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The Sharp and Empathetic Eye of a Westerner in the Middle East

Author: Mohamad Bazzi, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
June 18, 2009
New York Times

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In the late 1990s, prodded by the United States, the Lebanese government vowed to eliminate the persistent problem of hashish cultivation in the lawless Bekaa Valley. The government bought 3,000 American dairy cows to help farmers survive without relying on hashish.

But the farmers had no experience feeding and milking cows. And the cattle needed imported, expensive feed that the farmers could not afford. When the cows did not produce enough milk to keep the farmers afloat, they blamed the United States. These complaints reached Iran, which stepped in with $50 million in farm aid for Lebanon, including cheaper cows that were easier for the Shiite Muslim farmers to feed and maintain. The United States had bungled a seemingly simple case of foreign aid, and Iran reaped the benefits.

This "cow vs. cow competition," as Neil MacFarquhar writes, demonstrates the kind of unintended consequences that have accompanied decades of United States policies in the Middle East. Mr. MacFarquhar's sly, vivid memoir, "The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday," is full of such anecdotes backed up by perceptive analysis. Whenever America tries to impose change from outside, it leads either to disaster (Iraq) or preservation of the status quo (Egypt, Saudi Arabia and much of the region).

Mr. MacFarquhar, the United Nations bureau chief for The New York Times, spent more than 13 years as a correspondent in the Middle East, first for The Associated Press and later for The Times. But his affection for the region is rooted in his childhood: he grew up in a Libyan oil town, where his father managed a refinery and a water desalinization plant. Mr. MacFarquhar writes wistfully of family barbecues on a sandy Mediterranean coast in an enclave inhabited by Westerners where he learned little about the world outside. The stories of his childhood in Libya are quite compelling, but they do not permeate the book as much as they should.

Unlike many correspondents Mr. MacFarquhar speaks Arabic and shows an appreciation for the language, its poetry and political rhetoric. He uses compelling characters effectively to illustrate larger themes and forces at play in the region. He writes about a Kuwaiti advice columnist who is trying to break down taboos over expressions of sexuality; a popular Lebanese television chef pushing his fans to experiment with Western cooking; and a young, conservative Egyptian cleric who cheerfully answers religious questions on his call-in radio show.

Yet Mr. MacFarquhar writes most passionately about the activists and intellectuals struggling to liberalize their societies and Islam as a whole. These reformers - many of whom espouse an Islamic vision of democracy and human rights - are caught between religious zealots and repressive regimes that are often backed by the United States.

In June 2005 Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the world that the United States would no longer tolerate oppressive rulers in the name of keeping political stability. "For 60 years my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither," she said at the American University in Cairo. "Now we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people."

For a brief period Ms. Rice's message resonated in the Arab world. It was five months after Iraqis had shown extraordinary bravery by turning out in droves to vote in the parliamentary elections of January 2005. In Lebanon a popular revolt had succeeded in dislodging years of Syrian domination. At that moment the United States could have encouraged some genuine change in a region ruled by kings and despots.

But things fell apart when Washington confronted its first test: in late 2005, a small group of Egyptian judges challenged the undemocratic regime of President Hosni Mubarak. The United States stood by silently while Mr. Mubarak crushed public protests, and the Arab world understood, correctly, that Washington had given up on democracy or had never meant it in the first place.

Mr. MacFarquhar chronicles the dashed hopes of reformers at that point and the cumulative effect of decades of broken promises and halfhearted rhetoric from the United States. "So 2005 was perhaps a high point of American support for reform and change, and it has been downhill ever since," he writes.

Throughout the book Mr. MacFarquhar displays an impressive grasp of history, particularly in his chapters on fatwas (religious rulings) and the concept of jihad. He describes how the competing schools of law and the lack of a central religious authority in Islam create "fatwa chaos": any cleric of dubious stature can issue a religious ruling, and Muslims find it easy to shop around for a fatwa that fits their needs.

Mr. MacFarquhar presents a nuanced discussion of "jihad," the Arabic word that means "to struggle," and also denotes "holy war" - but not always, as some Westerners incorrectly assume. "But those who argue that the word contains no implication of violence," he adds, "are glossing over the fact that for some zealots, jihad means only one thing: an armed fight against the enemies of Islam." That goes to the heart of a debate between moderate and militant Muslims over the interpretation of Islam's two primary sources: the Koran and the Sunnah, the sayings and actions of the prophet Muhammad.

Few in the West pay attention to these arguments within Islam - or to the daily tribulations of homegrown reformers - and that is the ultimate strength of this book. Mr. MacFarquhar has provided a sobering and heartbreaking record of these quiet struggles.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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