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What's Really Wrong with the Middle East?

Explaining the persistence of violence, sectarianism, and incompetence.

The Middle East really doesn't need any more bad news.

Still, it's official. The region now has its own disease: a dangerous virus called MERS, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome -- perhaps related to the SARS virus, but apparently deadlier.

This sad news started me thinking (again) about the sad state of the region. There are some bright spots -- or at least some spots that are not as dark. Tunisia seems to be making a relatively stable transition without paralytic violence and incompetent governance. And there's a younger generation of Arabs and Muslims who seem bent on freeing themselves from the old ways, demanding not only personal freedom but dignity, too. I'm reminded of Howard Beale's famous rant in Network: They're mad as hell, and they're not going to take it anymore.

Nevertheless, much of the region looks bad: violence in Iraq; civil war in Syria and violent spillover into Lebanon; growing popular despair in Egypt; repression in Bahrain; lack of central authority in Libya; and an impasse in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Even in Turkey, the wonder state, things have become unhinged.

What's going on here? Why, when much of the world seems to be moving forward, is the Middle East being left behind? And why has its big transformative moment -- the Arab Awakening -- seemingly been lost amid a jumble of violence, sectarianism, and incompetence? There may be many reasons for this sorry state of affairs. But here are my top five.

Mistreating Women

The status of women -- what they can and cannot do -- in theory and in practice varies widely in the region. But there's far too much inequality and discrimination. Countries that systematically discriminate against half their population, intentionally or otherwise and for whatever reason (culture, religion, tradition, inertia) try to hold women back, keep them down, or just plain ignore them aren't going to be as moral, productive, creative, or competitive as those that empower women -- whether in the Middle East or anywhere else. And their futures won't be nearly as bright. Period.

No Separation of Religion and State

I know it's politically incorrect to point out, but show me one truly healthy and successful society run according to divinely mandated religious rules based on the idea that its god is better than any other -- or where extremist religious groups intimidate and wage war against fellow citizens, sometimes using terror and violence. I thought Turkey might be an exception. But Prime Minister Erdogan's recent my-way-or-the-highway behavior makes me wonder.

The societies that have proven the most durable and successful over time (all of which are outside the Arab world) are those where the realms of god and man/woman remain separate, where institutions are inclusive, and where freedom of religion, but perhaps even more important freedom of conscience, prevails. Indeed, freedom of expression is a critically important element in realizing human potential, inventiveness, and creativity. And it must be respected and safeguarded by the state, not restricted by it. Go into Times Square and, unless you're threatening public order, you can say just about anything you'd like about Judaism, Christianity, or Islam without fear of arrest or worse. Don't try that in Tahrir Square.

Too Much Conspiracy

Too many people in the Middle East refuse to look in the mirror. They'd rather come up with excuses and justifications as to why others, particularly forces outside their neighborhood, are responsible for their misfortunes. I know all about colonialism, Zionism, imperialism, communism, secularism, Islamism, and every other -ism that's been marshaled to show why outsiders and not locals deserve the blame for what goes on in the Arab world.

But let's get real. At some point, as every person knows, there's an expiration date for blaming your parents for the way you turned out. And in the case of the Arab world, the warranty on coverage for blaming the Mossad, the CIA, America, the Jews, or Bozo the Clown for the absence of democracy, the lack of respect for human rights, and gender inequality has long expired.

To be sure, outsiders still influence the Middle East in very negative ways. But that's no excuse for believing its people can't shape their own destiny. After all, that is what the Arab Awakening was supposed to be about. And wouldn't you know it: the Arab Awakening got hijacked not by Western bogeymen, but by forces within Arab society itself, including Muslim fundamentalists, secular and liberal elements that couldn't organize effectively, and remnants of the old regimes who hung on to power after the dictators were gone. 

Narcissism

I know it comes as a shocker, but the Middle East really isn't the center of the world any more. Today, Asia, Europe, America, and even Africa are where free market economies, pluralism, and human enterprise are innovating, inventing, producing, and creating stuff -- leaving the Middle East in the rear-view mirror. Read any of the U.N. Human Development Reports, which chronicle the sad tale. But too many Middle Easterners still think they're at the epicenter of it all -- or somehow deserve to be.

Many Arabs and too many Israelis still believe that the world sits on the edge of its collective seat 24/7 wondering what's going to happen next in their region and devising new ways to rescue them. I'm really tired of Israeli peaceniks hammering the United States for not rescuing the peace process and of Arabs waiting for us to punish Israel, which too many ridiculously dismiss as either America's master or its unruly child. Meanwhile, talk to any Lebanese and you'd think what happens in Beirut is on the minds of U.S. policymakers from morning till night. And, despite America's loss and lack of credibility, there's still this misplaced hope that the United States will save Syria.

Here's a news flash: the cavalry isn't coming. Maybe if this sinks in, the locals will do more for themselves. But I doubt it.

Leadership

There really isn't any. It's ironic -- particularly against the backdrop of the Arab Awakening's democratic impulses -- that the most durable leaders have turned out to be the authoritarian monarchs. The King Abdullahs (Jordan and Saudi Arabia) look like statesmen compared to Egypt's Mohamed Morsy or Iraq's Nouri al-Maliki.

But even here there's a problem. Middle Eastern leaders have become masters at acquiring power, but they're not all that interested in sharing it. Marry that to the absence of legitimate and inclusive institutions -- and to politicians more interested in furthering the interests of their tribe, family, or religious sect than the nation as a whole -- and the future of good, accountable governance in the Arab world doesn't look all that bright.

MERS is still a mystery. But I'm pretty confident the epidemiologists will eventually figure it out. And I know we must give this region a couple more generations to sort things out. Still, I'm not nearly as confident they will, even though what ails this region is an open, if inconvenient, truth.

FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images

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