By Barry Rubin
The title of this article is a play on an American television series called, “Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader.” It’s a quiz show in which adults are pitted against fifth grade students in answering a series of questions. The gimmick, as you might guess, is that the fifth graders win.
Why is that? The trick is that the questions are attuned to the curriculum of a fifth-grade class. If the contestants were to be asked how to fill in a tax form, what temperature to cook a pot roast, or what to do if your in-laws insults you, the adults would presumably do better.
I’m using this analogy to explain an interesting paradox of the present world: Western government officials, journalists, and “experts” seem to believe that they and liberal Arab reformers are smarter than Islamists. After all, the latter are just medieval hicks who cling to their guns and religion aren’t they? Oh, they are non-violent? Well, ok.
If it is assumed that revolutionary Islamists are stupid and inept, then obviously the moderate reformists are going to win. Oh, the Islamists are moderate, too? Well, ok.
Why did the Western establishment assume almost up the moment that the ballots were counted that the reformers would win and not the Islamists? Because of cultural shortsightedness. Indeed, this kind of thing can be accurately called precisely the type of Western arrogance so often denounced as imperialist and racist.
- The moderates speak better English than the Islamists and more of them are fluent in that language.
- The moderates are generally dressed in more Western clothes, especially the women.
- The moderates use the same phrases and concepts as the Western “experts,” journalists, and officials.
- The moderates use social media more and to a greater level of effectiveness
Here’s the problem Problem: Precisely by being more Western they are less typical of Arabs and Muslims in general. Indeed, as everyone in their societies know, a number of aspects of their behavior and ideas are of Western, non-Arab, non-Christian origin. That makes them less popular with the masses who “cling to…antipathy to people who aren’t like them…as a way to explain their frustrations.”
It’s ironic that the man most responsible for the West’s current policy disaster in the region thinks this is so in America’s Middle West but not so in the Middle East.
But there’s more, much more.
The Islamists—and certainly the Muslim Brotherhood—is disciplined and unified. We keep hearing about “splits” in the Brotherhood that are merely tactical maneuvers, showing the Islamists are smarter—or at least better able to fool people–than the reporters who cover them.
On the contrary, the moderates are always feuding, engaging in bitter personal disputes and ideological hairsplitting while there ship is sinking amidst a crowd of sharks. That’s what happened in Turkey, Tunisia, and Egypt. In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Fatah leaders ran against each other while Hamas candidates sailed by with pluralities to win the election.
The fact that the Islamists are better organized than the moderates not because they have had more time but simply because they are better at organizing. The liberals tend to be intellectuals who think that writing an op-ed is a major political accomplishment. The democrats have far fewer dedicated volunteers and they have less money, too. And they are worse at stating and spreading their message—true, their message is more complicated—than the Islamists.
Here’s another point: The Islamists have learned to use nationalism as well as religion, giving them a near-monopoly on the two most powerful stimuli of passion in the Arabic-speaking world. Hizballah combined Shia Muslim communal nationalism with Islamism in Lebanon; Hamas merged Palestinian nationalism with Islamism. Al-Qaida targeted the West and in Iraq took over Sunni Muslim communal nationalism, while the Muslim Brotherhood portrayed itself as the best leader for Egypt’s interests and wrested the Palestinian issue from then nationalists.
While some of the liberal leaders have shown great courage, especially under the old regime, they are very unimpressive in the charisma and general leadership departments. Consider the two best-known Egyptian leaders: Ayman Nour and Muhammad ElBaradei. Nour seems to have been badly damaged by his term in an Egyptian prison; ElBaradei spent most of his life abroad. He was built up as an “American” candidate despite the fact that at the time he was in an alliance with the Brotherhood.
The best the moderates can do are technocrats. Maybe they can be transitional leaders but the moment the people speak they don’t have a prayer.
Then there’s the Arab left, also badly split (there are about a half-dozen Egyptian leftist parties in Egypt that are all of equal (small) size). True, in Tunisia the two main left parties did well but they split the vote among themselves and with the two moderate parties and then quickly jumped into a coalition with the Islamists. Much of the left seems to regard the Islamists, rather than the moderates, as the lesser of two evils.
The bottom line is that Western observers think that the moderates are the natural winners and hence there was nothing to fear from revolution and free elections. They were wrong, dead wrong, but it is other people who are going to end up dead as a result.
This brings us back to the television program. The fifth-graders win because they are more familiar with the material than are the adults. Similarly, the Islamists are far more familiar with their society than the Western politicians, journalists, and “experts” or, for that matter, their own moderate rivals.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, Israel: An Introduction will be published by Yale University Press in January. Latest books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at http://www.gloria-center.org and of his blog, Rubin Reports, http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com