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JAMES FLANIGAN

The Real Heat in the Middle East Is for Reform, Growth

June 30, 1993|JAMES FLANIGAN

With radical bombers in New York and Saddam Hussein dodging Tomahawk missiles in Baghdad because he tried to kill George Bush in Kuwait, chances for normal developments of local economies and U.S. relations with the Middle East look particularly grim at the moment.

Some U.S. experts, including former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, say conflict is inevitable between the United States and the world of Islam. And Sunday talk shows dismiss the Arab world as irrational. "They just hate us, don't they?" chirped commentator George Will.

But that's fear-mongering nonsense. Reality in the Middle East is more optimistic, say experts on the area. And Americans should be aware that there is no inherent conflict between Islam and free markets or a democratic system. Yes, Islamic fundamentalists are implacably opposed to democracy and the West. But they are still a fringe movement. The great majority of Muslim people in the Middle East are impatient only for the economic development they now see in countries of Asia that used to be as poor as they are--the kind of development going on in Malaysia and Turkey, Muslim states with modern, growing economies.

The truth about the Middle East matters to Americans, who fought a war there, whose oil comes from there, whose foreign aid goes there. (Israel and Egypt are the chief recipients of U.S. aid.) Also, with the breakup of the Soviet Union, the United States is the unquestioned power in the region. That's one reason America attracts venom from the crazies. But that is also why U.S. efforts could convene peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, Jordan and Syria. After almost two years, those talks may be nearing agreements.

Peace would be a boon, says William Quandt, a Middle East scholar at the Brookings Institution. It would encourage economic development in Syria, Jordan and Egypt, one of the area's largest countries, and in Israel as well.

Quandt, who visited the region four times in the last year, reports that in every country generations of men and women are impatient for change. The promises of post-colonial governments beginning in the 1960s and of oil wealth in the 1970s have gone unfulfilled. Arab and Iranian people see changes in Asia, in the Soviet lands and Eastern Europe, in Latin America. Yet in the Middle East there are only the same old leaders and the same lack of opportunity.

The economy of Malaysia, with 18 million people, is now larger than that of Egypt with 54 million, and almost four times that of Syria with 13 million. The economy of Turkey is three times that of Egypt with about the same population.

In reaction to that sorry record, people in the Middle East have decided it's time for action--democratic action. "For the first time, democratic movements in the Middle East are serious and making progress," says Bernard Lewis of Princeton University, a renowned Arab scholar and author of "Islam and the West," a new book.

Lewis sees hope even for the eventual triumph of democratic government in Iraq. The Kurdish movement, which has offices in Washington, now wants to be part of a federal Iraq, after Saddam goes. And there are leaders emerging from Iraq's Shia Muslim majority who could lead a coalition government--after Saddam Hussein is removed from power one way or another.

Don't underestimate the region's chances. Islam is not a backward system. Its economic tenets, reflecting the fact that the prophet Mohammed was a small businessman, might have been written in a productivity handbook: Capital must be fully employed; land should be drained to grow as much crop as possible; there should be no monopolies to restrain trade; people should not earn money on idle capital. Formal interest is not allowed, but a return on investment is required.

However, religious rule tends to be arbitrary--whether in 17th-Century Massachusetts Bay Colony or present-day Iran. So the most successful economies separate mosque and state. Turkey did so in 1923; it has just elected a woman prime minister, Tansu Ciller.

Its economy got a boost from Turkish workers who returned home in the last decade with nest eggs earned in German car plants. They invested in their own businesses and in ingenious municipal bonds. Turkey's late President Turgut Ozal feared that workers returning with German marks would inflate the economy. So he sold them bonds in a new bridge across Istanbul's Bosporus Strait and in other public works, thereby financing a modern infrastructure and soaking up excess money supply.

Now the economy is growing 6% a year, and Turkey has become a low-cost vacation spot for European youngsters who rave about its resorts on the Mediterranean and Aegean seas.

If Turkish prosperity spread in the Middle East, fundamentalism--at once an angry reaction to poverty and a consolation for it--would fade. For as Lewis and other scholars point out, fundamentalism thrives on the problems that hold back a region: ignorance, poverty and arbitrary rule. And its appeal is reduced by remedies that help a region: education, economic development and political freedom and the laws by which it is maintained.

Those are the underpinnings of the life we lead--and that millions in the Middle East would like to lead.

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