Amid the heated public discussion of the new American-Arab coalition against ISIS, many in the United States worry about the potential for a conflict between values and interests. Perhaps by intensifying the alliance with Washington’s traditional, autocratic allies in combating a common enemy, Americans will lose the chance to support Arab voices outside government who advocate for civil society and reform. Many of these activists, after all, are friends not only to America’s just struggle against terrorism; they are also believers in the values of egalitarianism and representative government that America stands for.
As a Saudi broadcaster, publisher, and longtime advocate for pluralism, tolerance, and minority and women’s rights, I believe that this perceived dilemma is actually a false choice. Far from hindering hopes for political and social progress, a reinvigorated partnership between America and its traditional allies can be used to push social and political change forward—at least in some Arab countries—and to realize hopes that have so far been dashed, even after three years of revolution in several Arab countries.
Understanding the opportunity begins with the observation that neither Arab states nor the activists who challenge them are monolithic: It’s no secret that one finds among Arab proponents of “democracy” plenty of Islamists with an inherently anti-democratic agenda, who see elections merely as a means to achieve a permanent monopoly on power. But perhaps less well known is the fact that, within Arab states, strong and growing elements are striving for incremental change from within. Indeed they have already begun to register meaningful gains. They’re looking for partners within their societies who wish to support such change, and they’re interested in fresh ideas from friends overseas—particularly the United States—about how to achieve it.
In my native Saudi Arabia, one of those voices is the kingdom’s new Minister of Education, Prince Khalid al-Faisal. He has long been an opponent of extremism in Saudi schools but is now newly empowered to implement his ideas. Speaking last May about the extremist clerics who have long dominated religious instruction in the country’s public schools, he lamented, “The [educational] domain was totally left to them. There was no chance for Saudi moderate thought and [to teach] a moderate way of life. We abandoned our sons and daughters and they kidnapped them.” Those of us who have interviewed him over the years know that these sentiments are nothing new; he said virtually the same thing to me, in front of an audience of tens of millions, on my Al Arabiya television program, Spotlights, in 2003. Judging from the ferocious and growing attacks on Prince Khalid by the country’s community of hardline clerics, he appears to be acting on his convictions. Airing their grievances in articles like this one, they use the word “Westernization” disparagingly to describe the many changes to Saudi curricula that do not comport with their maximalist ideology. Khalid stands accused of introducing ideals to children such as “the brotherhood of humanity,” and of removing textbook content that demonizes Christians and Jews. Media in the region, myself included, have been raising alarms about extremism in schools for years. Now that we have a friend at the helm who shares our concerns, we see an opportunity to lend the full force of our voices to his through public support—and to hold him to his promises.
Faisal’s deputy at the education ministry, U.S.-educated Nora al-Fayez, is the first woman at the post in Saudi history. In the coming school year, thanks to her sweat and tears, we expect changes in textbooks and teachers’ inculcation that will begin to send a new message about the role and rights of women in all aspects of life, from the home to the workplace. These anticipated changes are already mirrored in the broader society, where women are increasingly strong in the private sector and have become eligible to vote in the country’s forthcoming municipal elections. Thirty women have been sworn in to the kingdom’s appointed, 150-member Shura council. There is a long road ahead for the country’s feminists, and their struggle has fierce opponents among Saudis of both genders—but we feel an unprecedented degree of hope today.
In Saudi Arabia as well as the nearby United Arab Emirates, where I have lived since 2002, both the leadership and the society are aware that the military struggle against terrorism, however important, will always be a bloody game of “whac-a-mole” unless the ideology that spawns the militant mindset is defeated. To this end, a new center called Hedaya, devoted to countering violent extremism by competing with it in the marketplace of ideas, was recently established in the UAE capital, Abu Dhabi. The Muslim Brotherhood has been purged from the country’s mosques and schools, where children are now learning to celebrate, rather than denigrate, the diversity of culture and faith that one finds inside the UAE and around the world. A new generation of clerics is being taught to encourage tolerance through Friday sermons. These efforts in turn join Saudi Arabia’s Mohammad bin Naif Center, a halfway house for jihadists that strives to remold the militant mindset and help convicted terrorists return to mainstream Saudi life. Both countries have also created new television programming that aims to dissuade Gulf youth from joining terror groups in Iraq and Syria.
Beyond the challenge of religious inculcation, the UAE has also launched initiatives to articulate alternative ideas about the organization of Arab society that transcend sectarian difference. Abu Dhabi’s nascent “Office for the Culture of Lawfulness” is an institution designed to instill rule of law principles among police officers, businesspeople, professionals, and of course children. With the robust support of civil society groups in the country, the “Office” is introducing programs in schools and incentivizing businesspeople and the security sector to expose and combat corrupt practices.
From my reading of the American media, these new trends may be relatively unknown in the United States.They aren’t anywhere near as exciting as the spectacle of millions on the streets of Tahrir Square, nor, thankfully, is there any bloodshed. But the steady progress toward reform in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other countries in the region that have been spared the flames of war is a sign of hope in the Middle East. Americans who would like to help hasten these trends are well advised to start by learning more about them, and by getting in touch with the people and institutions that spearhead them. They will discover a healthy appetite for partnership and exchange among these groups—whether with American government institutions, civil society groups, or American specialists in their areas of focus. As there may be no military solution to the problems engulfing our region, it is time to team up and formulate a broader solution, rooted in the values that bring so many Arabs and Americans together.