x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Pessimism may be easy, but it ignores Middle East potential

It can be difficult to be optimistic about 2013 in the Arab world. But it is essential to do so: there is love and life everywhere

Prediction is a losing game. There are always more misses than hits, and even the hits come with caveats. Look forward to 2013 in the Middle East and, frankly, any prediction would be unfailingly depressing: there will be almost no progress on a Palestinian state; Egypt will still be riven by conflict; Iran will probably continue on the path to acquiring a bomb; Syria will still be tearing itself apart, with or without the Assads.

The only unknowns are negative: will it be the Brotherhood or the army that seizes control in Egypt? Will Israel bomb Iran? Will Lebanon be dragged into Syria's war?

It may be difficult to be optimistic about the coming year in Middle East affairs. Pessimism is often a winning position. And yet there is much to be optimistic about. The energy and enthusiasm of young people - who are now the majority of the Middle East - is unabated across the revolutionary republics.

There is enormous creativity in culture and business across the Arab world, from start-ups in Lebanon, to film in Egypt, to photography in Yemen, to music in Morocco. The lived experience in all these countries belies the stereotype of an unrelentingly harsh existence. There is life and love everywhere.

To look at the Arab world through an optimistic lens is not to ignore the big challenges of the region. But it does the courtesy - to the Middle East and its people - of viewing life in terms other than mere conflict and security. The Middle East, like anywhere else, is not eternal and unchanging, but constantly evolving and progressing.

The Orientalist perspective that suggests that the Middle East is forever locked into a spiral of religion, violence and outside interference obscures the enormous changes that are going on. A generation is rising that is pushing very hard at the conservatism of earlier generations, at the impact of foreign armies, at a narrative that minimises the agency of individuals and maximises the importance of ideas and myths, at a perspective that so often attributes to culture and religion decisions that are informed by politics.

What Fouad Ajami, the Lebanese-American academic, has called the "world of cruelty" that settled on Arabs until the revolutions is often described as if it were an inevitable result of culture or religion. Even the recent revolutionary changes are viewed through this lens.

A perspective of inevitability makes the complexity of the modern Arab world easier to digest, but obscures its reality. There is no inevitability to the modern Middle East. A Muslim Brotherhood-inspired Sharia state in Egypt, a conflict between Iran and Israel, a Somali-style disintegration of Syria - all of these things may yet come to pass, but if they do they will happen because of concrete, political decisions. Future events depend on day-by-day choices.

A perspective of inevitability is also a counsel of despair. To imagine that the Israelis and Palestinians are perpetually locked in intractable conflict is to miss the strides that have been made in changing mindsets on both sides.

In Iran, the clerical establishment argues constantly with elected politicians. There is a debate, a constant back-and-forth of political intrigue, yet this internal dynamic is only poorly reported.

In Egypt, the most extensively covered of the Arab republics, lazy platitudes of an "Islamist summer" or "Arab winter" are tossed about, as if all the machinations of President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood could have been predicted immediately after the revolution. What is often overlooked is that even Egypt's revolution could not have been predicted after Tunisia's uprising.

Looking back at the headlines of the year, it is astonishing how often the news from the region was framed in terms of loss: the loss of stability, the loss of secularism, the loss of artistic freedom. The emerging shape of Arab countries is only hinted at, so busy are we at looking in the rear-view mirror at what is no longer there.

If we ignore the brighter colours, we also ignore the shades of grey. The monolithic ideas of religion, conservatism and tradition infect our understanding of the region to the point where we cannot easily distinguish among them.

But religion is not monolithic and the way that Arabs negotiate religion is incredibly complex, from wearing faith for its historical grandeur or as a mark of identity, to the ability of religion to motivate crowds in the face of bullets and tanks. Of course religion is everywhere in the Middle East, but - to take a very simple example - observers often mistake the exclamation "God is great" as a literal statement, rather than a colloquialism, equivalent to "for God's sake". In the Arab world, if you look for religion, you will see it everywhere.

As with religion and culture, so too with politics. The shades of grey are everywhere. There is a push and a pull. Prediction purports to take the long view on the horizon, when in fact the landscape of the future is impossible to see: the terrain is constantly being shaped by events.

Looking forward with optimism to 2013 is not merely a perspective of hope. It is a prerequisite to understanding complex motivations in a complicated region, and to seeing people in the Middle East - Egyptians and Syrians, Israelis and Iraqis - as individuals with agency, doing their best in changing circumstances.

 

falyafai@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai