There are only three valid reasons why the Middle East, the focus of international attention as 2012 begins, is important to the United States and the European nations. These are energy, immigration and Israel. Beyond that, there is no evident cause for paying more attention to this region than to other areas in the world, such as Africa, Latin America or Western Asia.

Those reasons themselves are seriously weakened today. The Arab oil states are no longer in a quasi-monopolistic position. There are many other regions with large present and future oil and natural gas reserves. They produce competitively for a diversified and open international market. The United States no longer needs to think that “owning” and militarily defending Saudi Arabia or any other oil-producer is essential to American security. The idea of a politically motivated energy producers’ boycott was tried out by the Arabs in 1973-74 and was found not to work. It is impossible today. Italian, French, American, British and other oil companies may compete today to secure Libyan (or Iraqi) oil contracts, but this is commercial competition, not geopolitics.

Western Europe is under important migratory pressures from the Mediterranean and North African populations. This has serious social and cultural consequences, but they are being managed. There has been a link between migration and Islamic terrorism — which is itself a minor, containable and probably ephemeral phenomenon, but one which 9/11 and the post-9/11 American governments have treated, and continue to treat, with something resembling hysteria.

Finally, the Arab and Iranian Middle East is a center of potential military conflict because of the Israel-Palestine confrontation over the Palestinian territories, only because the United States is committed to defend Israel from all threats, thus implicitly underwriting the expanding Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. This now is under question in the United States, and Israel itself is changing in a way that weakens the link.

What exactly is it today that is “awakening” in the Middle East?

It is the people. They demand justice. But are they capable of creating just and modern governments?

Islam has a theocracy problem. The Christian West did not; pope and emperor were from very early on acknowledged as possessing separate and legitimate power in their distinct functions. This was based on Christian scripture. The Quran allows no such distinction. It is considered to incorporate all truth about society. The truth is presented by the religious leadership, as in Iran today.

Following the defeat and collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War, there were several attempts to create authentic secular governments, which would replace Ottoman authority. One was Turkey’s forced secularization by Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic. It was a success, its secular character protected by the Turkish army, but it is still under strain from religious forces. A second effort was made by Syrian, Lebanese and Iraqi political intellectuals (Christian as well as Muslim), who founded the Baath movement, supposed to include all of the communities in their countries. In the years that followed, it declined into clan, sectarian or military dictatorship. Saddam Hussein and the barely surviving Bashar al-Assad are undoubtedly the last gasps of secular Baathism.

There was the Arab Socialist coup in Egypt by Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser, and the Revolutionary Officers’ coup in Libya that gave to world affairs the late Col. Moammar Gadhafi. These secularizing efforts also failed. The Moroccan, Saudi Arabian and Jordanian monarchies, on the other hand, survive today, making minimal political reform, which is significant. They unite religion and politics in a way that is reassuring to ordinary people.

Thus the great question about the Arab Awakening is whether it can lead to political systems that provide freedom for everyone in society. The people of the Islamic Middle East have been struggling with this problem since long before 2011-2012. They are coping with problems that the West confronted in the Reformation and counter-Reformation. You might say that they are today searching for their own form of the European Enlightenment. If this is a fair analogy, however, the Islamic time of troubles has only just begun.

Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at © 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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