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Launch of the Civility Programme on Middle East Reform

Article by Rt Hon Jack Straw MP

September 15, 2006

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It’s a great honour for me to open this first conference of the Civility Programme.

I want to talk today about why modernisation and reform in the Arab world matters to Britain and to the whole international community. I do so with some humility. It is not for me or for any Foreign Minister from outside the region to lay down prescriptions. That would neither be right, nor productive, nor would it show respect. I am therefore fully conscious of the sensitivities of this issue. But we are bound to take an interest in the matter, given that Europe and the Arab world are neighbours, and our interests in many areas, such as our economies and our security, are international and inter-dependent.

So I want today to try to correct some of the misperceptions that surround this complex subject; and to stress the importance of our relations with the Arab World, and of the need to build a partnership to address this shared agenda, working with the processes of change already underway. By partnership I mean one across government, among the international community, and, most important of all, partnership with Arab governments and peoples themselves.

The world is changing more quickly than at any time in its history. As Arab leaders themselves have recognised, the challenge, in the Arab world as elsewhere, is to manage change in a way which preserves the best in society, gives ordinary people ever-greater freedom and choice while protecting them from violence and injustice.

It is the people of the Arab world who are best placed to understand the challenges they face, and to decide how best to deal with them. The ideas must come from our Arab friends. We in Europe or the West cannot and must not dictate to them; but we can, and will, work with them to support and nurture reform.

The Arab World now matters more than ever

So we in Britain, and in Europe, want the Arab world to be stable and prosperous. As many in the region recognise, if it falls behind the global trend towards greater freedoms and development its stability and prosperity will be under threat. The challenges differ from country to country across the region – but there are worrying common threads. Regional economic growth is failing to keep pace with a growing population. In some countries, 60 per cent of the population is under 18 years of age. Youth unemployment averages over 50 per cent: according to the World Bank, the region needs to create 100 million jobs over the next 20 years to provide for this burgeoning workforce.

The last decades have seen the spread of representative and accountable government in many parts of the world, but less so in the Middle East. In some Arab countries, women are prevented from realising their potential in society – which means that fully half of the population is unable to play its part in economic growth and social development. Despite impressive gains over the last decades, literacy rates in some countries are now falling, and fast-growing populations are straining public services.

Many in the region realise the extent of these challenges and are working for reform so that they can be addressed more effectively. Many governments have already taken important steps on economic, social and political reform, and others are following. And as we heard in the introduction, it was Arab intellectuals who set out the challenges facing the region in the Arab Human Development Report of 2002, and the follow-up report published last year. The Declaration issued by the Sana’a Conference on 12 January was a further important contribution to the debate, calling among other things for greater empowerment for women, a strengthening of democracy and pluralism, the effective application of the rule of law and greater efforts to improve education.

Representative Government

I welcome all of that. But as many in the region recognise, much more needs to be done – and with a sense of urgency. Governments and peoples are talking about the need for more open, participative and representative government supported by a stronger civil society; for action to make the rule of law effective and transparent; for greater respect for human rights; for economic reform to create jobs and stimulate growth; for improved standards of education, in order to prepare young people for life and work in the twenty-first century; and for imaginative changes to enable women really to fulfil their potential in society.

No-one imagines this will be either quick or simple. As I said at the outset of this speech, we in Europe should always show some humility about the pace of change; after all, representative government is a very recent phenomenon in 11 of the 25 EU states, and the whole of our continent suffered the twin traumas of fascism and communism in the last century. It is not for us to preach.

It is for the Arab world itself to decide how best it can pursue a process of reform, development and modernisation. There is no template which fits each of the different countries in the region. The task for us in Britain and in the international community is to help to support it, drawing on our own experience of change – because we too have a vital interest in its success.

We need to recognise that this is a complex and sensitive subject. The pace of change is going to vary between different countries and regions, as it has in the EU. Change may be necessary, but it is never easy, and it can be seen as a threat to deeply-held beliefs and traditions. Moreover, history has left some in the Arab world with a perhaps understandable distrust of Western motives.

All that means that we must start by correcting some of the misperceptions and myths which have arisen, both in the Arab world and elsewhere, around this subject. Of course these misperceptions are by no means universal – but they do need correcting, so as not to become obstacles on the path to reform.

Change is possible

The first myth is that Islam is in its very nature incompatible with change. I reject that notion entirely. It seems to me that resistance to change comes not from Islam itself, but from those who claim religious justification for clinging to outmoded traditions. Christian societies in the West had to evolve in order to meet the challenges and problems that arose in a changing world. The moderate Islamic community has shown the same capacity to let society evolve. By contrast, extremism in any religion is not only a block on necessary change; it also feeds off those who are marginalised in society, to breed intolerance and resentment which in its turn can fuel violence. Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Morocco have suffered, at least as much as some European countries, at the hands of terrorists who pervert a peaceful religion to spread destruction and hate.

We all have a shared interest in defeating these extremists; which means we also have a shared interest in building the kind of pluralist, stable and tolerant societies which are the best bulwarks against extremism and violence. There are deeply-rooted traditions of consultation and consensus within Islam that make it far from incompatible with progressive change towards more open and participative government.

If I can be allowed one historical suggestion, the concept of Shura – or consultation – was established far earlier than in the Christian world.

Indeed there is nothing in Arab culture which makes change impossible – the region has in some senses changed beyond recognition over the last decades. Only 907 boys attended school in Oman in 1970; today about 600,000 boys and girls do so. Dubai had little or no modern infrastructure before the 1970s; today it is a thriving, ultra-modern transport and trade hub. Egypt has transformed itself from a state-controlled to a largely free-enterprise economy. And free speech and a free media have operated for many years in parts of the Arab world. (One of the great things that has happened in Iraq is that instead of state-controlled media there is now a burgeoning independent press which is contributing to change and political debate.)

Arab societies have adjusted to change, and will continue to do so.

Promoting values within traditional cultures

But even those who accept that change is right and inevitable sometimes argue that it can come only at the expense of religious and traditional values – that reform will necessarily breed individualism and the degradation of a traditional and devout way of life.

Again, the evidence shows this to be another misperception. Countries all around the world have managed to evolve towards pluralist and representative government without rejecting religion. Let me come back to the example of Europe. There is hardly a country in Europe without a Christian Democratic Party. A number of European countries accord a formal status within their constitutional arrangements to the church – as is the case within the UK for the Church of England and the Church of Scotland.

In the United States, where separation of church and state is a constitutional principle, large percentages of the population attend church regularly and cite religion as a central part of their daily lives. Pluralism and tolerance allow religion to flourish, as they have done for the over 2 million Muslims who practise their religion in Britain today. My own constituency has 25 mosques in it and I live opposite a madrasah. Indeed I am particularly proud of the fact that the Foreign Office every year sends a delegation to the Holy Places to offer support, consular help and medical treatment to the over 20,000 British Muslims performing Hajj. It is one example of the close partnership we have with British Muslim communities.

Promoting the values we believe in – good governance, human rights, tolerance and the rule of law – is not an attempt to impose ‘Western’ or ‘Christian’ values on Arab countries at the expense of their traditional culture. The values set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are just that – universal, and drawn from the traditions and values of countries around the world. They are values for which people around the world strive; and which are compatible with every single faith in the world. We want to see them fully realised everywhere.

Change does not have to come at the expense of the unique traditional culture which those in the region prize. Japan is no less Japanese today for having embraced democracy after the second world war. Indeed adapting to a changing world environment is the best route to ensuring that the Arab world’s unique culture and identity can continue to prosper, and exert a greater influence for the good on us in the West. Without change, the build-up of political disillusion and economic stagnation can only threaten what Arabs hold so dear.

In recent years several Arab countries have struggled successfully with challenges to their immediate stability. I suggest that the new challenge is that of longer-term change. Change is in any case inevitable and therefore the choice is one between managed and unmanaged change.

There are risks involved in any reform. But the risks of doing nothing are far greater.

Reform will not come overnight – it will take place over the period of a generation, and it must proceed at a pace which societies can bear. Like all change, it will not be easy. We in the West need to support our Arab friends in every way we can as they lead the process of change in their countries.

We need to work in partnership to address this shared agenda. Indeed that is for me the key to this whole issue: partnerships across government and within the international community; and, most important, partnerships with Arab governments and institutions themselves.

A role for Britain and the International Community

Britain can play an important role. Our imperial past has left some understandable sensitivities in parts of the Arab world. But our history has also given us a network of friendships across North Africa and the Middle East, and an understanding of the region. We can offer our expertise in adapting to a changing world, for example on educational standards, legal reform, the participation of women, market regulation or youth policy.

But whatever we do in Britain, we need international partnerships to achieve our aims.

For Britain, working through the EU will be crucial. The European Security Strategy endorsed last December makes the Middle East a priority – and rightly so. The EU is already strongly engaged. The so-called ‘MEDA’ programme of aid totals around €700 million per year; the Barcelona Process and our partnership with the GCC give us frameworks for closer partnership; and bilateral Association Agreements link us even more closely to individual countries in the region. We now need to use these instruments more coherently and effectively to promote our shared goals – for example by focusing MEDA funds on our strategic objectives, and deepening the relationship with the Gulf states through the EU-GCC dialogue. The new European Neighbourhood Policy should also give us new opportunities to build partnerships for reform in the region. We need to work first of all with those countries which have shown a clear wish to reform; and we need to make sure the partnerships include conditions by which both sides are prepared to abide.

The United States will also have a crucial role. We in Europe should make clear that we share America’s recognition of the need for reform, but that we need to work closely together and with the Arab world to ensure we get our approach right. The G8 also can also play an important part. For example we have put forward a suggestion for the G8 to work with business and with Arab governments to identify and reduce barriers to trade and investment, and to deepen local financial markets. The UN too has much to offer, and UN bodies have the expertise, resources and legitimacy which are necessary for success. NATO should also be able to offer help in some areas, for example closer cooperation in the fight against terrorism, proliferation and smuggling.

So the international community has the will and the ability to help those in the region to manage a process of change. But we must match our common engagement in support of reform with renewed international efforts to make progress in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both sides have suffered far too much, and the Palestinians are still without the state which is their right. We continue to urge both sides to uphold international law and human rights. Despite the difficulties of the situation, and the mistrust and hatred which it can breed on both sides, I also want to encourage greater understanding and mutual respect between Islam and Judaism. One of the fascinating things for me as a Christian, brought up with the Old and New Testaments, is when I attend Islamic ceremonies and listen to the recitation of the Koran. I am struck not by the differences in the messages of our respective holy prophets but by the similarities.

We cannot let the violence in Israel and Palestine be a block on the process of change which the region needs. But equally, we have to recognise, quite aside from its terrible human cost, that the continuing conflict makes change only more difficult than it already is, and clouds the whole relationship between the Islamic world and the West.

As long as the current stalemate continues, the situation in Palestine will be cited by many to argue that a region still in conflict needs stability, not reform. Getting Israelis and Palestinians to re-engage on the Road Map is vital, not just for their own sake, but for the process of change in the whole region. A new Palestinian state could be a leading example of reform in the Arab world. Even under uniquely difficult circumstances, Palestinians have shown in the past a genuine thirst for free institutions and education.

Both on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and on reform in the region, our international partnerships will play an important role. But I want to emphasise again that our most important partnerships for reform must be with Arab peoples and governments themselves.

To take the example of the Foreign Office’s own programme for engaging with the Islamic World, we have sought to make central in the development of our Global Opportunities Fund, the principle of partnerships with Arab societies and institutions. So for example we are working with Saudi Chambers of Commerce to organise seminars on accession to the World Trade Organisation. In Egypt we are backing a programme for legal training in human rights and civil liberties cases: this is particularly timely as Egypt has just established its own high-level Human Rights Council. In Yemen, we are funding a management and leadership training course for businesswomen.

These are just a very few examples of projects we are supporting – but they demonstrate how we are working in partnership with local organisations, responding to the demands of local people.


As many of these projects show, there is now a recognition across the region, and around the world, of the need for reform in the Arab world to meet the daunting challenges it faces.

Arab governments now have a great opportunity to take the lead by setting out a vision for long-term change, and mobilising their people behind it.

It is not for me, or anyone in the West to tell the Arab world exactly how that vision should look. But the international community can do a great deal to support Arabs in the necessary process of change.

We need now to strengthen our shared commitment to partnerships for reform with the Arab world, based on strong foundations of friendship, understanding and mutual interest. Reform will be difficult; and it will take time. So we must not only engage now: we must also, over the coming years, stand by that commitment and further strengthen our shared engagement.

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