By Barry Rubin
When one crazed or ideologically obsessed gunman starts shooting in Arizona, people condemn him and start bemoaning the state of their society. How about a place with ten million people like that who are treated as heroes?
America this week is awash in a huge and passionate debate over whether angry political disagreements and harsh criticisms of certain views or groups inspired the attack on an American congresswoman (Jewish and a strong supporter of Israel, by the way). I’m not going to enter into that argument right now but I want to point out the Middle Eastern ramifications of what’s going on here.
Every day for more than a half century, Arabs and Muslims have been inundated every day with hatred for Israel, America, the West, Jews, and often Christians. You can read transcripts of Syrian broadcasts or Palestinian speeches from 50 years ago that sound just like what is being said by their successors now.
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Let’s say that the proportion of lies, slanders, extremism,and incitement in the American discourse is one-tenth of one percent of all the words spoken on controversial issues. The equivalent figure for the Middle East is well over 95 percent.
In addition to that tone, there is not only a total lack of balance but an absence of the other side altogether. It’s all one-sided.
And in addition to those two points, the level of factual accuracy is farther away from reality than anywhere else in the world. (Though, admittedly, that gap has been narrowing in recent years as Western academic and journalistic standards decline).
And in addition to those three points, while extremists tend to be marginal in the United States, they are in control–either politically or at least setting the terms of discussion–throughout the Arabic-speaking and Muslim-majority worlds.
Thus, the level of incitement, imbalance, lies, and the hegemony of hatred in that region towers above that in the West like the World Trade Center towers over an anthill.
Oh, the World Trade Center doesn’t exist any more. Well, that has something to do with this situation, too, doesn’t it?
Or to put it another way, in the Middle East, the crackpot is often (usually?) given more credit than the rational or factual.
I won’t take your time with lots of examples but one might start with the widespread belief that the U.S. government or Israel carried out the September 11 attacks, coupled with the contradictory belief—held often by the same people—that it was something to be proud about. Or all the ridiculous conspiracy theories about Israel, as in the cases mentioned here. Or the editorial in al-Ahram, the most important Egyptian newspaper, that claimed all terrorism in Iraq was a U.S. plot to divide Muslims.
Here’s one of many such items that come across my desk each day. Al-Hayat al-Jadida, the official newspaper of the PA, has articles, the most recent being December 31 and January 4, accusing Israel of planning to destroy the al-Aqsa mosque. In the newspaper’s words, Israel’s projects in Jerusalem “are part of [the efforts] causing the collapse of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, in order to establish Solomon’s Temple upon its ruins.”
The al-Aqsa Institute for Religious Affairs, which the PA controls, accuses Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu of being behind this “Satanic plot.”
Or, this one: All mothers undoubtedly love their children but only in Iran there’s now a special day when mothers take their babies to a ceremony where they vow to make them martyrs in Jihad. (Funny, contrary to what is taught in Western schools they don’t define Jihad as inner spiritual striving.) And not many mothers in Western democratic states hold celebrations after their kids blow themselves up in an attempt to murder as many civilians as possible.
Now, let me ask some questions:
–If America is horrified in claiming that a tiny amount of mostly marginal extremism inspires one mad man to murder six people and try to kill a politician, how much violence can be traced to hundreds of thousands of mosques, media, teachers, and mainstream politicians daily preaching hatred literally millions of times a day?
–If the discourse throughout the Arabic-speaking world, Iran, increasingly in Turkey, and generally in Muslim-majority countries is almost 100 percent incitement, how can there be partners for peace or a hope of stability? What good do concessions do when the next day the culture of incitement and hatred goes on at full speed?
–If the degree of anti-Western, anti-American, anti-Jewish, and anti-Christian incitement is 100,000 times more intense and mainstream than any “Islamophobic” discourse in the West, while mitigating discourse—i.e., empathy, positive images, etc., toward “the other”—is one thousandth of a percent less, then which of these phenomenon is a greater threat and problem?
–How about having to deal with countries and political movements run by the equivalent of Jared Loughner? How about President Jared Loughner in possession of nuclear weapons and threatening to wipe you off the map? Jared Loughner in control of the UN Human Rights Council? Groups led and run by Jaret Loughner’s given far more credibility in the Western media than the democratic states they seek to destroy?
I want to make it clear that I am not saying Middle East leaders, militants, and opinionmakers are mentally ill and are in need of psychiatric help. What I am saying is that their grasp on the real world in practice is tenuous; that they are violent and capable of unpredictable actions; that they cannot be swayed by logical arguments or factual presentations; and that they define their interests and goals in ways far different from a pragmatic approach.
And even though there are many people who know better–including many leaders of Arab countries, as Wikileaks show–they have to shut up to protect themselves or even try to use the same kind of demagoguery for their own political advantage. Even the most courageous genuine moderates often must limit themselves to watering down the dominant rhetoric somewhat in order to try to moderate the debate without getting themselves killed.
If you doubt the above paragraph, try spending a few decades reading the speeches of Arab and Iranian leaders, newspaper articles, and political declarations. Look at the results on the pavements of streets of terrorist attacks that deliberately have targeted civilians which are then cheered by the multitudes. In the PA’s case alone, for example, public squares, sports’ tournaments, and schools, among other things, are named in honor of suicide bombers, whose examples are exalted to children as a guide for their own behavior.
But of course Middle Eastern dictators and ideologues do have specific goals in mind that they may pursue systematically. Consider, though, the following examples that show the shortcomings of their logic and grasp of reality:
Egyptian and Syrian dictators threaten war with Israel to curry domestic support and regional influence. Very rational. Result: 1967 War.
Iraq’s leader feels threatened by Iran and sees opportunity to gain regional hegemony. Result: Iran-Iraq War. Iraq’s leader seeks to reward his people with loot, underestimates U.S.resolve: Result: Invasion of Kuwait and ensuing U.S.-Iraq war. Iraq’s leader wants to look tough, pretends he is getting nuclear weapons. Result: 2003 war.
Usama bin Ladin wants to overthrow the Saudi monarchy and install a radical Islamist state. He comes up with a coherent strategy for doing so. Result: September 11, 2001.
Yasir Arafat wants to wipe Israel off the map rather than get a Palestinian state soon, end the occupation, and improve his people’s lives. Result: Unnecessary decades of bloodshed, hatred, and suffering.
So on one level, their behavior and strategies do make sense. But from a pragmatism is better than all-or-nothing extremism; material improvement is better than suffering; realistic examination of the balance of forces rather than fantasy-based; peace is preferable to destructive and losing war; finding a solution where both sides benefit rather than continuing conflict standpoint?
–And why should the overwhelming majority of Western schools, media, academics, officials, and so on pretend that the above facts don’t exist?
Or let me put it more graphically: If a man goes out to shoot a politician whose policies he doesn’t like in America he is likely to be widely regarded as insane. If a man goes out to shoot members of an ethnic or other group he doesn’t like, then in America (unless perhaps he’s an Islamist terrorist), he is considered a terrorist or someone committing a hate crime.
But in the Middle East, people are almost considered insane–or at least cowardly and treasonous–if they do NOT do these things, or at least support others performing such deeds. As public opinion polls demonstrate, those are not considered to be evil, marginal lunatics but heroes whose example should be followed.
Might this indicate that the proportion of self-flagellation over self-defense in the Western world is a tad too high?
Might this indicate in some way that there are certain differences in some other societies that make them think and act a bit different from Western democracies?
PS: The logical outcome of this is the Fort Hood massacre where the terrorist yelled “Allahu Akhbar!” as he shot down Americans, yet we were told to draw no conclusion from this or the mountain of evidence that he was a revolutionary Islamist.
I have not yet heard that the murderer in Tucson chanted, “Rush Limbaugh Akhbar!” even once.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict, and Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan), Conflict and Insurgency in the Contemporary Middle Eastand editor of the (seventh edition) (Viking-Penguin), The Israel-Arab Reader the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria(Palgrave-Macmillan), A Chronological History of Terrorism (Sharpe), and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).