Opinion: Mideast must change mindset | Middle East| News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW | 12.08.2014
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Middle East

Opinion: Mideast must change mindset

The change needed to bring about a new, democratic Middle East can only come from within, says DW's Naser Schruf. It's the only way to effectively counter terrorist groups like the "Islamic State."

It wasn't that long ago that the world witnessed the wave of revolt across the Arab world, as the oppressed pushed back against repressive dictatorships. "Jasmine Revolution," "Arab Spring," "Facebook Revolution" - these concepts dominated the headlines in the Western media, and euphorically seemed to herald a "new" democratic and pluralistic Middle East and North Africa.

Pictures of civilized, peacefully demonstrating young Arabs were seen around the world, their only weapons the Internet, blogs and social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Who could forget the scene where protesting Muslims in Cairo prayed in Tahrir Square and were protected from police violence by their Christian Coptic comrades?

The conviction and enthusiasm with which these young people fought for democracy, freedom, human dignity and tolerance, their joy and courage as they rebelled against repressive regimes - all of this was real and palpable. And it filled me, as a German Arab, with a great sense of pride.

It was understandable that many commentators felt that a "new" Middle East was emerging - even if the word "new" was not really used at the time. But the pace at which the powerful autocratic governments in countries like Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen collapsed was overwhelming and seemed to herald an epochal change. What has remained since then? Not much; in fact, just the opposite. The Middle East does have a "new" face. But it's an ugly one.

Naser Schruf

Naser Schruf is head of DW's Arab department

Grim outlook

It's not just that disillusionment has set in. The uprising took a repressive turn long ago, starting in 2011 with the armed conflict in Libya and culminating in the bloody civil war in Syria that has cost countless lives and continues today.

Darkness and uncertainty has fallen over the Arab world. The peaceful demonstrators of the Arab Spring now find themselves sidelined, or even in prison. Instead, civil wars, ethnic cleansing, decay and destruction now dominate. And in several countries in the region, it's now armed men with long beards and a perverse pleasure in killing that are calling the shots.

In Syria and Iraq, "Islamic State" (IS) militants now control an area larger than countries like Jordan or Lebanon. There, they have terrorized anyone not prepared to submit to their self-declared caliphate, a territory ruled by Islamic law. In fact, this is only a pseudo-religious disguise for their reign of fear and terror.

These are bitter developments. The Middle East was once famous for its mosaic of different cultures, ethnic groups and religious traditions. Today it's increasingly marked by dividing lines that keep people apart or set them against each other with brutal violence. Images of Christians protecting Muslims, or vice versa - nowhere to be seen!

Instead, we see images of mass executions, destroyed Shiite shrines and fleeing Christians and Yazidis who have been brutally expelled from their traditional settlements in Iraq and Syria. Thousands have left their homeland for Europe or America. What we are now witnessing is one of the darkest and saddest chapters in the recent history of the Middle East.

This image made from undated video posted during the weekend of June 28, 2014 on a social media account frequently used for communications by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, shows Omar al-Shishani standing next to the group's spokesman among a group of fighters as they declare the elimination of the border between Iraq and Syria. Al-Shishani, one of hundreds of Chechens who have been among the toughest jihadi fighters in Syria, has emerged as the face of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, appearing frequently in its online videos ¿ in contrast to the group's Iraqi leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who remains deep in hiding and has hardly ever been photographed. (AP Photo/militant social media account via AP video)

The "Islamic State" is threatening a new wave of repression in the Middle East

Devastating outcome

All this is a truly devastating outcome for the Arab Spring - especially as it seems that elsewhere, the core problems that first sparked the upheaval only appear to be resolved on the surface.

Take, for example, Egypt. The Egyptian people may have indeed have toppled their strongman leader. But the current president, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, so far doesn't seem to be leading his country to a democratic future any more than his ousted predecessor, the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi did.

And the rest of the world? The authoritarian governments in Russia and China never really warmed to the events of the Arab Spring in the first place. Iran, from the beginning, chose to be selective and still today only supports those rebellions that serve its ideology and interests. And the West now pushes for stability in the Middle East at almost any price, rather than actively promoting democracy and pluralism, a stance forced upon it by terrorist groups like the "Islamic State."

But it should not be overlooked that, despite sympathy for the Arab Spring movement, there has never been a real turning point in relations between the West - particularly the United States - and Saudi Arabia, even though the latter is home to one of the region's most repressive regimes.

From an Arab point of view, complaints about the West's approach are indeed justified. But it will not help the region out of its current mess. It's up to the citizens of the Arab world themselves to bring about change: their current government leaders are unable and largely unwilling to even make the necessary moves.

What's needed now is not just a generational change, but also a change in mindset. The new generation must not only know how to deal with Internet and social media, they must also be able to better organize themselves in a sustainable way, both politically and socially. And they must find a common mindset that makes it impossible to abandon the necessary reforms in the face of sectarian differences or terrorist actions.

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