Arguably America's foremost Middle East journalist, Washington Post correspondent Robin Wright has authored critically acclaimed works like Sacred Rage: The Wrath of Militant Islam and The Last Great Revolution: Turmoil and Transformation in Iran.
She now returns with an ambitious investigation of change in the world's most volatile region. Overall, Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East is a resounding success. The introduction — in which Wright deftly encapsulates both the achievements of reformists and the challenges that remain — is worth the price of the book.
According to Wright, "Change in today's Middle East is likely to succeed only when all major players — not just the majority — believe they have a stake in the new order." This means that Islamists will have to be included in the process, and that could prove problematic, Wright says: "The coming conundrum in the Middle East is that free and fair elections may not initially produce a respectable democracy."
Still, there is cause for hope; refusing to be seduced by violence or Islamic extremism, moderate Islamists and secular democrats are conducting peaceful campaigns against deeply entrenched despotism.
Indeed, this book brims with rousing stories of dedicated individuals struggling against overwhelming odds. Among the most fascinating interviews: Iranian philosopher Abdolkarim Soroush on his radical conception of an Islam rooted in freedom; Moroccan feminists Fatima Mernissi and Latifa Jbabdi on the movement for women's rights in their country; Syrian dissident Riad al-Turk on 18 years in solitary confinement and the all-too-brief "Damascus Spring" of 2000-2001; and Egyptian lawyer Nasser Amin on the drive for an independent judiciary in Egypt.
Only occasionally does the author stumble. Addressing Israel's massive retaliatory assault on Lebanon following an unprovoked attack by Hezbollah in July 2006, Wright cites a notoriously unreliable local poll — exposed as deeply flawed by Michael Young, opinion editor of Beirut's Daily Star — which purported to show that the Lebanese public overwhelmingly supported Hezbollah.
Dreams and Shadows is also slightly marred by Wright's overly gloomy assessment of the situation in Iraq. The author prematurely consigns to failure the entire nation-building enterprise currently under way: "Iraq (is) a crumbling state. And Iraq (is) becoming America's greatest foreign policy failure — ever. . . . If the 1956 Suez Canal crisis marked the demise of Europe's influence in the Middle East, the Iraq War could well mark the demise of American influence."
In Wright's defense, her book appears to have been completed before the momentous decision by Sunni tribes in the restive Anbar province to turn on their erstwhile allies in Al-Qaeda. This hugely significant about-face, together with the U.S. military's surge in and around Baghdad, has reduced the level of violence in Iraq and restored hope that the country can eventually be both democratic and peaceful.
Even as she laments the fate of Iraq as a whole, Wright doesn't fail to note the shining success of Iraqi Kurdistan, where democracy flourishes within the framework of regional autonomy. It is an often-ignored story — but not by Wright. Indeed, the author has a knack for probing groundbreaking but underreported politico-cultural transformations across the region.
Of special significance in this regard is her outstanding chapter on Morocco. Wright demonstrates how this Arab-Berber monarchy on North Africa's western edge is unique in addressing, albeit tentatively, all three issues she considers indispensable for democracy: accounting for the imprisonment and torture of political dissidents; granting women greater rights; and allowing moderate Islamists to participate in politics.
Wright, who attributes much of Morocco's progress on these matters to "imaginative local actors and strong outside pressure," is nevertheless quick to point out remaining obstacles to true democracy. "The king can legislate new laws without parliament," she observes of the young Mohammed VI. "And he can dismiss it at will. He still has the powers of a despot."
It is a strange scenario, to be sure, but this is a region "confronted with the extraordinary challenge of reforming Islam and overhauling political systems at the same time." The results are often unexpected — and contradictory. An absolute monarch introducing a measure of democracy in Morocco, voters democratically electing Islamic extremists in Iraq and Palestine, former communists emerging as democracy's biggest advocates in Syria, and moderate yet conservative Muslims across the region experimenting with a temperate Islamism — these are the profound ironies of the modern Middle East that Robin Wright so expertly captures in Dreams and Shadows.
Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer in Beirut, Lebanon.