Where Are the Arab World’s Moderate Voices?

As the militants in the Middle East take to the airwaves, many others are asking: Where are the voices of the moderate Arab majorities?

Aside from voices criticizing Osama bin Laden and his terrorist acts, it is clear that the moderate elites?even though they are terrified by the prospect of a world dominated by militants?are watching the confrontation from the perspective of bystanders, as if it were merely between Bin Laden and the West.

There are two reasons for this:

They have no positive vision to offer the public, and they are paralyzed by their overwhelming sense of powerlessness.

Regardless of Bin Laden’s agenda, which includes an Islamic state across the Muslim world and the expulsion of Westerners from the region, his strength is that he speaks to the core concerns of Arabs and Muslims, and he promises results. For the powerless, he shows how the acts of a few men with knives can shake up the world order in one day. The moderate majorities who reject his methods have no proposal of their own to change the economic and political order that most people see as oppressive, and to resolve the Palestinian and Iraqi problems about which most people care deeply.

Throughout the 1990s, governments and moderate elites could point to a post-Cold War, post-Gulf War vision that aimed at resolving regional disputes through negotiations and promised development and economic prosperity. By the end of the 1990s, that vision collapsed?together with the Arab-Israeli negotiations?and the region’s economies worsened. During the past year of increasing violence on the Palestinian-Israeli front, moderates have become invisible. Today, as they need to confront the militants whose message and aims they reject, they find themselves with no positive vision of their own.

A tremendous sense of victimization and powerlessness is prevalent across the region.

This is in part because of the legacy of the 20th century: a collective memory that sees the region’s political agenda set to serve Western imperial designs at the expense of regional interests. It is this legacy that Bin Laden evokes when he speaks of the “past 80 years,” beginning with the British Mandate on Sept. 11, 1922.

But the sense of powerlessness is also a product of a political system that has not given the people much say, let alone control, in their lives and futures. There is a pervasive sense of helplessness about economic prospects, politics and relations with the world. This widespread resignation is at once the fertile ground for conspiracy theories and the opportunity for Bin Laden. He and other militants are able to provide a sense of empowerment to induce change and overthrow an unacceptable order of which the U.S. is seen to be the anchor. To this, the moderate elites have no alternative message that the public can believe, so they choose to pretend that Bin Laden’s struggle is not with them, and in the process lose even more ground.

To be sure, there are some in the Arab and Muslim world who not only reject Bin Laden’s terrorism but perceive his message as a threat to them. In a recent article in a leading Arab newspaper, one columnist spoke of the threat to “our America” as a threat to people in the region: “America is the dream of the peoples; it is the paradigm to which the peoples lift up their eyes, and it is toward its light that the countries advance.” Such individual voices, however, have little impact without organized political action, and many other individuals are easily intimidated.

The absence of organized political voices is a symptom of a broader problem in the region: the absence of political pluralism.

But these are not ordinary times. This is not merely a Western conflict involving a few militants, and certainly it is not a conflict between Islam and the West. For the Middle East, it is a conflict for its soul, a conflict within.

It is time for those elites and political forces that represent the views of the majorities in the region to speak with more courage and imagination, and for the international community and especially the U.S. to help them succeed. Certainly the U.S. cannot accomplish the task alone, but it is the richest and most powerful country, the anchor of the international system. We are the only ones who can help restart a credible Arab-Israeli peace process, mobilize international resources that inspire hope, and provide the support the moderates will need in their unavoidable war of ideas.