The Bush administration’s new initiative to encourage democracy and reform in the Arab world has all the solidity of a hot-air balloon. It’s floating grandly toward Planet Arabia, while down below the people who would be affected by it are variously taking potshots, running for cover or scratching their heads in confusion.

Are we really going to make this mistake again? To state what should be obvious after the reversals of the past year in Iraq: The idea of Arab democracy is meaningless unless it begins at home, driven by an Arab agenda for change, rather than by outsiders. If it’s seen as another attempt to impose the West’s agenda, then the planned U.S.-European Greater Middle East Initiative will fail — and deservedly so.

Rather than preaching from their dirigibles overhead, Americans and Europeans should try listening more carefully to what the Arabs themselves have to say — not to the leaders, whose main agenda is holding on to power, but to the millions of people who are desperate for reform.

A starting point for me is listening to the leading Shiite cleric in Lebanon, Sheik Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah. He can hardly be accused of pro-American sympathies; he was the spiritual leader of the Hezbollah fighters whose suicide bombs drove U.S. troops from Lebanon in 1984. But he’s become a surprisingly progressive thinker and was one of the first Muslim clerics to condemn unambiguously the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

I’ve visited Fadlallah several times over the past two years at his well-guarded office within the maze of Beirut’s southern suburbs, accompanied by my friend Jamil Mroue, publisher of Beirut’s Daily Star. Each time, Fadlallah has surprised me. This time, it was in the ferocity of his call for reform in the Arab world. You cannot put the case for change more bluntly or emphatically than he did…


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