Muslim countries depends on the willingness of both sides to open their collective minds to new possibilities and the discipline to realize that despite having taken some very interesting steps in the past weeks, the journey is far from over. In a world of over-eager apologists and small-minded cynics, we need clear-eyed optimists – people who know that naiveté can be deadly, but that without hope, we are already dead.