I was out this morning before dawn with George, the dog, who had awoken earlier than usual to answer nature's call. It was still dark, but I was struck by the unusual brightness of a lovely crescent moon--which put me in mind, of course, of Islam, and of recent and current events in the Islamic world: the startling removal of long-standing tyrannical rulers in Tunisia, the rise to power of Hezbollah in Lebanon, the violent demonstrations in Yemen and, yesterday, dramatically, the turmoil on the streets of Cairo, Alexandria and Suez in troubled Egypt.
We have been hearing reports for years about the outrage on "the Arab street," and about its suppression by various despotic regimes. It is an outrage that has been skillfully exploited by extremists, a simmering cauldron of grievance amply justified by deprivation and repression, poverty, joblessness, and absence of political power and educational opportunity. And now, thanks to the marvels of satellite communications, we watch in real time as the anger of the Arab street erupts on our television screens. The current events surely do not warrant the surprise that some of the pundits of international relations are expressing. "Power to the People" is a heartening cry, where tyranny has been rampant. The human heart can only take so much abuse before it awakens and rebels.
America's aggressive role in the region in recent years leaves us with a legacy of distrust and hatred. The tear gas canisters littering the streets of Cairo bear the message "Made in the USA"--an irrefutable reminder that we have been busy propping up dictators with our money and our arms, in order to assure an artificial stability and protect our vital interest in maintaining the steady supply of oil to which we have become addicted. The unintended consequence was to provide extremists with evidence to fuel their fires of hatred.
My concern is the obvious one: that the power vacuum left by the ousting of Middle Eastern despots will be rapidly filled, not by the genuinely democratic spirit that created it, but by a new tyranny--a fanatical and extremist religious one. Islam, after all, is the most powerful alternative organizing structure in these nations; and it seems that, at this historical moment, Islam is easily co-opted on the political front by its extremists.
We have seen this before, in Iran, which is hardly, at this point, the exemplar of a free and democratic society: the recent repression of people power by the mullahs in that country was yet another display of brutal despotism.
So I fear for the future of a Middle East in turmoil, and for its potential to cause global havoc. I fear particularly for Israel. Egypt was hardly a warm friend, perhaps, but at least one indispensable source of balance in the Arab world. If that balance is seriously upset by the rise of avowedly Israel-hating forces in Egypt and Lebanon, Israel will become even more of a tiny, armed, defensive bunker in an ocean of hostility.
And that's not even to mention the bloody, implacable, fratricidal warfare between Muslim and Muslim. These are dark days, indeed, in that region of the world, and they portend great danger for the rest of us. Some will say I have no business poking my Buddhist nose where it does not belong, into the morass of international politics. They may be right. I acknowledge that I speak out of vastly limited knowledge. Still, my humanitarian instincts refuse to let these events pass without some moments of reflection. We're all in this together, in this shrinking world. It's not just George and me in Laguna Beach, and the lovely crescent moon...