Two enormous appetites have suddenly arrived at the Middle East’s table: democracy and consumerism. Ravished from years of famine and abuse, the people revolted and opened the doors to the well-stocked pantry and kitchen. Yet despite having overthrown tyrants, they are not now unruled. Two strict overseers are watching: Islamists and the military. Crowded with tribes, Sunnis and Shiites, and colonialist operators who function like combinations of parasites and predators, the well-laden table is still a game of who gets full plates and who survives.
Revolutions taking place in countries that have been ruled by dictators and exploited by foreigners are breathtaking in the possibilities that they offer. But they can, like so many others before, become hideous monsters of abuse and destruction.
Americans and Europeans have dined at this table for years, supplying abundant feasts for tyrants who served their interests. A mild rebuke here and there, but the weapons kept pouring in; good for business was the polite mannered morality that determined the menu.
And now, having watched this partying from the window, the youngsters have come in for their share. A demographic necessity, they want education, decent jobs, freedom to express themselves, gender equality, and all the other things they see on TV. Their weapons are small: communication devices they hold in their hands, videos and computers, promising that dreams come true.
The question: where will this banquet go? Islamists have no interest in giving up power, and less interest in Western culture. Generally lacking wider education, Islamists don’t read (excepting Islamic texts) and are totalistic in thinking. Pluralism, variety, and openness are threats. Using a spiritual façade, their interest is political: control the world through shariah and a caliphate.
Military leaders, experts in giving and taking orders, are aware of the advantages of the technological advances. Secular, they like parades with modern weapons, fancy uniforms, and international connections. They are not medieval sheiks with harems, and their children, if not military types, want university educations, businesses, and fat bank accounts.
The modern Middle East table, because it has been transformed by a young generation of appetites, holds the promise of enlightenment, progress, new relationships, and hopefully peace. Having tasted freedom, they want more; with flat wallets, they want the money that was hidden in foreign bank accounts. They want a piece of the pie, at least.
This new enthusiasm for what the world offers is a hopeful sign. The question is whether it can be translated into institution-building, stable economies, employment, and a higher standard of living. They can be seduced by Al-Jazeera and politicians who speak their language, but a new spice has been added to the main course: a sense of empowerment and responsibility.
This presents a unique opportunity for America and Europe to serve their message on a silver platter: democracy works for people. We are ready to help build that new society. Islamists will try to trip up the servers and undermine programs that threaten their views. But they can’t compete with what the West can offer, if done carefully and correctly.