By Barry Rubin
I have long thought that we are experiencing what might be called the Middle Easternization of the West but never fully understood it until a friend asked me a question.
Why is it, he asked, that when moderates in the Arab world are attacked they always react defensively and apologetically, trying to prove that they also hold safely radical views?
The key, I realized, was the existence of basic principles that were beyond question and could be manipulated to ensure conformity. There are four main commandments of this type, along with several secondary ones. They can be expressed in the following terms:
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Thou shalt hate Israel with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all they might.
Thou shalt have no other ideological deities before the promotion and protection of Islam.
Remember the importance of Arabism and keep it holy.
Thou shalt not speak well of the West or of its works.
To prove my point, if I had written the previous four lines in Arabic as a citizen of an Arab country I would be risking my life or more likely my career. There are individuals who have done so but their number is limited. They have almost all been either Western-educated or spent many years living in the West. And they often end up having to flee there. Individual rebels who disregard the consequences–I can give you a list if you like–they may be brave but this is not the stuff of which whole movements are made.
The existence of these imperatives limit debate, not only because someone crosses the acceptable line but far more often because they can be accused of doing so. People lie, people misunderstand, people want to win arguments, and to win or hold onto power.
That’s why the authors of the American Constitution forbade limits on freedom of speech: because once you start creating off-limit areas the worst thing that happens is the empowerment of people who have a self-interest in setting and misusing these limits. They can administer these no-go zones by declaring anything they don’t like to be a hate crime.
Before explaining how this has been transferred to the West, let me give a random example of how this works in the Middle East.
A few year ago a group of courageous Lebanese and Syrian intellectuals produced a manifesto calling for Lebanon to be a truly sovereign country rather than a satellite of Syria. How did the Syrian regime and its stooges in Lebanon respond? By accusing them of being Zionist lackeys.
You see, there was no way out of the trap. The authors of the manifesto had left out the Israel issue. First, that wasn’t their subject. But also it was a no-win situation. If they had gotten into the issue they would have had to say that, of course, Israel was the main enemy of Lebanon and of the Arabs. Therefore, since Syria and Hizballah were fighting Israel they had every right to use Lebanon as a base for the battle. To interfere with those resisting Zionism and American imperialism was equal to siding with the enemy.
In short, they had no right to complain about Syrian domination in the first place. Now imagine that this is extended to every single issue in public life.
Women’s rights? Do you want to copy the Western enemy? What if this contradicts Islam?
Peace with Israel? You can imagine. And so on. The response to any statement or event is entirely predictable. I can tell you the text of the speeches and newspaper articles in advance. This system becomes a straitjacket.
Incidentally, the transition to electoral politics may well intensify this problem, since now instead of just the regimes and Islamists slinging mud at each other, there will be multiple parties competing to use these issues for their benefit against rivals. In the 1940s and 1950s, the radical nationalists and Islamists used this to destroy moderate parties in Egypt,, Syria, Iraq, and among the Palestinians. Already we see this system of competitive demagoguery being revived in Egypt.
An Arab proverb that applies here is that no voice can be allowed to rise above the din of battle. If the absolute evils of Zionism, imperialism, and the infidel West are fighting it out with the absolute goods of Arabism and Islam, how can there be any real open debate permitted?
Of course, the left has always had its slogans of class warfare. But that’s precisely the problem. One can shout about the downtrodden workers and the greedy capitalists. Many people, however, don’t accept this argument. Indeed, since it is class warfare there are large groups–historically a large majority in America–that define their interests as being against these politics.
What is needed is a foolproof tactic, one to which there is no institutionalized opposition so that even your enemies must bow their heads in shame and knees in homage when called names.
So how has the Middle Eastern approach revolutionized Western discourse? What slogans are potent enough to shut people up instantly?
Racism! Homophobia! Islamophobia! And to a lesser extent, perhaps, Sexism! The minute you are accused of racism you are finished. There’s no effective response. And fear of being accused shuts most people up. Criticize the policies of President Obama? Racism!
Call for enforcement of immigration laws? Racism!
Explore the boundaries between religious Islam and political Islamism? Islamophobia!
Suggest that thousands of years of history has defined marriage exclusively as between a woman and a man? Homophobia!
There are no pro-racism, pro-Islam-hating, pro-sexist, or pro-homosexual-baiting lobbies. Indeed, all of these things are at an all-time low in the West, rare to a degree unthinkable a decade ago. Yet the pretense must be that such dangerous enemies are lurking everywhere, just as Communist regimes constantly uncovered conspiracies that justified their existence and repression.
Thus, freedom of speech, rational discussion, and opposition are trumped by “higher values.” The most basic and long-held principles are quickly jettisoned in fear. Newspapers accept censorship, intellectuals embrace telling lies, and women’s rights’ groups cheer the suppression of women’s rights in Muslim societies. Those who have spent years fantasizing how they would have been heroic resistance fighters against dictatorship fold, trembling, in the face of a single letter of complaint.
Remember, victims of this tactic don’t have to be actually guilty but merely accused to be considered guilty. Consequently, and most likely of all, they would already have been intimidated into silence.
And then you are finished as completely as any Arab or Muslim accused of being a running dog of the Zionists and imperialists. In many cases, those in public life so branded might as well get a shopping cart and hang out on street corners collecting bottles to return for the deposit.
Most Western observers who look at the Middle East don’t comprehend how these core accusations work there. Who cares about fighting Zionism when it comes to providing jobs or collecting garbage? Well, yes this system does transcend pragmatism, which is why it blocks progress.
One might as well say that there can be rational discussions of budget cuts, immigration, counterterrorist policy, and dozens of other issues in Europe or North America. The manipulation of these core accusations is destroying academia and scholarship.
Public, even semi-public expressions of racism are virtually extinct in America, whatever might be inside people’s minds and hearts. The level of hostility toward homosexuals has fallen faster and further than anyone would have believed a decade or two ago. As for Islamophobia, its definition is unclear but certainly its scope has been greatly exaggerated by those who have a political interest in greatly exaggerating it.
The critical point is this: For every bit of “hate speech” or action, there are hundreds, even thousands of false, politically motivated accusations. Like the secret police in a dictatorship, the forces must seek out new crimes and conspiracies. But unlike an earlier phase of genuine efforts to promote tolerance, the strategy becomes a political one for crushing dissent and consolidating support for the prevailing ideology and rulers.
If laws restrict freedom to speak in the West on a variety of topics then people can be legally in a way making the West arguably more restrictive than Muslim-majority countries which, after all, generally solely restrict Islam from open discussion.
The idea that the West would transform the Middle East in its image has become a bad joke. It is the West that is becoming transformed into another version of the Middle East. And if you want evidence, three of the Arab world’s main taboos–support for Israel, praise for America, and any critical discussion of Islam–have also become among the things forbidden in large sectors of Western society.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, and a featured columnist for PajamasMedia at http://pajamasmedia.com/barryrubin/. His latest books are 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 http://www.gloria-center.org/. His PajamaMedia columns are mirrored and other articles available at http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com/.