Glasnost for the Middle East

The people on both sides of the Mediterranean Sea have had little contact since northern Africa came under Islamic influence many centuries ago. The current developments are changing that dynamic. Today marks 1989 for the Middle East. Soon, we will bond over stories of liberation.

The Mediterranean Sea was a homogenous region during the reign of the Roman Empire. Interactions between Europe and the North African countries became even more pronounced with the spread of Christianity along the Roman road networks in the first few centuries A.D. Ultimately, this development was interrupted by the spread of Islam. Jerusalem fell in 638, Egypt was conquered around 640. In 711, the troops of Muhammad set foot onto Spanish soil. Europe struck back only in 1798, when Napoleon’s troops landed in Egypt. That date also marked the beginning of a modern age for the Arab world. Technology, science and culture were introduced from the West. Yet the biggest difference remained: religion.

To put it mildly: Islam has been a frequent news topic in recent years. Pundits discussed whether it was compatible with democracy. They discussed the potential for a liberal Islam and its ability to embrace modernity. Dan Diner wrote in his book “Sealed Time” that the cultural dimension of Arab countries was literally decaying, paralyzed by centuries of religious doctrine and intellectual stagnation. Hamed Abdel-Samad follows Diners path in his book “The Decline of the Arab World”. He expands the idea of stagnation and argues that the resurgence of radical Islam is the final cry of a culture that holds no answers to pressing problems: The suicide belt is the ultimate acknowledgment of Islam’s decline.

These two theses have been overtaken by current events. We still don’t know whether Islam can modernize itself. But we know that Muslims are ready for modernity (the same logic can be applied to Christianity and the Christendom as well). The sweet promise of freedom from political and religious oppression is irresistible.

Just as the fall of the GDR in 1989 signaled the beginning of the end for the countries behind the Iron Curtain, Tunisia and Egypt have pulled the rest of the Arab world into a current that is only beginning to gather speed. Maybe even the Shiite terror regime in Iran will fall. It cannot be ruled out.

After 1989, Europe had a new story to tell: the story of the liberation of the East that has found its political expression in the expansion of the EU. Twenty years from now, the countries of the Arab world will be able to recount a similar story. Finally, the countries north and south of the Mediterranean Sea have something to share again: the experience of liberation and the story of freedom.

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