Have We Reshaped Middle East Politics or Started to Mimic It?


On a 2005 trip to Iraq, I wrote a column about spending a night on the U.S.S. Chosin, which commanded the U.S. Navy task force off the coast of Iraq. There I interviewed Mustapha Ahansal, a Moroccan American sailor who acted as the Chosin’s Arabic translator when it stopped ships suspected of carrying pirates or other hostile actors.

“The first time I boarded a boat,” he told me, “we had six or seven people — one Hispanic, one Black person, a white person, maybe a woman in our unit. Their sailors said to me, ‘I thought all Americans were white.’ Then one of them asked me, ‘Are you in the military?’ It shocks them actually.” Ahansal told me that an Iraqi Coast Guard officer once expressed astonishment to him that people from so many different religions and races could produce such a strong navy, while “here we are fighting north and south, and we are all cousins and brothers.”

Leadership matters: The American population has diversity similar to the U.S. military’s, but the ethic of pluralism and teamwork shown by many of our men and women in uniform reduces the tribal divisions within the armed forces. It’s not perfect but it is real. Ethical leadership based on principled pluralism matters. That is why our military is our last great carrier of pluralism at a time when more and more civilian politicians are opting for cheap tribalism.

What is most frightening to me is how much this virus of tribalism is now infecting some of the most vibrant multisectarian democracies in the world — like India and Israel, as well as Brazil, Hungary and Poland.

India is a particularly sad story for me because, after 9/11, I offered up Indian pluralism as the most important example of why Islam per se was not responsible for motivating terrorists from Al Qaeda. Everything depended, I argued, on the political, social and cultural context within which Islam, or any other faith, was embedded, and where Islam is embedded in a pluralistic, democratic society, it thrives like any other religion. Although India had a large Hindu majority, it had had Muslim presidents and a Muslim woman on its Supreme Court. Muslims, including women, had been governors of many Indian states, and Muslims were among the country’s most successful entrepreneurs.

Unfortunately, today, Indian nationalism based on pluralism is being weakened by Hindu supremacists in the ruling B.J.P. party, who seem hellbent on converting a secular India into a “Hindu Pakistan,” as the eminent Indian historian Ramachandra Guha once put it.

That democracies all over the world are being infected by this tribalism virus could not be happening at a worse time — a time when every community, company and country is going to have to adapt to the accelerations in technological change, globalization and climate change. And that can only be done effectively within and between countries by higher degrees of collaboration among business, labor, educators, social entrepreneurs and governments — not rule or die, not my way or the highway.

We need to find the antidote to this tribalism fast — otherwise the future is grim for democracies everywhere.

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