Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Middle East at Chicago Ideas Week

Chicago Ideas Week began its third annual season this past week.  An offshoot of TED (Technology, Education, Design), CIW has been presenting a series of stimulating and provocative panels all this week (Oct. 14-20) which emphasize not only great analysis but innovative ideas on how to solve many of the world's problems.

I had the pleasure of participating in an event, "The Middle East: After the Arab Spring."  This talk was sponsored by Time Magazine and hosted by its International Editor, Bobby Ghosh, who reported from Iraq between 2002 and 2007.  As I learned from CIW organizer, Amy Walsh, this talk was the first to sell out and thus we had an enthusiastic and attentive audience.

Time International Editor, Bobby Ghosh
Besides Bobby Ghosh and me, the talk featured Ronny Edry, the founder of Peace Factory, Lara Setrakian, founder of "Syria Deeply," Rula Jebreal, Foreign Policy Contributor at MSNBC, and Ayman Mohyeldin, Foreign Correspondent for NBC News.

I began the talk with a presentation that focused on Iraq.  I posed the question whether there still is a possibility to bring democracy to Iraq.  I noted that Iraq’s politics differs considerably from that of other Arab countries,l except perhaps Tunisia and, to a lesser extent, Lebanon.

The Iraqi parliament has held anti-corruption hearings that led to the resignation of an important cabinet minister in 2009 who was a close ally of current prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki.  It has forced the cancellation of arms sales from Russia after it was discovered that the weapons systems were vastly overpriced.  The parliament has passed  term limits legislation limiting the prime minister and other top officials in the executive branch to 2 terms in office.  It also introduced a vote of no confidence in prime minister Maliki, based on his efforts to build a new authoritarian state and his failure to implement the democratic reforms he promised after the 2010 national parliament elections.
In my presentation, I pointed to Iraq's "youth bulge," namely, that 70% of Iraq's population is under the age of 30.  While many youth are members of criminal and terrorist organizations, it is democratically oriented youth who are the main drivers behind Iraq's large number of civil society organizations.  These organizations work to protect women's rights, have created a large and influential blogosphere, and have produced highly popular television programs, including "soap operas," that satirize  sectarianism and a program that featured houses rebuilt after being destroyed as a result of sectarian violence.

I reported on my research with Iraqi youth that I am conducting with my colleague, Dr. Faris Kamal Nazmi, a distinguished social psychologist who teaches at Salahiddin University in Erbil.  Of particular interest are youth attitudes towards religion.  Do Iraqi youth view religion as a vehicle for promoting tolerance and political pluralism, or do they interpret religion in sectarian terms?  The results thus far indicate that educated middle class students are adamantly opposed to sectarianism and the politicization of religion which they see as a threat to their future. 

Baghdad:  Please..! Please! No discussion of religion and politics in my shop
Indeed, in Iraq, many students we interviewed considered clerics to be politicians rather than men of religion.  For many youth, Islam is interpreted more as a political ideology than a religion because they see so many clerics involved in politics and pursuing their own personal agendas, rather than seeking to help the community at large.  Few youth attend the Friday prayer (khutba) and those that do often said only because they are forced to do so by their parents.  These Iraqi youth, especially those who are part of the educated middle classes, show no interest whatsoever in participating in religiously motivated violence.

I ended my talk with suggestions how Americans can become more involved in the Middle East.  Establishing "sister cities" and "sister schools" with counterparts in Iraq (and in other countries in the Middle East) can be a way of getting to know Iraqis and Middle Easterners face to face.  With Skype, social media and other forms of technology, Americans can bring the Middle East right into their homes.

Muslims are the fastest growing demographic in the United States.  Civic groups can arrange forums in which Muslim, Christian and Jewish clerics can discuss the issue of religion and violence, both in the US and abroad.  Invitations can be sent to Muslim clerics in the Middle East to visit the United States and engage Americans in an important dialogue about how to improve communication between the West and the region.

 In the spirit of being fed up with waiting for governments to address major foreign policy issues, Ronny Edry decided to act to try on his own to defuse tensions between Israel and Iran.  Founder of Peace Factory, he took the photograph shown here and uploaded it to his Facebook page with the note, "Iranians, we will never bomb your country.  We love you."

Within hours, thousands of Israelis and Iranians had "friended" one another.  Soon Israelis and Palestinians were doing the same thing.  Then the movement spread to Europe and other parts of the world embracing other contentious issues not related to the Middle East.  At one point Ronny noted in his talk, there were 100,000 people involved in the "We will not bomb you" campaign and when anyone posted "Iran" or "Israel" on Google, the Peace Factory came up first.

Now the movement has joined Stanford University's Peace Innovation Lab to move the project to the
next level. According to Ronny, the slogan, "Peace, it's viral," demonstrates how ordinary citizens can use social media to promote conflict resolution globally when politicians fail to meet their responsibilities to insure that their country does not needlessly go to war.

Following Ronny's presentation, Bobby Ghosh engaged Lara Setrakian, Rula Gebreal, and Ayman Mohyeldin in a discussion of the Arab Spring.  Posing a number of sharply focused questions, Bobby was able to elicit a highly informative analysis from three of the best young analysts of contemporary Arab politics.

 All three journalists agreed that the most important result of the Arab Spring is the destruction of the "wall of fear."  Never again will Arabs submit to authoritarian rule and fail to hold their political leaders accountable for their actions.  At the same time, they also drew parallels between the United States and the Arab Spring, noting that it took until 1783 for the US to complete its constitution and establish a federal state.  When considering the Arab Spring, democracy cannot be built overnight.
Bobby Ghosh interviews Rula Gebreal, Ayman Mohyeldin and Lara Setrakian

Lara Setrakian decried the lack of knowledge Americans have of the Syrian conflict. She pointed out that most Americans are unaware that Syrians emphatically reject living under the dictatorship of President Bashar al-Asad or an oppressive regime run by radical Islamist forces linked to al-Qa'ida. This was the reason Lara created "Syria Deeply," an information platform that is designed to enhance foreign policy literacy through using the most up to date forms of digital technology.

Rula Jebreal called for a "paradigm shift" in United States foreign policy.  She argued that the disproportionate influence wielded by a small number of lobbying groups in the US Congress prevents the US government from adopting a more rational and problem-oriented foreign policy in the Middle East.  Rula cautioned that the Arab Spring's success in toppling dictators is only the first step on a long and bumpy road to democracy.

Ayman Mohyeldin agreed that the Arab Spring is only the beginning of a long process.  When asked by Bobby Ghosh whether New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman was correct when he asserted that the Arab Spring had "let the tiger out of the cage," Ayman agreed, and argued that and it will not be put back in.   He also predicted that, if the military does not follow its stated six month road map to put Egypt back on the road to democracy, Egyptians will once again take to the streets, as they did when they demanded the ouster of former Muslim Brotherhood president, Muhammad Morsi.

Chicago Ideas Week was strong on analytics but also strong on proposing solutions to the myriad problems facing the United States and the world.  CIW is an excellent example of American civil society in action given the service it provides to Chicago and the world beyond.

Photo credits:  Houston Cofield/Chicago Ideas Week.  Thanks also to Amy Walsh, Nina Ryan and Meg Handler for help with this post.