x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Innocent abroad

BooksNeil MacFarquhar's new book tours the Middle East in search of hope and US policy prescriptions.

An Iranian youth at an internet cafe in Hamadan on May 26. MacFarquhar places some hope in the internet, but recognises that oppressive regimes can always adopt a new policy: "Say what you want, and we will do what we want."
An Iranian youth at an internet cafe in Hamadan on May 26. MacFarquhar places some hope in the internet, but recognises that oppressive regimes can always adopt a new policy: "Say what you want, and we will do what we want."

Neil MacFarquhar's new book tours the Middle East in search of hope and US policy prescriptions. Wesley Yang considers the accomplished and well-intentioned reporter's blind spots. The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday: Unexpected Encounters in the Changing Middle East Neil MacFarquhar PublicAffairs Dh98 It is customary for foreign correspondents to open their retrospective volumes by tracing the genesis of an unhealthy obsession with the beautiful yet cruel region in whose conflicts they have spent so many years enmeshed. "High school for me, I am now embarrassed to say," admits Thomas Friedman in the prelude to his remarkable From Beirut to Jerusalem (written before his discovery of Indian capitalism transformed him into one of the planet's most annoying pundits) "was one big celebration of Israel's victory in the Six Day War." Robert Fisk writes in the preface to his massive compendium, The Great War of Civilisation, of being propelled into journalism by a childhood viewing of an Alfred Hitchcock film in which he hears a resonant phrase naming the vocation to which he then began to aspire - "one of the little army of historians who are writing history from beside the cannon's mouth".

These anecdotes make plain what is easy enough to read between the lines of any correspondent's pretensions to Olympian authority: their peculiar infatuations inform everything they write. Thus, Fisk's heroic conception of his role leads to high eloquence and invective, while Friedman takes us in a self-effacing way through the stages of a young American Zionist's discovery that Jerusalem in the 1980s was not "the Jewish summer camp of his youth". Books of this kind are sometimes interesting for what they tell and show us about the world; they always provide a privileged glimpse into the assumptions held by that tiny handful of people deputised by the Western press to be their eyes and ears in alien lands.

Neil MacFarquhar opens his correspondent's travelogue, The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday, with a reference to the "deep sense of curiosity, mingling with atonement", that tugged at him from the Middle East. MacFarquhar was born into an expatriate family on the Mediterranean coast of Libya in a tiny Esso company compound that "felt more Texan than Libyan". The oil town was surrounded by a chain-link fence that kept out the Libyans, who were "mostly strangers viewed from afar". Only after his family's departure in 1975 did MacFarquhar "launch a retroactive search for what I had missed on the other side of the fence".

This self-portrait confirms an impression that MacFarquhar's dispatches as the Middle East correspondent for the New York Times conveyed (he held that job from 2001 to 2006). He is neither a Zionist, an anti-American, nor a flinger of great rhetorical thunderbolts. Nor is he that fixture of the international scene, the slightly sadomasochistic war reporter who delights in descriptions of the terror and calamity. He is a good American liberal in the best sense of that (sometimes unjustly) maligned phrase - empathetic, well-meaning, slightly abashed by his postcolonial inheritance - who would like to feel hopeful about the region. His book is a record of the deep ambivalence any American liberal will feel when confronting MacFarquhar's principal heroes, "the smart men and women committed to a secular, pluralistic future" in the Middle East. Weary of "the constant, bloody upheaval that captures most attention" in the western press, MacFarquhar deliberately sidesteps "the gory attacks, the beheadings and bombings" that absorbed most of his energy during his stint in the region. Instead he sets out to introduce his readers to "people with real humanity, likeable people whose work I admired and whose goals were uplifting".

These include Fayrouz, the beloved Lebanese singer who symbolised a Beirut that was "a cosmopolitan meeting ground where East and West melded together into something unique and widely admirable"; Fawzia Dorai, a Kuwaiti columnist and TV talk show host who offers marital and sex advice to callers; the journalists at Al Jazeera who "blasted away the cobwebs hobbling news in the region" and "horrified Arab dictators used to exercising complete control over the news"; Ekkehard Zitzman, then "the last brewer on the Arabian peninsula", who forbore a volley of firebombs every Ramadan with heroic equanimity (before fundamentalists burnt his facility to the ground); and the popular TV chef Ramzi, whose success "certainly indicated that there is a wide audience across the Arab world eager to learn more about other countries, to look beyond its traditions toward other ways of doing things".

These diverting portraits are accompanied by somewhat ungainly glimpses into the "lighter side" of the Middle East, which is typically conveyed through the apparently incongruous juxtaposition of ancient belief with modern technology (such as Dial-A-Sheikh, a subset of the practice of "Fatwa shopping" by which some devout Muslims will consult numerous religious authorities in search of rulings that license their particular desires) and the weirdly adorable adoption of the accoutrements and attitudes of bourgeois post-modernity by its most determined antagonists (such as the annual birthday poem sent to MacFarquhar from hizbollah@hizbollah.org.)

MacFarquhar hopscotches around the region introducing his readers to dissident bloggers in Bahrain, a controversial Saudi theologian who argues that the Wahhabi sect should not have a monopoly on interpreting Islam, a female Saudi education professor who still bears a stigma for having been one of the 47 women who defied the ban on women driving in a famous protest back in 1990, and a young Jordanian poet and activist. All of these men and women confront overwhelming obstacles, neatly summarised by MacFarquhar thusly:

"The stifling control of the secret police; the absence of the rule of law even if the constitution seems to guarantee it; the fact that one tribe or one clique has controlled each government for so long; the inherent difficulty in working alone because organising is mostly banned; the daunting power of the Muslim Brotherhood or other religious parties; and finally, the keen disappointment that a new generation of rulers did not automatically introduce a new way of thinking."

MacFarquhar endows this litany, intimately familiar to readers of the Arab Human Development report (and to the millions who endure the conditions named therein), with a human face by relating the stunted aspirations of activists in Jordan, Morocco, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria. The stories become as repetitive as the violent ones that MacFarquhar eschews. In Saudi Arabia - where political parties and NGO's are banned, there is no right to assembly, and all of the 10 daily newspapers are owned by "royal princes or their close associates" who censor debate in their pages - "reformists repeatedly found themselves hobbled by the utter lack of a platform to so much as discuss change". A human rights lawyer in Syria, where every gathering of five or more people is technically illegal, points out that "the opposition has no power and no programme". In Bahrain, the royal family has responded to the rise of the internet with a new policy, as effective as the old: "Say what you want, and we will do what we want."

While touring these obstacles, MacFarquhar is continually on the lookout for ways that America might do good in the region, chiefly by nurturing indigenous forces for change in ways subtle enough to avoid the backlash that an open American embrace typically triggers. He points out that America's incursion into Iraq ("the biggest, messiest experiment in changing the practice of minority rule") has discredited the cause of democracy and civil rights by allowing ruling despots - who collaborate with the rhetoric of the War on Terror by portraying themselves as "the finger in the dyke holding back the raging sea of radical Islam" - to simultaneously paint indigenous reformers as American stooges.

In a similar vein, he suggests that a single-minded focus on elections amounts to overreaching in a region that first needs to build the rudiments of civil society. He proposes that Americans increase the amount of foreign aid targeted toward development, become more vocal in condemning all forms of repression, and refuse to moderate that criticism just because a foreign government serves America's immediate policy goals. He urges a return to "a time when the US was known for defending the little guy, when the guiding principle of American foreign policy was doing the right thing".

The blameless banality of these suggestions, most of which are both apposite and true in their way, winds up in tension with many of MacFarquhar's observations elsewhere in his book. It begins as a view of the "lighter side" of the Middle East; it becomes, almost in spite of itself, a rather crushing account of political paralysis. The "smart, energetic, dedicated activists out there working to transform the region may not have reached a critical mass", he writes. They may "face terrible odds in confronting the brutal machinery that keeps so many dictators in power". But, he concludes somewhat lamely: "they are determined to make a difference."

This statement, which describes the lonely and isolated dissidents whose values MacFarquhar shares, of course leaves out the energetic and dedicated people whose methods terrify him. Indeed, the humour embedded in the title of his book is premised on the American assumption that Hizbollah is beyond the pale. But MacFarquhar also acknowledges that Hizbollah "were the only group bent on change" in Lebanon. Discussing that country's vaunted "Cedar Revolution", MacFarquhar notes that "it was a name dreamed up in Washington, and one I could never bring myself to write in any story", since the "protests did not seem to be anything remotely resembling a revolution": "nobody was demanding fundamental reordering of the outdated division of spoils that allotted political power to various sects according to the circa 1940 population numbers", and "nobody expected an end to the dominance of feudal families who divided up political power and patronage among themselves".

MacFarquhar's recognition of the need for a "fundamental reordering" of power relations in a region dominated by ruling minorities who control all political and economic power and who understand, as he quotes one Bahraini reformer observing, "that sharing power means losing power", does not square with the incremental liberal meliorism that he wants to believe in. It would be useful for Western authors considering the predicament of Middle Eastern politics to remember the history of their own countries, all of which were governed by unaccountable minorities as recently as a few hundred years ago. In order to arrive at the orderly and pacific condition that Europe currently enjoys - with religion an afterthought, free speech unabridged, and nobles reduced to an ornamental status - the continent passed through centuries of war, revolution, genocide and ethnic cleansing, including the cruelest instance of each of the preceding the world has ever seen. Out of this crucible arose the unique political cultures of the West. And these cultures proclaimed universal values that were, in the event, inextricably bound up with the exercise of arbitrary power around the world, including the Middle East.

Nothing ordains that the Arab world will have to follow Europe's bloody path to modernity, but remembering this history will provide some larger perspective on the spasms of hope and despair that afflict well-intentioned Western liberals like MacFarquhar. He refers to "a brief moment of high optimism among reformers in the Arab world, a time when the US put Arab leaders on notice that business as usual was no longer acceptable". This implies that the strong reformist rhetoric of Condoleeza Rice, which was immediately abandoned after Hamas's victory in Gaza, represented an important squandered opportunity that might really have made a difference if the follow up had been other than "anaemic", the consistency other than "non-existent".

This disillusionment does not make sense from someone who knows the reality of the Middle East's fraught relationship with the United States as well as MacFarquhar does. Given America's other policy commitments, what did he expect? The weird innocence of his disappointment suggests that for all the restraint, subtlety and patience MacFarquhar urges on American policymakers, he still wishes ardently for change far beyond the scale of what any outside actor, particularly one so historically compromised, can bring about in the region. Change comes from the people who are able to deliver it, at a time when the conditions are right, and it is not always for the better. The first thing Americans facing this reality must do, its best-intentioned liberals not excepted, is refrain from fooling themselves into thinking otherwise.

Wesley Yang, a regular contributor to The Review, writes for Nextbook and n+1.