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Why we keep getting the Arab world wrong
National Post ^ | April 11 2003 | Amir Taheri

Posted on 04/11/2003 9:04:58 AM PDT by knighthawk

The Hate-America-International (HAI) had hoped and prayed for a "Stalingrad 1942" or at least a "Mogadishu 1992" in Baghdad.

This week, however, the Iraqi capital, liberated by the U.S.-led coalition, offered an astonished world a "Paris 1944."

The HAI, and its unwitting allies, the "useful idiots," had told the world that Iraq would become "another Vietnam," that thousands of "candidates for martyrdom" were lining up for a journey to paradise and the promised 70 "perpetual virgins" and that the so-called "Arab street" would explode, presumably shattering the global system.

(We had, of course, heard all this before, most recently in connection with the war that liberated Afghanistan from the Taliban fascists and their Arab terrorist allies.)

None of that happened.

Saddam Hussein, the latest champion of HAI, and his fellow rats ran as hard as they could in search of holes in which to hide.

The Western world's apparent inability to understand the Arab countries, and the Muslim world in general, is not solely due to the efforts of HAI and naive fellow-travellers within the so-called "peace movement."

The roots of misunderstanding go deeper. One such root was created by the old-style Orientalism of the 19th century that grouped a vast chunk of humanity together under the exotic label of "The Orient."

The Orientalists fabricated a world in which fantasy was indistinguishable from reality: a world in which people chopped off heads during the day and read Omar Khayyam, watched a belly dance and drunk wine in the evenings.

By the start of the 20th century that kind of Orientalism had more or less disappeared. The new Orientalists were serious scholars who did much valuable work. But by then a new fog of misunderstanding was covering "The Orient" from another direction. That one came from the Arab Bureau of the British Colonial Office that assumed that all the heads covered by the "towel-like" headgear thought and dreamed alike.

From the 1950s onwards a new layer of confusion was added by "return-ticket" revolutionaries, Western leftists who dreamed of a revolution in the Third World because they knew that their own fat, conservative societies would no longer storm any Bastilles or operate any guillotines. They resembled ageing voyeurs who, afflicted by impotence, draw pleasure from watching young lovers from a peephole.

I remember Michel Foucault, a French philosopher, who came to Tehran in 1978 to watch our "revolution." He loved every moment of it.

"Here we have the explosion of spirituality in the street," he opined. "In the West we have nothing but crass materialism."

But when the mullahs started shooting people by the thousands, and hanging gay men, including one of the Frenchman's Iranian lovers, in public, Foucault was outraged.

"The revolution has been sullied," he moaned, as if any revolution could be immaculate.

Then we have the roving "specialists" who spend a few days each year in this or that Arab or other Muslim capital (depending on who gives them a visa), talk to the taxi driver and a few officials and return to write a series of authoritative articles.

The cumulative result of all this is the caricature of Arabs and Muslims who are supposed be:

1. Extremely religious

2. Extremely angry about whatever happens to be the subject of the day. (Their "street" is always about to explode but doesn't!)

3. Drunk with the idea of Palestine and hatred of Israel and the United States

4. Incapable of conceiving of politics beyond terrorism, suicide-attacks, and war.

Once such a caricature is established, two opposite ways of dealing with it are proposed.

One is to press a gun to the caricature's temple, push its back to the wall, and force it to submit to the will of the West, whatever it happens to be.

The other is to recall "the crimes of Colonialism and Imperialism," blame the West for the caricature's supposed "suffering and humiliation," and regard even the most vicious behaviour by Arabs and Muslims as "legitimate responses to injustice."

(If Saddam Hussein kills the Kurds in Halabja with chemical weapons, it is because the Arabs are "angry and humiliated about Palestine." If Hafez al-Assad massacres dissidents in Hama, it is because Israel wants to annex the Syrian Golan Heights. If the Egyptian ruling elite is plundering the nation, it is because the Arab masses are humiliated by Israel. And so on.)

In both cases the Arabs, and Muslims in general, are assumed to belong not to humanity as a whole but to a special category in which they are either abused or flattered.

This is why Islam is the only religion that cannot be subjected to a normal critique in the West. It is presented either as the sole source of all that is noble and beautiful (for example it gave the West all science and philosophy!) or as the embodiment of all that is evil and ugly.

The illusion that there is a uniform Arab or Muslim world is, in part, fostered by the existence of such toothless bodies as the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). These have virtually no authority, even as debating societies. They are bureaucracies to provide sinecures for ageing politicians whose governments want to get rid of them with dignity.

The Arab League has 22 members some of which, like Somalia, Jibouti and the Comores, are not even Arabic-speaking. In others such as Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya there are large communities of Berbers with their own languages and cultures. At least 25% of Iraq's population are not ethnic Arabs.

The standard Arabic used in the media as a lingua franca is hardly spoken by any Arab at home.

Although the Arabs are predominantly Muslims, they are divided into numerous sects (madhahib) and ways (tariqats). There are also substantial communities of Christians, notably in Egypt, the Sudan and Lebanon. Iraq is home to 18 different religious communities.

There are other differences.

The so-called Arab World includes some of the world's smallest states: for example Qatar with a native population of 60,000, and some of the largest, for example Egypt with almost 75 million people.

At one end of the spectrum there is the United Arab Emirates, with income per head figures of around $20,000 per annum. At the opposite end there is Yemen, with a GNP per head of $400 a year.

While 80% of Arabs survive on less than $2 a day, the so-called Arab World is also home to thousands of billionaires. (A few hundred metres from Saddam's super-luxurious palaces in Baghdad, for example, one finds the shanty town of Madinat al-Thawrah.)

Some of the world's most brutal regimes are found in the Arab world. Saddam's was certainly the worst but not the only one. But there are also Arab countries, notably in the Persian Gulf, plus Jordan and Morocco, that are close to average for Third World nations in terms of respect for human rights.

The Arab states are also a diverse lot when it comes to the political system. There are absolute monarchies, constitutional monarchies, emirates, sheikdoms, military juntas, one-party states, pluralist regimes and even sectarian systems. Some organize more or less clean elections. In others the sole candidates of the regime always win with 99.99% of the votes.

Most of the wars the Arab states have been involved in since independence have been among themselves. Apart from the four wars in which Israel has been involved since 1948, a further 11 wars have been fought between various Arab states.

Even when it comes to the issue of Palestine, there has never been a unified Arab position. Today six members of the Arab League have full diplomatic relations with Israel while five others maintain de facto contacts with it.

A similar account could be given of the so-called Muslim World. The 57 countries that form the membership of the OIC are too diverse to be considered as a bloc on any issue. The OIC has failed even to harmonize Islamic religious dates and foster agreement on such issues as the Haj pilgrimage quotas and procedures.

To pretend that Malaysia, Turkey, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Nigeria pursue the same national strategies simply because they are members of the OIC is, if anything, laughable. It is like saying that Norway and the Philippines will behave in the same way on all key issues because a majority of their respective populations are Christian.

(Incidentally, today there are more Muslims in the United States, France and Germany than in almost half of the OIC's member states.)

The so-called Arab World and Muslim World are as diverse and divided as the so-called West. On the issue of how to deal with Saddam Hussein, for example, France and Germany, both allies of the United States and Britain, waged a veritable diplomatic war to prevent the removal of the despot by force. Six Arab and nine other Muslim countries, however, gave the U.S.-led coalition practical help in their campaign against Saddam.

Here is another example: France has a far more active anti-Israeli policy than, say, Morocco, an Arab monarchy, or Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country.

The issue of Palestine, for example, is about land, borders, water resources and statehood, and not a religious feud between Islam and Judaism.

The wisest way to deal with Arab and Muslim countries is to deal with them as individual nation-states and on the basis of real issues and interests. The world could not be divided between Arab and non-Arab or Muslim and non-Muslim. Each nation must be judged by, and treated in accordance with, international law and accepted practice, and not on the basis of real or imaginary linguistic or religious affiliations.

Being Arab or Muslim should not confer any particular advantage or opprobrium on any state.

Those who uphold secularism within their own societies, cannot discard it when it comes to treating other nations in the international life-space.

Amir Taheri is an Iranian author of 10 books on the Middle East and Islam.; mirtaheri@benadorassociates.com; ©2003 Amir Taheri


TOPICS: News/Current Events
KEYWORDS: amirtaheri; arabstreet; arabworld; hateamerica; iraq; iraqifreedom; nationalpost

1 posted on 04/11/2003 9:04:58 AM PDT by knighthawk
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To: MizSterious; rebdov; Nix 2; green lantern; BeOSUser; Brad's Gramma; dreadme; Turk2; Squantos; ...
ping
2 posted on 04/11/2003 9:05:35 AM PDT by knighthawk
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To: All

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3 posted on 04/11/2003 9:07:39 AM PDT by Support Free Republic (Your support keeps Free Republic going strong!)
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To: knighthawk
Good read.
4 posted on 04/11/2003 9:08:22 AM PDT by MEG33
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To: knighthawk
Why Arabs Lose Wars
5 posted on 04/11/2003 9:09:08 AM PDT by IncPen (Fun? "F the UN")
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To: knighthawk
Fantastic article.
6 posted on 04/11/2003 9:09:11 AM PDT by Pahuanui (When a foolish man hears about the Tao, he laughs out loud.)
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To: knighthawk
*
7 posted on 04/11/2003 9:12:27 AM PDT by BunnySlippers
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To: knighthawk
bookmarking bump
8 posted on 04/11/2003 9:13:16 AM PDT by js1138
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To: knighthawk
Taheri is absolutely right. However, there exists a strong, violent, and vociferous group of pan-Islamic radicals who do very much behave as if there were a monolithic Arab world united against the West. Many of these are still fighting a rear-guard terrorist campaign in Baghdad - the Iraqis term them "foreigners," which will tell you what their view of pan-Arabianism is. They have money, guns, and domination of the press of the Middle East. They populate al-Qaeda. They do exist, and exercise a power all out of proportion to their numbers.
9 posted on 04/11/2003 9:16:17 AM PDT by Billthedrill
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To: knighthawk
It certainly would be nice if people with the depth and breadth of knowledge displayed by this man, were in positions where policy is formulated. It becomes wearying to see our "leaders" make gaffe after gaffe, when there are many who could actually fill their positions and perform them with some degree of competence.
10 posted on 04/11/2003 9:19:30 AM PDT by David Isaac
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To: knighthawk
Maybe THEY should spend more time trying to understand US.

The American radical left he speaks of is acutally no different than the Islamists. Both believe that they are in possession of knowledge that only they can understand and appreciate. Only THEY know the truth.

11 posted on 04/11/2003 9:28:22 AM PDT by CaptRon
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To: knighthawk
"The cumulative result of all this is the caricature of Arabs and Muslims who are supposed be:

1. Extremely religious "

While far from an expert. I would say that only a few of them are "extremely religious" which are the martyrs against the west. The rest seem to be more peaceful than the cariacture, despite certain tenants of their religion.

2. Extremely angry about whatever happens to be the subject of the day. (Their "street" is always about to explode but doesn't!)

The street does often sees anti-western protests, fanned by anti-western mullahs and Al Jazeera. One must assume that the Arab street is no different than US streets and can become filled with protests from the most extreme and vocal members of society. Protestors which often do not represent the society very well at all.

However there does seem to be a certain amount of group think in that region. Where are the opposing, "peace" marches for Palestine. I've seen none! Where are the anti-terror marches? Where are the pro-american marches?

3. Drunk with the idea of Palestine and hatred of Israel and the United States

Where are the anti-suicide protests? The silence is condemning, in this regard. Even if this is not true of the Arab people, then it seems it must be true of the Arab regimes.

4. Incapable of conceiving of politics beyond terrorism, suicide-attacks, and war.

I think this is true of some of the Arab regimes, but perhaps not of the Arab people in general.

Once such a caricature is established, two opposite ways of dealing with it are proposed.

One is to press a gun to the caricature's temple, push its back to the wall, and force it to submit to the will of the West, whatever it happens to be.

To the extent that the caricature is the result of certain regimes, this approach may well be warranted. I'm open to suggestions otherwise, but appeasement should not be one of them.

The other is to recall "the crimes of Colonialism and Imperialism," blame the West for the caricature's supposed "suffering and humiliation," and regard even the most vicious behaviour by Arabs and Muslims as "legitimate responses to injustice."

This is a strictly leftist response that doesn't represent the US well at all, and I reject it. But to the extent that the left does this, it does tend to reinforce those elements in the middle east that feel this way.

12 posted on 04/11/2003 9:30:13 AM PDT by DannyTN (Note left on my door by a pack of neighborhood dogs.)
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To: knighthawk
Sounds an awful lot like OJ Syndrome, he (we) is innocent because of a collective long term persecution, therefore he (we) is given a pass on responsibile behaviour...
13 posted on 04/11/2003 9:45:04 AM PDT by databoss
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Comment #14 Removed by Moderator

To: DannyTN
The author can characterize the complexities in many ways, but the reality is, forces in countries like Iran see a freed Iraqi population as a threat. The murder of two religious leaders in An Najaf is a case in point, a case where the radicalism of Irani designs works to destabilize the threatening peace of self-governance. Those two clerics were murdered by Irani agent provacateurs inciting maniacal reaction from a mob. The main threat to peace and self-governance in Iraq is Iran's desire to establish a religious state in Iraq. Radical Islam, Islamism, is the main threat to coexistence between religions. Peace in Iraq without a Shariia central authority (the desire of the Irani's working behind the scenes to destabilize) is going to be a hard road. Hopefully, freedom will win out in the end among the Iraqi people, and they will work to establish a secular state in which freedom to worship can prevail.
15 posted on 04/11/2003 10:13:44 AM PDT by MHGinTN (If you can read this, you've had life support from someone. Promote Life Support for others.)
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To: The Ghost of Richard Nixon
Did you forget about Turkey?... The democratic nation fo predominantly Moslems established by Attaturk?
16 posted on 04/11/2003 10:18:05 AM PDT by MHGinTN (If you can read this, you've had life support from someone. Promote Life Support for others.)
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To: Billthedrill
90% of the trouble caused in the Arab world originates from "Islamo-Facist" states of Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Yemen. Islamo-Facism is a an authoritarian import from Europe by way of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. For reasons of imperial convenience this figure was installed in Jerusalem between WWI and WWII by the British.

The distorted vision of the Middle East has been greatly facilitated by a Western media mired in neo-marxist theories of imperialism. This distorted vision has until recently given observers of many dysfunctional Arab governments an inexhaustable excuse for the worst sort of human rights abuses and governmental incompetence.

The fall of Saddam's government has revealed a police state of shocking brutality and corruption. The idea that the governments of Iran, Syria, and Yemen would be better able to serve their people if only the "palestinian-Israeli problem" would be resolved is seen to be increasingly ridiculous.
17 posted on 04/11/2003 10:23:59 AM PDT by ggekko
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To: knighthawk
Orientalism was foolish and naive and no doubt very annoying to Asians of every kind, but it was hardly responsible for the behavioral problems of Arabs. Edward Said wrote the book on this, and it's pretty much a piece with the rest of his ideology--blame the West for Arab misbehavior.
19 posted on 04/11/2003 11:45:32 AM PDT by Cicero (Marcus Tullius)
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To: Allan
Bump
20 posted on 04/11/2003 12:01:58 PM PDT by Allan
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To: knighthawk
Here is another example: France has a far more active anti-Israeli policy than, say, Morocco, an Arab monarchy, or Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country. ..
21 posted on 04/11/2003 1:17:43 PM PDT by Salman
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