"A pessimist," a wise man said, "is one who makes difficulties of his opportunities. An optimist is one who makes opportunities of his difficulties." That neatly sums up the divided opinion about what must happen in Iraq - and subsequently in other countries of the Middle East - now that the first of the tyrants has been toppled.
Both optimists and pessimists buffer their attitudes with interpretations from history, politics and religion. The pessimists emphasize the restraints of the Islamic religion and culture, which they see as constricted by narrow-minded traditions and claustrophobic ideas that, unchecked, dictate a theocratic corruption of political leadership.
The optimists see freedom as a liberating force, lighting the way toward democratic government, which, if nurtured patiently, will propel Iraq into the 21st century. Maybe neighboring countries will follow. Voices of both camps are heard loud and clear across a variety of Washington policy sessions, think tanks, conferences, dinners and cocktail parties.
"Islamic fundamentalists are utopian visionaries who wish to replace Western-style liberal democracies with Islamic theocracy, a fascist system of filth that aims to control every single act of every individual," Ibn Warraq told a conference on Islam the other day, sponsored by the Council for Secular Humanism. "We must take seriously what the Islamists say to understand their motivation (of Sept. 11), that it is the divinely ordained duty of all Muslims to fight in the literal sense until manmade law has been replaced by God's law, the Sharia, and Islamic law has conquered the entire world."
You can't be more pessimistic than that.
Warraq excoriates Americans who naively believe "liberal Muslims" when they say their religion is compatible with feminism, human rights, egalitarianism and religious tolerance: "There may be moderate Muslims, but Islam itself is not moderate."
Warraq is as soft-spoken and gentlemanly as his words are inflammatory. When I caught up with him at a reception in his honor and asked him how he accounted for the medieval glories of Islamic civilization, he was courtly and witty as he confronted what he called the "error" in my question.
"Science and the arts came from outside the Muslim world and in spite of the Koran and Islamic law," he told me in the tone of the patient schoolteacher he once was. "Crediting Islam for the medieval cultural glories is like crediting the Inquisition for Galileo's discoveries."
Warraq is the author of a book called Why I'm Not Muslim, which is industrial-strength blasphemy for a man born a Muslim in India. He lives now in upstate New York. He uses a pen name and resists being photographed to avoid a Salman Rushdie-like fatwa, or death sentence, ordered by an aggrieved imam. His pessimism has the subtlety of a sledgehammer, expressing a passionately felt, if one-sided, interpretation of the religion he was born to deny.
The optimists who advise Bush policy in the Middle East see the possibility for a great American experiment in developing a secular democracy in that part of the world where Islam is not merely dominant, but often the only one allowed by law. The White House takes its cues from Bernard Lewis, the Middle Eastern scholar who sees several schools of thought within Islam, one of which offered dignity and meaning to impoverished lives centuries ago, inspiring a civilization rich in the arts and sciences in the forefront of human achievement.
"But Islam, like other religions, has also known periods when it inspired in some of its followers a mood of hatred and violence," Lewis writes in his new book The Crisis of Islam. "It is our misfortune that we have to confront part of the Muslim world while it is going through such a period, and most - though by no means all - of that hatred is directed against us."
The glimmer of hope from this perspective resides in the lights of the past that must be revived in the present. If followers of Islam can be persuaded to drop the "victim" mode and hatred of the West that rises so quickly to the surface when Muslims search for someone to blame for their own inadequacies, and channel their energies toward building on a new foundation of freedom, the optimists say they can revive dormant creative energies to buttress a democratic government.
It won't be easy and a bitter struggle lies ahead. "The road to democracy, as the Western experience amply demonstrates is long and hard, full of pitfalls and obstacles" says Lewis. Pessimists focus on the pitfalls, optimists at overcoming the obstacles. That sounds about right, too.