The Fertile Crescent

New York Sun, March 21, 2008
A Review of Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East

In suggesting that Islamic extremism may be, if not a spent force in the Middle East, no longer the most dynamic or important one, Robin Wright has more credibility than most. In 1983, Ms. Wright surveyed the wreckage of the United States Embassy in Beirut. Beneath it lay the remains of her friends. Two years later, Ms. Wright wrote “Sacred Rage: The Wrath of Militant Islam.” The title is self-explanatory and its thesis, unfortunately, has hardly passed into obscurity.””

Ms. Wright has been reporting from this region since 1973. She witnessed the Iranian Revolution. She has covered nine wars, interviewed almost every Middle Eastern figure of significance, and been nominated five times for the Pulitzer. “Dreams and Shadows” (Penguin, 480 pages, $26.95), her fifth book, is an account of her recent trip from Rabat to Tehran, placed in the larger context of her 35-year reporting career. The chapters are organized geographically and loosely linked by a thesis: Inspired by the collapse of communism and apartheid, she argues, a growing cadre of activists and dissidents – aided by mobile phones, satellite television and the Internet – now pose a significant challenge to both the region’s autocratic regimes and to its Islamic extremists.

Her subjects include Egyptian judges, Iranian clerics, female parliamentarians in Kuwait, and a host of Internet activists, the so-called pyjamahedeen. There is a portrait of a middle-aged Egyptian mother, Ghada Shahbender, who was so outraged by the sight of the police beating and mauling women during a 2005 political referendum that she formed the group We’re Watching You to monitor the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections. There is a sketch of Hadi Khamenei, the younger brother of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: Khamenei-the-younger has been campaigning in his newspaper against the concept of absolute religious rule, and by extension, the power of Khamenei-the-elder. (A number of families in this book are similarly divided by politics. Palestinian Khalil Shikaki is a democracy activist who calls for peace with Israel; his brother Fathi is a terrorist.)

These men and women, Ms. Wright suggests, represent the dream. On the shadow side of the ledger, they have thus far been none too successful. We’re Watching You documented thousands of electoral violations, but the same corrupt and tired autocrats were returned to power – no one for a moment expected another outcome – and it is Shahbender who is now endangered, not the Egyptian government. Hadi Khamenei’s newspaper has been banned; religious vigilantes attacked him and put him in the hospital. On the bright side, Fathi Shikaki is dead.

Many characters in this book are notable for their sheer physical courage, and Ms. Wright should be numbered among them. In her chapter on Lebanon, for example, she remarks en passant that she spent the early 1980s skulking around the slums of Beirut, looking for Shiite clerics to interview. One day, she “saw an unfinished building nearby with a black, spray-painted stencil of the new Hezbollah logo … I ducked inside. Several gunmen with beards and Kalashnikov rifles were in a ground-floor room was plastered with Hezbollah posters.” Hezbollah was at the time infamous for kidnapping, beating and killing Western journalists: AP correspondent Terry Anderson wound up spending seven years chained to a radiator.

“I explained who I was,” she continues blandly, “described an earlier book that I was writing, and then said that I wanted a press pass.” I would not have thought these words would be constructive in this situation, but strangely enough, they were. The gunmen ripped up one of their posters, gave her the comer with the Hezbollah logo, and told that if she presented it at Hezbollah’s checkpoints, she would not be shot. And indeed she was not, even as other journalists were.

If Ms. Wright possesses any normal human instincts for self-preservation, it is certainly not obvious from this account. Wright recounts this story – as she does all the stories in this book – with no trace of self-aggrandizement or braggadocio; it hardly seems to occur to her that her conduct was either insanely brave or just insane. Her focus is entirely external; this is a book about the Middle East, not Robin Wright. In a sense, her self-effacement is modest, admirable and professional; in another sense it’s a pity. Much of what she tells us about Hezbollah and its history in Lebanon has already been covered in the news – by her, in fact, as well as many other journalists. It would have added something quite original had she told us what, precisely, she was thinking when she went into that building. You cannot help but wonder.

But that would have been a different book, and there is no point complaining that she didn’t write a book she obviously wasn’t seeking to write. The subjects of her interviews are compelling enough. Unfortunately, I suspect that the larger argument of the book – that these characters together add up to a dynamic movement and grounds for guarded hope about the region – is probably too optimistic; or at least, it’s too soon to tell.

Few would dispute that demographic change, globalization and the rise of new communication technologies are highly significant, politically. Unfortunately, if Islamic extremism is no longer the most important, interesting or dynamic force in the Middle East, as she says, it is nonetheless a very close contender, and no one quite knows where the conjunction of these massive forces – demographic change, Islamic extremism and the rise of the new media – will lead. Democracy activists, alas, are not the only ones who have figured out how to use the Internet and satellite television to get their message out. I live in Turkey, where concern about the radicalizing influence of satellite broadcasts from, for example, al-Manar, the Hezbollah propaganda channel, is acute, and it is acute for good reason.

As for Turkey, even though Ms. Wright takes the title of her book from the words of Kemal Atatürk – “Neither sentiment nor illusion must influence our policy. Away with dreams and shadows! They have cost us dear in the past” – she scarcely mentions the country. I don’t note this as a criticism: There are obviously limits to what any single reporter can do. But Turkey is a perfect and fascinating exemplar of many of the trends with which she is concerned, as well as an excellent illustration of their limits.

Turkey is surely the most open and successful country of the region, Israel apart. There are reformers, activists and pyjamahadeen aplenty here. Yet however dynamic they may be as a political force, the state still has the upper hand. The government regularly throws the activists in jail and blocks access to the Internet. YouTube, at the time I write this, has been banned because someone, somewhere on the planet, posted a video depicting Atatürk in a monkey suit. Indeed, having received Ms Wright’s book to review here in Istanbul, I went to the Internet to see what others had said about it. I could not find out. When I entered the relevant search terms, I found this: “Access to this site has been suspended in accordance with decision no: 2007/195 of T.C. Fatih 2.Civil Court of First Instance.”

When I no longer happen upon this message three times a day, I’ll believe the dreamers have the upper hand. Until then, I hope Ms. Wright is right, and I applaud the men and women she describes – but I’m hedging my bets.

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