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Bureau Chief addresses Middle East

Adriana Pratt | Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Political change in the Middle East has been a challenging and frustrating process over the years, especially for the people affected by its current state of affairs. New York Times United Nations Bureau Chief Neil MacFarquhar described six factors that have made such change difficult at a lecture Tuesday at the Hesburgh Center for International Studies.

“The first is the stifling control the secret police have over society,” MacFarquhar said. “The second one is the lack of the rule of law. There are plenty of laws on the books but they’re all sort of enforced in a haphazard way.”

MacFarquhar described the next challenges as oppressive to the people.

“The third is the inability to organize and fight because basically the civil rights are nonexistent so people have difficulty forging social movements,” he said. “The fourth one would be that all those countries are run by small cliques that always fight against anybody trying to challenge them.”

MacFarquhar described change as inhibited also by challenges lying in the inherent beliefs within Middle Eastern society itself.

“The fifth one is that they say that if they do open up and allow societies to flourish, they’ll be overrun by Muslim extremists,” he said. The sixth and last problem is just the question of generational change.”

Middle Eastern citizens believed younger generations’ education in the west would bring new values to the area, but MacFarquhar said this is a false conviction.

The native education systems proved much stronger than the Western influence did, he said.

MacFarquhar added frustration with these issues tended to bring about extremism in these societies.

“If you can address these issues, I think that you will go a long way towards bringing important change,” he said.

After recounting personal run-ins with secret police and anti-American Al Qaeda families, experiences chronicled in his new book “The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday,” MacFarquhar said three factors made it difficult for the United States to impose political change from the outside.

Problems with vocabulary differences, he said, a lack of support for agents of change and the United States’ inability to address oppression and the secret police have prevented a successful government from being formed in the Middle East.

“There are a lot of words and events and issues in the region that we perceive wrongly from outside,” MacFarquhar said.

When asked if it was possible to rid Lebanon of Hizbollah, a Shi’a Islamist political and paramilitary organization, MacFarquhar said it would be difficult because Hizbollah filled a need that was there.

“They came along and started providing all those social services that were lacking,” he said. “It comes down to the fact that people will make their choices to a certain extent on ideology, but also in terms of what the government is going to provide and I think that’s the great failing in Lebanon.”

MacFarquhar moved to Libya at age three and spent more than 25 years in the region. He spent five years in Cairo as the Bureau Chief for The New York Times and has also lived in Israel, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Cyprus.