Monday, June 20, 2005

Smoke Signals: What Big Tobacco Can Teach About Democratization


Far too often, America's best-laid plans to promote democracy in friendly Arab countries have gone up in smoke. Consider the State Department's woebegone Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), launched in December 2002 with great fanfare by the Bush administration. Its purpose was to fight the underpinnings of extremism in the Arab world by directly funding Arab activists who want to push for women's rights and political and economic reform. But according to a study by the Brookings Institution, almost two-thirds of the first $103 million MEPI spent ended up benefiting Arab government agencies instead--"subsidizing Arab governments' attempts to build a kinder, gentler autocracy." As for the money that was actually doled out to democracy activists, some recipients have faced retribution from their government. Last Monday's Wall Street Journal reported that the MEPI-funded Egyptian Association for Supporting Democracy had barely gotten off the ground before a pro-government weekly in Cairo accused it of being, in the Journal's words, "pro-Zionist, anti-Egyptian, and anti-Arab." Clerics at two prominent mosques tarred the group's staff as American stooges. The Egyptian parliament opened an investigation into possible wrongdoing by its members. Some lawmakers are trying to prevent more foreign dollars from pouring in. All this over a $150,000 MEPI grant--which had been earmarked for nothing more than a training seminar on how to run for parliament and an in-house film series of Egyptian movies.

When it comes to fomenting non-violent change in the Arab world, where is America's legendary ingenuity and know-how? You're not going to like the answer. The Americans who have been most effective at promoting their agenda in Middle Eastern societies, by any objective measure of success, are neither Washington wonks nor overseas diplomats. They are the owners of big tobacco companies.

Compare MEPI's pitiful record with the following statistics: Between 1990 and 1997, according to the American Cancer Society, while tobacco consumption dropped in South America and the Caribbean by 16.5 percent, North America by 7.6 percent, Western Europe by 5.9 percent, and Eastern Europe by 5 percent, the Middle East saw the opposite trend--a spike in consumption by a staggering 24.3 percent. In 1990, Egypt imported 90 million cigarettes; in 1997, it imported 500 million. Between 1995-96 and 1999-2000, expenditures on tobacco as a percentage of total urban household expenditures in Egypt went down by more than 50 percent; but during the same period, cigarette expenditures as a percentage of total urban household expenditures actually went up by about 5 percent. So at the same time as more traditional forms of tobacco consumption--such as water pipes and snuff--were declining, cigarettes were on the rise.

Of course, smoking is nothing new in the Arab world. But Western companies saw the popularity of their products grow significantly during the 1990s. And they managed to achieve this growth despite a rising stigma against American products in the Arab world--and despite anti-tobacco campaigns waged by Arab governments, Muslim clerics, and the media. American tobacco, pitted against authoritarian regimes and Islamists in a war of words and ideas, fought hard in the Middle East and won. And the question that Washington's befuddled policymakers ought to be asking is how. How--in the very same countries where U.S. government agencies are struggling to promote a noble ideal--have cigarette giants managed to sell millions of death sticks?

Thanks to anti-smoking activists, it's now possible to answer this question. Reams of internal documents subpoenaed from R.J. Reynolds, Philip Morris, and other companies through lawsuits are now available to the public and searchable online. The World Health Organization (WHO) has combed through them and published studies on the firms' operations--including their activities in the Middle East. The documents, which mostly date from the '80s and '90s, tell a story of Byzantine intrigue married to American-style tenacity: Where rubber-stamp Arab parliaments sought to ban smoking in public places and curb cigarette advertising, American companies managed to defeat some of these bills and knock the teeth out of others. Where Muslim clerics spoke out against the dangers of nicotine and issued religious edicts (fatwas) against smoking, Big Tobacco funded Islamic seminaries--and used its leverage to exact alternative fatwas in favor of smoking. Where Arab newspapers, mostly government-controlled, sought to warn their readers of cigarettes' health hazards, the companies manufactured one rebuttal after another--and pressured editors to print them.
They did all this, remarkably, on the cheap. With an annual budget of just a few hundred thousand dollars, big tobacco firms came together in the mid-1980s to set up their own equivalent of MEPI. The Middle East Tobacco Association (META), as it came to be known, had a mandate of "promoting and defending" the companies' agenda in the region. To be sure, where MEPI stands for democracy and freedom, META stood for nicotine and corporate greed. But nothing succeeds like success. So rather than ignore an organization like META because its end goals were reprehensible, Washington policymakers would do well to examine its methods. That is, of course, unless somebody has another bright idea about how to promote an agenda--any agenda--in a region of autocrats, without the use of force.


You might say that META operated in Arab countries much the way lobbying groups and political parties function in the United States--but with fewer restrictions from the legal system. WHO alleges that the group's very formation by rival tobacco firms amounted to a form of collusion. Leaving this possibility aside, however, META does not appear to have otherwise violated the law. It served its members as a private intelligence agency, a p.r. unit, and a springboard for outreach to influential Arabs. All these tasks were centralized under the stewardship of one "secretary"--a fact that made for the smoothest possible pooling of intelligence, ideas, and influence.

At times, the appointed secretary was an Arab national, although one of the most effective META chiefs happens to have been a Westerner, former journalist Robin Allen. According to an internal document from 1990, Allen was chosen for his "good contacts in the region" and put in charge of lobbying "opinion formers and decision-makers in the GCC"--i.e., the Gulf states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE--and "win[ning] goodwill on behalf of the industry." Hired hands like Allen were also instructed to monitor "threats" to the tobacco industry. In 1982, Philip Morris requested intelligence on "anti-smoking activity" in the Arab Gulf Health Ministers' Conference. Five years later, the firm called for a "consultant who can help us monitor and influence the Alexandria-based WHO office [in Egypt] which help [sic] prepare GCC health plans."

From these documents, two big ideas emerge: First, there's an implicit self-awareness that META's activities run counter to the interest of Arab regimes--at least, inasmuch as any regime should be concerned for the health of its citizens. Second, there's a dogged determination to view each autocracy not as a monolith but as a mosaic of individuals with conflicting interests of their own, some of whom are identified as "friends" of the tobacco industry and others as "threats" or "opponents." In this respect, META's behavior in Cairo, for example, has been similar to that of some of the more relentless lobbying groups in Washington today.

Thus in the early '80s, when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's wife Jihan campaigned for anti-tobacco legislation in parliament, the cigarette companies fought back--inside the parliament itself. Philip Morris won an assurance from legislator Hassan Soleib, who vice-chaired the Committee for Industrial Development, "that no draft law related to industry or trade could pass Parliament without the advice of his committee." No sooner had Egypt's first lady circumvented Soleib, presumably by lobbying her husband, than Philip Morris and another company, Rothmans, teamed up to take the battle to Egypt's health ministry. They sought "technical discussion regarding the implementation ... thereby also achieving a delay." META and its constituent firms fought tooth and nail for ten years to water down any legislation curbing cigarette advertising or smoking in public spaces. A Philip Morris memo in 1993 lays out one component of this strategy: "Seek to defeat the proposed [advertising] ban ... [or] as a fall back, ensure that advertising freedoms ceded are kept to a minimum."

In a sense, META's lobbying efforts mirror those of many multinational corporations in the developing world: Big companies can often find influential locals willing to work on their behalf. But the group's relentlessness is unusual, in that it stood up for years to some of the most powerful people in Egypt--and for a cause that much of the government was dead-set against. In this respect, META's success is an example that would-be American democratizers can learn from: It demonstrates that smart politics can often thwart the intentions of authoritarian regimes--from within.


Beyond the challenge posed to Big Tobacco by the healthier instincts of Arab leaders, another problem the industry faced was the relationship between smoking and Islam. In 1984, an intelligence report from Brown & Williamson in Saudi Arabia advised that "the pressure upon smoking is continuous, with Friday sermons being delivered in the mosques stating that smoking is haram (outlawed by Islam)." In 1987, Philip Morris suggested a new policy objective: "Work to develop a system by which Philip Morris can measure trends on the issue of smoking and Islam. Identify Islamic religious leaders who oppose interpretations of the Koran which would ban the use of tobacco and encourage support for these leaders." The company appears to have done just that, by making a charitable donation to an Islamic seminary in the Gulf. A Philip Morris memo from 1989 proclaims that the company had won "extensive coverage in GCC media for Philip Morris' corporate contribution to the House of Koran, an Islamic cultural institution in Bahrain."

Why Bahrain, of all places? While the document doesn't say for sure, a different source offers some idea of the company's thinking. META secretary Abdullah Borek wrote, "While Bahrain in itself is not such an important market, its function as a forerunner in the Gulf must not be under-estimated." This insight is rather profound. Had a Western tobacco executive sought to influence the teachings of a puritanical seminary in Saudi Arabia, he probably would have been chased out of town. But where Saudi Arabia sets the standard for rigid doctrinal sensibilities, Bahrain occupies an important cultural space of its own: It's a liberal desert island where many Saudis and other Gulf Arabs go to escape for a weekend of pleasure--a middle ground of waywardness that's socially to the left of Saudi Arabia but well to the right of Europe and the United States. Subverting Islamic ideas about smoking in Bahrain was a feasible way to affect popular sentiments all over the region--including in Saudi Arabia--through the back door.
By the early '90s, the companies appear to have been emboldened to push the envelope even further. A 1991 memo from Philip Morris to the secretary of META states that the company "would prefer to maintain the right to hold special promotions during Ramadan." In 1995, Brown & Williamson went so far as to propose a special ad campaign to promote light cigarettes during the fast month, with the slogan, "Now is the time to switch to Lights." According to a company memo:

The Holy Month of Ramadan is a time of fasting, in order to practice self restraint and cleanse the body.

It is therefore a time when Muslims try to live a healthier life and it is believed that many people may try to give up smoking.Smoking during daylight hours is banned until the Iftaar [break-fast] cannon goes off around 6:30 pm. Therefore smokers will not have had a cigarette for around 14 hours.

This being the case it is reasonable to assume that after such a period of abstinence the tar/nicotine levels of a Lights/U.L.T. brand may be more acceptable to consumers than at normal times. This coupled with a desire to lead a healthier life may provide an opportunity to get smokers to switch.

Tobacco executives, who make their living by understanding and manipulating cultural sensibilities, showed an intuitive understanding of the Islamic milieu that some American policymakers still do not grasp. Rather than accept any particular notion of Islam as preached from a pulpit, they viewed the range of Muslim attitudes as part of a living cultural continuum--susceptible to nudges from within and without. It's tragic that this understanding on the part of some Americans has been applied to such unwholesome ends--while not, it seems, to the cause of political reform.


Finally, there is the matter of Big Tobacco and public relations. U.S.-backed reformers aren't the only ones who suffer from negative perceptions in the Middle East. After all, while the region's pundits widely believe that America wants to harm Muslims, they know that cigarettes cause cancer in Muslims. Yet inexplicably, only the latter of these two p.r. nightmares has managed to inspire a dogged counter-campaign.

"I strongly believe," wrote Abdullah Borek at the end of a lengthy META memo, "that any attacks from the other side should be countered in this way"--by sending letters to the editor--"and while we will not be able to change general trends and considerations, I am fairly certain that we can give the other side to understand that they do not own the floor." The group hired a local communications firm to monitor local and regional newspapers for any and all coverage of tobacco. META then began to respond to negative press by submitting letters to the editor and op-ed pieces under assumed names--seeing to it, according to one document, that "no excess duplication appears ... [to] avoid the appearance of a concerted campaign." Articles rebutted the charge that smoking is hazardous to one's health and advocated "smokers' rights," along with the merits of allowing tobacco companies to advertise their product. By the early '90s, the group became more aggressive, calling for "more placements, less caution." META scored dozens of hits in the region's leading papers, noting in one report that "key anti-industry publications had been breached in Saudi Arabia, pan Arab and UAE." Building on this momentum, the group launched a new campaign called "Voice of Reason," which sought to persuade well-known Arab journalists "to develop pro-industry articles," arguing that "it was doubly essential to approach only those well-known writers who had an open mind, and see that he was a) willing and b) well-briefed." In this way, tobacco companies built relationships with editors and publishers, enlisting their support to oppose advertising bans--and occasionally threatening to withhold advertising dollars from publications that opposed the tobacco agenda.


What lessons should be drawn from the story of Big Tobacco in the Middle East? That depends on your perspective. Take the view that META's tactics were inherently anti-democratic--based as they were on complicity with powerful elites and the use of money to buy off public voices--and you have an argument for the U.S. government to reject these methods completely when promoting Arab democracy. The trouble is, while the State Department's MEPI behaves like a troop of Cub Scouts in the Arab world--promising transparency in its strategies and a commitment to "partnership" with Arab governments--its grantees are getting crushed, because their competitors have far fewer scruples. The clerical endowments of Saudi Arabia and Iran finance their own political agendas in much of the region, but they promise neither transparency nor partnership.

Personally, I find it remarkable that many Americans who would agree to the use of force to promote democracy would at the same time eschew the more subtle tactics of a tobacco company to achieve the same ends. In any case, let's not delude ourselves: There is no hope of achieving reform in the Middle East through "partnership" with authoritarian regimes. When done right, democratization is addictive, and hazardous to a dictator's health. When done wrong, it isn't worth doing at all.

Joseph Braude is the author of The New Iraq: Rebuilding the Country for Its People, the Middle East, and the World. This essay first appeared in The New Republic Online on April 18, 2004.

Monday, June 06, 2005

On John Paul II's Record in the Middle East

Muslim leaders are widely reported to be mourning the death of the Pope. Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, the ranking cleric at Egypt's preeminent Al Azhar Islamic seminary, said his death was "a great loss not only to the Catholic church but to the Islamic world." Senior Muslim Brotherhood preacher Yusuf al Qardawi wrote, "He was a man of peace who stood firmly against the Iraq war and the Israeli separation wall." The leadership of Hamas conveyed its condolences to the press and urged the Vatican "to maintain its position in support of our people and our cause, and focus its efforts on steering its followers to defend the rights of our Palestinian people to confront the continuous Zionist aggression, which targets Muslims and Christians..." Sympathies poured in from Syrian president Bashar Assad, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, and Arab League chief Amr Moussa, among others. Former Malaysian premier Mahathir Muhammad recalled that Pope John Paul II had "supported the Palestinians and condemned their victimization. He also ... opposed the occupation of Iraq." Arabic-language satellite networks, according to the Associated Press, "have launched a media blitz for the death of Pope John Paul II, giving Mideast viewers hours of live broadcasts from the Vatican and programs on the pontiff's life--coverage rarely given even to the region's leaders."

In the midst of all these tributes, however, one thing has been lost: When it came to the Middle East, Pope John Paul II largely failed to promote social justice and religious freedom. His political strategy in the region was in many ways the very opposite of his political strategy in Eastern Europe. The Pope took a hard line against communist governments, but in the Middle East, his strategy was too often one of appeasement--not only toward authoritarian regimes but also toward powerful religious-political movements that preach intolerance toward minorities. Partly as a result, the percentage of Christians in the population of many Middle Eastern countries continued its precipitous decline over the past three decades. Ironically, the Muslim Middle East grew more religiously homogenous and less tolerant at the same time as the Christian West was growing more religiously diverse.

It's impossible to know for sure why so many Islamist leaders and Arab heads of state were so generous in their praise of John Paul this week. But here's one theory: They liked him because he didn't hold them to the same standards to which he held Poland's Wojciech Jaruzelski and the USSR's Mikhail Gorbachev. They liked him because whereas he successfully fought for religious freedom, equality, and social justice in Eastern Europe, in the Middle East he did not.


Why did John Paul come to adopt a stance of appeasement toward Middle Eastern leaders? He may have concluded early in his papacy that critical engagement with the Muslim world doesn't pay. Consider the results of the Pope's correspondence with Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini in the early 1980s. I first saw the letters on a visit to the Iranian city of Isfahan in 1998. A lot of people saw them, because they were on display in glass casing at the Khomeini Museum. According to a paper by Yusuf Progler, professor of social sciences at the Zayed University campus in Dubai, the Pope had initiated the correspondence, noting the "increase of tension" between the Carter administration and Iran. He urged the Ayatollah to consider reestablishing relations with the United States government. Khomeini refused. "Our militant, noble nation took such cutting-off of relations as a good omen and celebrated it with rejoicing," he wrote. Khomeini asked the Pope to tell Carter to "treat the nations that want absolute independence--and which do not want to be aligned with any power in the world--according to humane criteria." A few months later, the Pope wrote back with a second request: He asked the Supreme Leader for an assurance that Iran's ancient Christian communities would not be harmed, and would be permitted to worship and study their faith as before. Khomeini's reply was disheartening. He alleged that Christian schools in Iran had been used as a base for Western espionage, and asked:

How can I tell my nation that Christian clergy are [not] in the service of the superpowers? Why did the Pope make no comment when our young people were killed on the streets? ... Does Christ act well toward the rich and badly toward the oppressed? Do you know what they did to our country? ... How can I reply to the oppressed people when they ask us why we defend these clergymen who don't say a word against the superpowers and oppression, even of the American people?

Perhaps the Pope drew a lesson from his interactions with Khomeini: Christian leaders who intercede with Muslim politicians on behalf of the West are liable to gain little and lose much. Twenty years later, Iran's once-strong Chaldean Christian community, which falls under the hierarchy of the Vatican, has dwindled to 8,000 people. The population is smaller even than the country's beleaguered Jewish community, which numbers about 11,000, according to the U.S. State Department. What's more, the strained relations between the Vatican and Iran have also become a problem for the embattled Christians of Iraq--thanks in part to Iran's growing influence there. Some newly empowered Shia politicians who enjoy the Iranian government's support have begun to call for the application of Islamic law in Iraq, which could officially make Christians second-class citizens. Moreover, Christians themselves have become prime targets for kidnappers; in January, a Catholic bishop was abducted.


Following the Pope's early failures with Khomeini, the Vatican during the past 20 years has largely taken a soft approach to the Middle East, eschewing stern moral language in its dealings with Islamists and instead trying to engage them in dialogue. The problem has been that the Vatican's ostensible partners in this exchange had different ideas about what dialogue meant.

John Paul II's years as Pope coincided with an unprecedented proliferation of hardline Islamist teachings of both the Shia and Sunni variety. Revolutionary Iran's oil-rich clerical endowments subsidized books and mosques that molded millions of minds in Pakistan, Lebanon, the Gulf states, and beyond, while the Saudi Muslim World League and its many subsidiaries bankrolled Wahhabi firebrands and their teachings across the Sunni Muslim world. The latter project enjoyed Western acquiescence, particularly during the Reagan years, because it helped recruit fighters for the Jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan. I have seen many of these books, in Persian and Arabic, in markets across the Middle East. They conjure a world of shadowy international conspiracies--Western leaders and Jews using Catholic churches, Masonic lodges, and multinational corporations as their agents to plunder Palestine and enslave Muslims. Once you have been through a few of these volumes, as many Muslims have, you won't easily view your Christian neighbor the same way again--let alone the odd Jewish neighbor. Nor will you be able to see much good in the Pope's visit to a synagogue in 1986, or his establishment of full diplomatic ties to Israel in 1994, or his apologies to world Jewry for the Holocaust at various times in the '90s. On the contrary, you will find, in all these developments, a validation of the very conspiracies you were taught. Here is how Amir Said, a commentator at the website Islamway.com, summarized the Pope's career this week:

This Pope's life or death does not concern me much, because the Jews have already established themselves in the Vatican. The arrow from the Zionist bow has struck, and the matter is no longer confined to one man alone. Rather, a base of Jewish hegemony has anchored itself on the Catholic religion. ... The Pope, in truth, is a distinguished product of joint Catholic-Jewish manufacture. His production passed through a number of stages and religious and intelligence plots of the highest precision. Some of these plots are wrapped in the strictest secrecy, while others have today come to be revealed to researchers.

Now try and imagine how such a mindset would process the Vatican's overtures for dialogue with Muslims. In 1997, Ahmad Sakr, director of the Foundation for Islamic Knowledge in southern California, joined a delegation of Muslim leaders on a visit to Rome for several weeks of discussion with Catholic counterparts. The coordinating body was the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue (PCID). The Council's statement, which cites an encyclical letter of Pope John Paul II, explains: "Dialogue is a two-way communication. It implies speaking and listening, giving and receiving ... It includes witness to one's own faith as well as an openness to that of the other. It is not a betrayal of the mission of the Church, nor is it a new method of conversion to Christianity."

Sakr returned to California and published a four-part essay on his experiences in Rome in the Arabic-language Chicago-based newspaper Al Zaitounah. Under a photograph of Sakr shaking hands with the Pope, he wrote the following:

I said to myself that if the prophet Abraham, peace be upon him, came to visit the Vatican, the first thing he would have done would have been to break all of these idols and destroy them from existence entirely. ... The Vatican has founded three active university institutions to teach Islam from within--its sole goal being to figure out how to instill doubt among the Muslims in their belief and in their faith. ... They should sincerely repent to God, and they should not take Jesus as the son of God.

The Vatican had reached out to a firebrand; and the results were clearly nothing to brag about. Moreover, among the long list of guests whom the Pontifical Council invited to meet with the Pope over the years, there was nothing unique about Sakr's political profile. As recently as January 2004, the ninth annual PCID conference brought the Pope together with Abdullah Nasif, head of the Saudi Muslim World League--an endowment that has helped disseminate anti-Christian books. Of course, it's always your ideological opponents with whom dialogue and bridge-building are most important. But where was the tangible improvement for Arab Christians--or for the Middle East as a whole--that such meetings brought about?


Dialogue, not the moral stridency with which he so frequently spoke about other issues, was the Pope's modus operandi when it came to the Middle East. And so rather than take Arab and Islamist leaders to task for their shared role in creating a climate that was hostile to Arab Christians, the Church too often placed the lion's share of the blame on Israel. Why have Arab Christians left Palestinian territories? According to the Catholic Near East Welfare Association ("a papal agency for humanitarian and pastoral support"), "The principal reason for the dramatic rise in Christian emigration has been the continuing Israeli military occupation and the denial of the sovereignty of a Palestinian state wherein Christian Arabs could feel at home economically, politically, culturally, and spiritually." And why have Arab Christians left Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon? Under the section heading, "Christian Emigration from Jordan," the group writes that "Students of migratory phenomena have pinpointed a series of factors, which have triggered or accelerated" the trend of Christians leaving Jordan and other Arab countries. The first item: The "Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has continued unabated since 1948." What you won't find in any of these reports is the frankness of Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, who retired in late 2003 after serving the Pope as Foreign Minister for 13 years. He told Reuters, "There are too many majority Muslim countries where non-Muslims are second-class citizens"; and he singled out "the extreme case of Saudi Arabia, where freedom of religion is violated absolutely--no Christian churches and a ban on celebrating Mass, even in a private home. Just like Muslims can build their houses of prayer anywhere in the world, the faithful of other religions should be able to do so as well."

The disconnect between these studies and Tauran stems from a painful reality: The former reflect the input of bishops from local Arab dioceses, where political and social pressures tend to influence what they can write. Contrast the Catholic Near East Welfare Association report with the following straight talk from Iraq, post-Saddam Hussein, where bishops now enjoy a measure of freedom, at least from government supervision: Chaldean bishop Rabban Al Qas explains, of Islamists: "In the time of Saddam Hussein they acted secretly; they would send anonymous threatening messages, urging even bishops and priests to convert to Islam. ... Under Saddam Hussein there was a veiled persecution." With this in mind, the Vatican's blaming of Zionism for the emigration of Christians from Arab countries surely should be taken with a grain of salt.


Perhaps the best-known example of the Pope's appeasement strategy in the Middle East came in 2001, when he met with Syrian president Bashar Assad and top Muslim clerics in Syria. At the time, an Arab journalist reported on the speech Assad gave in the Pope's presence:
Assad pointed to the atrocities that the Israelis in Palestine are perpetrating and the perpetual aggression that they are carrying out on the Islamic and Christian holy places in an attempt to kill all the principles of the divine religions, with the same mentality by which [they perpetrated] the treachery against Christ, and his torture, and similarly did they attempt to double-cross the prophet Muhammad, peace and blessing be upon him.

The Pope turned the other cheek at Assad's nod to old-fashioned "Christ-killer" rhetoric, and was subsequently treated to another lecture on the Palestinian cause from Syrian Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro during his visit to the Umayyad mosque in Damascus. The fact that the Pope was made to listen to the central message of Arab-Islamist populism was Syria's way of saying, We are in the driver's seat today--not the Pope. When it came to relations between the Catholic Church and Arab and Islamist leaders during the last 25 years, that too often seemed to be the case.

To be sure, the challenge of promoting religious freedom and social justice in the Middle East is in many ways more complex than fighting communism. In communist countries, freedom and liberty were stifled by an identifiable leadership. In the Middle East, by contrast, social justice is hindered in large part by authoritarian regimes, while the principle of religious equality is undermined by transnational religious-political movements that are unaccountable to a single government. There are other differences as well. The Pope's Polish background made it natural for him to fight communism in his native Eastern Europe; any efforts by the Catholic Church to fight for religious freedom in the Muslim world would invariably be tinged by the history of the Crusades; and the situation of Christians in the Middle East (where they are a religious minority oppressed by a Muslim majority) is quite different from the situation in the Soviet bloc (where Christians were a large majority oppressed by an atheist minority). And to his credit, the Pope did not always opt for appeasement in the Middle East. He traveled to Sudan, where Christians faced genocide and slavery, in 1993; he also beatified Sister Josephine Bakhita, a Sudanese slave, acknowledging the dignity of her long-oppressed community.

Moreover perhaps in a very narrow sense, the Pope's approach served Middle Eastern Christians well. His support for Palestinians and opposition to both U.S. wars in Iraq helped to carve out a political space for Arab Christians to feel a bit more secure in their home countries. Syrian Cardinal Ignace Moussa Daoud put it well in May 2003: "There was a big danger that Christians would be considered allies of the Americans, but thanks be to God all this was avoided because of the positions taken by the Pope and the Vatican." Palestine and Iraq were on the lips of nearly every Muslim cleric and Arab head of state who praised the Pope's memory this week. It is difficult to imagine a similar outpouring of Arab and Muslim sympathy for the departed leader had his position on those two issues been different.

But in the long run, the Pope's soft stance toward dictators and Islamists hasn't served anyone well--not Christians, not Jews, not Muslims. In Latin America, the Pope spoke clearly for social justice; in Eastern Europe, he spoke clearly for religious freedom; but in the Middle East he allowed himself to be lectured by Bashar Assad about how the Jews killed Christ, and bad-mouthed by some of the very Islamists whom he had welcomed into the Vatican. His successor must be shrewd and demanding in the Middle East--and willing to be loved a little bit less by the region's self-appointed leaders.

Joseph Braude is the author of The New Iraq: Rebuilding the Country for Its People, the Middle East, and the World.