DAMASCUS, Syria — Over Turkish coffee the other morning, I picked up a copy of The Syria Times, the local English-language paper, and my eye immediately went to a small box at the top of the front page. It said, "The Middle East on the Eve of Modernity P. 5."
I thought: What a perfect way to describe the Middle East today — going back to some premodern era? Alas, The Syria Times was not trying to be ironic. It turned out the headline was the title of a book about Aleppo in the 18th century. But had it been a news headline, it would have been apt.
Condoleezza Rice must have been severely jet-lagged when she said that what's going on in Lebanon and Iraq today were the "birth pangs of a new Middle East." Oh, I wish it were so. What we are actually seeing are the rebirth pangs of the old Middle East, only fueled now by oil and more destructive weaponry.
Some of the most primordial, tribal passions, which always lurk beneath the surface here — Sunnis versus Shiites, Jews versus Muslims, Lebanese versus Syrians — but are usually held in check by modern states or bonds of civilization, are exploding to the top.
There is nothing that you can't do to someone in the Middle East today, and there is no leader or movement — no Nelson Mandela and no million-mom march — coming out of this region, or into this region, to put a stop to the madness.
And I mean madness. We've seen Sunni Muslims in Iraq suicide-bomb a Shiite mosque on Ramadan; we've seen Shiite militiamen torture Sunnis in Iraq by drilling holes in their heads with power tools; we've seen Jordanian Islamist parliamentarians mourning the terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, even though he once blew up a Jordanian wedding; we've seen hundreds of Palestinian suicide bombings of Israeli cafes and buses; and we've seen Israel retaliating by, at times, leveling whole buildings, with the guilty and the innocent inside.
Now we've seen the Hezbollah leader, Hasan Nasrallah, take all of Lebanon into a devastating, unprovoked war with Israel, just to improve his political standing and take pressure off Iran.
America should be galvanizing the forces of order — Europe, Russia, China and India — into a coalition against these trends. But we can't. Why? In part, it's because our president and secretary of state, although they speak with great moral clarity, have no moral authority. That's been shattered by their performance in Iraq.
The world hates President Bush more than any U.S. president in my lifetime. He is radioactive — and so caught up in his own ideological bubble that he is incapable of imagining or forging alternative strategies.
In part, it is also because China, Europe and Russia have become freeloaders off U.S. power. They reap enormous profits from the post-Cold-War order that America has shaped, but rather than become real stakeholders in that order, helping to draw and defend redlines, they duck, mumble, waffle or cut their own deals.
This does not bode well for global stability. A religious militia that calls itself "the party of God" takes over a state and drags it into war, using high-tech rockets — mullahs with drones — and the world is paralyzed. Those who ignore this madness will one day see it come to a theater near them.
In part, though, this madness is home-grown. I sat at a swank rooftop restaurant the other night with some young Syrian writers and listened to a discussion between a young woman dressed in trendy clothes, talking about how she would prefer to see Israel disappear, another writer who argued that Nasrallah was an Arab disaster, and an Arab journalist who described the "pride" and "dignity" every Arab felt at seeing Hezbollah fight Israel to a standstill.
When will the Arab-Muslim world stop getting its "pride" from fighting Israel and start getting it from constructing a society that others would envy, an economy others would respect, and inventions and medical breakthroughs from which others would benefit?
There will be no new Middle East — not as long as the New Middle Easterners, like Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, get gunned down; not as long as Old Middle Easterners, like Nasrallah, use all their wits and resources to start a new Arab-Israeli war rather than build a new Arab university; and not as long as Arab media and intellectuals refuse to speak out clearly against those who encourage their youth to embrace martyrdom with religious zeal rather than meld modernity with Arab culture.
Without that, we are wasting our time, and the Arab world is wasting its future. It will forever be "on the eve of modernity."
New York Times News Service.