So here we are in the midst of what the Chinese might call “interesting times” in the Middle East and it seems that I can write about nearly everything BUT what is happening there. There’s a reason for that: I really don’t know what is going on. Having lived through 1989, I can sense strong similarities between events that year in Europe and what is happening today in the Middle East but there’s a key difference between 1989 and now: 1989 happened. The Berlin Wall fell, the dust settled, and the world changed for the better (for the most part – Tiananmen Square also happened in 1989 and I don’t think the Chinese are better off because of the slaughter). What is happening today… is happening. It’s the present for me (at least at the time of writing) so I don’t know what is going to happen.
I have some ideas, like we are seeing the beginning of the next stage of development in the Mideast and the end of post-colonialism. In recent history the region has gone from the Ottoman Empire, to colonialism, and finally to post-colonialism. That era has been characterized by secular dictators like Saddam Hussein, Mohamar Khadafi, Gamal Abdal Nasser, Haffaz al-Assad and their regime successors. I believe one could even squeeze Iran into that category, with the secular dictator of the Shah being replaced by a religious dictator in the form of the Ayatollah Khomeini and his successor the Ayatollah Khamenei.
So what comes post post-colonialism? That’s the question and at this point it is impossible to answer it. It would be nice to think that secular democracies would sprout and take root throughout the region, but there is no democratic tradition which could provide the fertile soil necessary. I suppose it is a possibility – perhaps a democracy with Islamic characteristics that would reflect the will of the people more but show little in common with western democracies like Israel, Europe and the United States.
Naturalist Stephen Jay Gould’s hypothesis of “punctuated equilibrium” proposed that the evolution of organisms is characterized by long periods of stability punctuated by brief periods of chaos. In a sense the Middle East has been static for decades and now we are entering a chaotic period that will change the region forever. What comes out of that is impossible to know, no matter how important the results are to us.
So Remember the next time some talking head appears on TV predicting the future of the region that the future is impossible to predict. The next time some political wag waxes poetic in the New York Times about the future of the Middle East, remember that the future is impossible to predict. When some blowhard appears on NPR and offers his vision about what changes lay ahead in the Middle East, shout at the radio “The future is impossible to predict!” (and feel free to add “you liberal moron” as I used to do when I listened to NPR -which I don’t do anymore).
That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be supportive of the people over there, or that we should drop our guard and be suspicious of their motives. The outcome is unknown, and as long as it is we should try to influence it as best we can. But truth be told there is little we can do – especially when even helicopter gunships, jets and snipers aren’t enough to stop people from rioting in Libya.
Things are changing, but how are they changing? Who knows! Because the future of the Middle East is impossible to predict. It’s a basic idea but one that gets lost in the 24 hour news cycle and in RSS feeds and Facebook comments.