The Arab World’s Intellectual Mess: A Case Study
Barry Rubin
September 10, 2008

MEMRI has released report Number 1847 on September 8, 2008, entitled, “Egyptian Researcher Muhammad Al-Said Idris: The American Response to 9/11 Proves that the Official Version of Events Is False,” the transcript of an interview he gave on Al-Rafidein TV on September 8, 2008. This kind of talk, of course, is both silly and dangerous. Silly because to deny that al-Qaida planned and carried out the September 11, 2003, attacks is a lie not based on any evidence and quite contrary to a huge amount of evidence. It is dangerous because people will die and terrorist acts committed motivated by such nonsense. Indeed, one day the accumulation of lies may bring down the government of Egypt itself, leading to tens or even hundreds of thousands of casualties. But that much is obvious. What is interesting is to analyze this interview as a case study of what goes on in the Middle East–and sadly shows signs of spreading to the West–and determines a great deal of public opinion and national policy. Idris is no marginal figure but a researcher at Egypt’s Al-Ahram center for strategic studies, arguably the Arab world’s most respected think tank. It is nominally part of the newspaper but actually under government control. So Idris speaks for a powerful research center, Egypt’s leading newspaper, and the Arab world’s most single important government.? Let’s look at this as an exercise in basic logic. Idris mentions there is an “official American version according to which 19 Arabs carried out this operation [9/11].” Of course, a serious researcher should add that this version coincides with that of Usama bin Ladin and his al-Qaida movement and of all reputable news media, many of which despise the Bush administration. Why does Idris put it this way? Because he is used to government control of information. The dictatorship has a line; everyone sticks to it, there is no truly independent media or judiciary or academia; and the regime lies. Thus, he is unable to distinguish between a Western democratic system and a Middle Eastern dictatorship. Next he says there are: “Other versions, which refute the official version, say that there must have been a certain type of bomb over there, which nobody [but the Americans] could have obtained, and that it was this bomb that brought down the Twin Towers. [They say] that there are American elements involved in this affair, getting people to believe the [official] scenario, which was immediately accepted.” To be serious, one must cite specific examples, examine the credentials of those making these claims, and critically consider the accuracy of the claims. This is part of the scientific method, of the heritage of the Enlightenment. For Idris and his colleagues, however, none of this exists. They are free to pick what suits their propaganda needs, provide no sources, weigh no credibility, and ask no questions that might challenge these versions. Even in this presentation there is an internal contradiction. Conspiracy theorists have indeed stated that explosives were used to detonate the buildings but to my knowledge no one has spoken of some special bomb which only the U.S. government can get. (Only nuclear weapons would seem to fit that category.) This is Idris’s own invention. Contrary to an independent media, the interviewer simply reinforces Idris’s viewpoint, not asking for sources or challenging anything: “Interviewer: In addition, many building and engineering experts say that the impact of the planes could not have brought down the Twin Towers.” What experts? And, of course, the statement calls out for the response: Yes, and many more building and engineering experts, with better credentials, coming from different institutions, and having a wide variety of political views, say that the impact of the planes could and did bring down the Twin Towers.” At a minimum, an interviewer might say: “There are experts on both sides. Why is the view you present more accurate?” But this is the spirit of an open marketplace of ideas, of debates, of systematic inquiry almost totally missing in the Arabic-speaking world. Yet then Idris gives another argument even more fantastic than the first, which reveals far more about Egypt and the Arabic-speaking world than about America: “Idris: That’s one version, but more importantly, the immediate American reaction to the event seemed like it had been planned in advance. When an unexpected natural event takes place, the reaction is confused and disordered, until people get a grip on themselves.” Consider what he is saying: the United States has a crisis. But we know that in the Arabic-speaking world, regimes are very inefficient, no planning has been done, things don’t work right. Therefore it is impossible that America can suffer an attack and then the government can quickly decide and implement policies. In short, America must be like Egypt. And since efficiency, good decisionmaking, and organizational efficiency are impossible, the Americans must have decided in advance, knowing about the attack and indeed carrying it out themselves or they couldn’t have reacted quickly:

“Interviewer: It takes some time…
Idris: Yes, but in this case, all the instructions were immediately ready, and all the policies and instructions were issued.
Interviewer: What do you mean?
Idris: This proves that the official version is false. It also proves that there is a movement within the U.S. which has an agenda, and which will use any means to implement this agenda. This event was convenient for the movement, and it began to implement its agenda.”

In Egypt, public opinion is unimportant. All decisions are made behind the scenes. Therefore, he assumes, America must be like that. Democracy must be a fa?ade. It wasn’t that the American people identified the source of the attack and decided to retaliate. In Idris’s and the Arabic-speaking world’s conception; only a small group can do so. And there is no such thing as the national interest, only the selfish agendas of shadowy groups seeking to exploit every occasion for its own good. Of course, there are many groups with agendas in American life but they cannot easily ignore the American people as a whole and a wide range of independent institutions or competing forces to pull strings as if all of society, government, national debate, and public opinion are puppets. They especially could not hush up such behavior, especially when the most powerful news media is aching to find something to discredit the government and attract an audience for itself. Yet this kind of thing does happen in the Arabic-speaking world every day. The point, then, is not that Idris and many others–let’s be honest and say the vast majority of issue discussions in the Arabic-speaking world–speak lies and nonsense, it is to understand the intellectual preconceptions and social-political structures that create this situation. We hear over and over again that the problem is that the West doesn’t understand the Middle East. The truth is the exact opposite: the Middle East doesn’t understand the West and is crippled by its own internal problems. Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History?of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin,?(Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle- East (Wiley).