Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 2010, Page 33

New York City and Tri-State News

Neil MacFarquhar Discusses Effecting Change in the Middle East

By Jane Adas

New York Times U.N. bureau chief Neil MacFarquhar. (Staff photo J. Adas)

FIVE YEARS ago in California, recalled journalist and author Neil MacFarquhar, a woman startled him by asking if there were any normal people in the Middle East. “Why,” he asked, “what have you been reading?”

“The New York Times,” she replied—the newspaper for which MacFarquhar had been Cairo bureau chief for the past several years. When the Times asked him to stay an additional year, he agreed on condition that he be allowed to cover normal, daily life, focusing in particular on people trying to effect social and political change.

MacFarquhar is now The New York Times United Nations bureau chief, but he drew on what he learned in that extra year, augmented by his childhood in Libya and earlier years reporting on the Middle East for the Associated Press and the Times, to write The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday: Unexpected Encounters in the Changing Middle East (2009). MacFarquhar, speaking on Dec. 4 at The Graduate Center of CUNY (City University of New York), noted wryly that the publisher has had trouble marketing his book in the Middle East because people there don’t find the title humorous.

In Saudi Arabia MacFarquhar met a woman he described as “the bravest person” he knows, Fawazia Al-Bakr, an associate professor of education at King Saud University in Riyadh. Only three days after she had returned to the Kingdom from graduate studies in the U.S., al-Bakr organized the November 1990 demonstration against the ban on women driving, for which she was arrested. Since then al-Bakr has been working to reform education by encouraging independent thought. In Jordan MacFarquhar interviewed a man who recited a poem at a dentists’ convention that defined public opinion as whether one applauds the king or not. For this he spent a year in jail for slander. Ali, a Bahraini who started an Internet Web site, told MacFarquhar that “constitutional monarchy” in the Middle East means the monarch writes the constitution.

MacFarquhar met many such remarkable people working for change and calling for more individual rights in their countries, all of whom had to contend with the stifling control of the secret police, the mukhabarat. He observed that autocratic rulers prefer to control their populaces by such methods rather than seeking a popular mandate. Hope that a younger generation of Western-educated leaders in Jordan, Bahrain, Morocco and Syria would lead to less oppression have been frustrated. MacFarquhar noted that because the Islamic parties—illegal, but tolerated to a point—have been most successful at opening up civil society, there can be no reform in the Middle East without some kind of accommodation with them.

Since those working for change from within face so many obstacles, MacFarquhar addressed the question of how those on the outside can help. He remarked that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made encouraging sounds in her June 2005 speech in Cairo, when she acknowledged that the U.S. had pursued stability in the region at the expense of democracy. That only lasted, however, until Hamas won the Palestinian parliamentary elections seven months later.

Because of the negative perception of the U.S. due to Washington’s policies in Palestine and Iraq, MacFarquhar cautioned that the U.S. should support agents of change discreetly, lest our backing taint the people we hope to encourage. We should, he continued, change our vocabulary from talk of “freedom and democracy,” that has become associated with our war in Iraq, to language that resonates more in the culture, like “justice” and “dignity.” Finally, MacFarquhar urged, we should speak out against all repression—including that committed by our own government and close allies. 

Jane Adas is a free-lance writer based in the New York City metropolitan area.

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