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The Missing Perspective in the Middle East (and Elsewhere)

“We are at a very precarious point in time. There are so many moving parts right now,” says Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al-Hussein ’87, Jordan’s permanent representative to the United Nations.

An authority on international justice and peacekeeping (he was formerly Jordan’s ambassador to the U.S. and helped found the International Criminal Court), Prince Zeid is accustomed to times of crisis. Soft-spoken and articulate, he offers his unique perspective of the Arab Spring—a “season” of revolution that has been raging in the Middle East for nearly two years—with the kind of calm that comes from knowing that such a multicultural, dynamic revolution requires an immense amount of patience.

“The historic parallel one likes to draw is between what we see now in the Middle East and the 1848 revolutions that swept through Europe,” he says, noting similarities in both uprisings, despite the great distance between the two in time and place. Both were led mostly by young rebels demanding freedom, justice, and equality. Both spread quickly across the continent, infecting communities like a virus. And sudden spikes in food prices triggered waves of revolution in 19th-century Europe and the modern Middle East alike.

“But the fundamental difference between these two sets of revolutions,” Prince Zeid says, “is that there is no clearly articulated, authentically Arab liberal philosophy.” Unlike the Europeans, who were standing on the shoulders of Rousseau, Montesquieu, Locke, and Marx, “there are no liberal Arab philosophers that can carry these sentiments, these tumultuous expressions of yearning on the part of the youth for something better, and transform them from being mere expressions to concrete results.

“What we have now is our default position—Islamic ideologies,” he says. Thus, though Jordan and the rest of the Middle East are in the early stages of fundamental transition, it appears that those transitions will likely be Islamic in nature. “We will see how it develops and progresses,” he cautions, “but this may very likely lead to more extreme views and a progression to a sterner series of policies. If revolutionaries were to encounter failure at any point along this journey, what you may find is that people will not say it’s because of an absence of liberal thinking. They may well say that those in power have not been Islamic enough.”

The question then, not just for Arab nations but for the youth of the world, is how does one acquire critical, liberal thinking?

Prince Zeid, 48, found his direction while a “very junior” U.N. official deployed to the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s and fresh from completing a doctoral degree at Cambridge. “I was in bed, living in someone else’s home in the middle of nowhere. I couldn’t speak the language and the conditions were very tough. I looked at the ceiling and thought, ‘My God, what on earth am I doing?’

“I think it’s that kind of experience of engagement in whatever you are doing that provides a deeper reservoir of knowledge as to how the planet works and how your field of study works. Once you are exposed to a broad palate of experiences you start developing your own opinions.” Prince Zeid’s “palate” has seen a variety of colors, as his diplomacy work has taken him from border disputes in Niger, to the International Court of Justice during Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence, to war crime proceedings originating from Nuremberg, and to a wealth of negotiations between his native Jordan and the rest of the world.

“I don’t think there is sufficient critical thinking in higher levels of government in many countries. You have conventional wisdom going untested, and the more you test it the more you realize that it should not be conventional at all and there is very little wisdom in it,” he says.

“My urging to all students is to go out and gather experiences. Many aspire, but most settle for something safe.”