Arab Thinking 101

Westerners were shocked at Samir Kuntar’s reception in Lebanon. Arab presidents and prime ministers greeted him, al-Jazeera even threw a birthday party for him. But actually there is nothing surprising about it given the Arab world-view.

What I do find surprising, on the other hand, is the way our leaders keep flunking “Arab Thinking 101″.   

Being a Terrorist Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry
By Barry Rubin

The number-one mistake people make trying to understand the Middle East is refusing to believe folks here think differently from themselves.

Virtually every development in the Middle East should remind us of this reality.

Yet as Captain Ahab hunted the white whale, as prospectors hunt for gold, as…well, you get the idea, so is the hunt for the great Arab moderate. There are Arab moderates, some very smart and brave people. The problem is none are in positions of power and all must shut up or face repression and being defined by fellows as enemies of the people.

The view of the Middle East held in much or most of the Western media, academia, intellectual circles, and large sections of governments is a fantasy having nothing to do with the region.

One should work against dangerous extremists with the Saudi, Egyptian, Jordanian, Moroccan, Kuwaiti, UAE, and Iraqi governments as well as the Lebanese pro-independence forces, though these all have multiple faults. But you must know the limits. And you can’t work with the Iranian, Syrian governments, Hamas and Hizballah or Muslim Brotherhood, even against al-Qaida which is ultimately–despite September 11 — a far smaller threat.

Still, one must face the fact that the last half-century’s most basic lessons have evaporated, partly due to Western policy mistakes — of excessive softness, not toughness — but mostly to the incredible power of the region’s political and intellectual system.

What keeps the region crisis-ridden, extremist, undemocratic, and unstable is not merely a system imposed by evil regimes on an innocent public. Yes, regimes continue their self-serving Arab nationalist, semi-Islamist, anti-Western, anti-Israel, demagogic messages urging the masses to support their local dictator. But this is what the public wants to hear. Rulers would be in far more trouble if they told the truth.

The glorification of the terrorist Sami Qantar is widely seen in the West as showing something is deeply wrong in the Arabic-speaking world. Yet there’s also much denial. The New York Times explained Qantar’s attack had gone terribly wrong when he murdered Israeli civilians. In fact, this was the raid’s purpose.

In another article, the Times intoned: “The United States, Israel and some of their European allies have begun to recognize that their policy of trying to defeat their enemies by isolating and vilifying them has failed.” Yet it was Iran, Syria, Hizballah, and Hamas that dispatches the Qantars on missions against not only Israeli but also Iraqi and Lebanese civilians.

If the extremists should not be vilified should they be praised? If they should not be isolated should they be embraced? Is the correct policy the feting of murderous Syrian dictator Bashar al-Asad in Paris or parleying with the genocidal-oriented Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran? Why did the U.S. government welcome the Syria-Iran-Hizballah victory in knocking down Lebanon’s moderate government? Who’s the villain in Iraq, the United States or the terrorists?

Well, for the Arabic-speaking world, the true heroes are still the terrorists. What horrified me most is not radicals cheering Qantar but that most relative moderates feeling compelled to do so. At the airport to greet him were leaders of Lebanon’s anti-Syrian, anti-Iranian Druze and Christian groups as well as the ambassadors from Egypt, Jordan, the UAE, and Morocco.

To avoid being discredited, relative moderates must affirm that anyone who murders Israeli children is a hero. That’s the measure of how far — despite daily headlines to the contrary — the region is from Arab-Israeli peace.

Yet it’s untrue the prisoner exchange has strengthened or encouraged the radicals. The truth is even worse: No matter what happens they’ll do exactly the same things. If every operation and casualty is a victory, a profit-loss calculus doesn’t apply. They’ll kidnap if there’s a prisoner exchange; they’ll kidnap if there’s no exchange. Triumph is continuing the struggle. Violence, death, and instability is cause for celebration.

Charles Harb, a Lebanese professor, claimed in the Guardian, “The Secret of Hizballah’s Success” is that its ability to get back some prisoners and bodies or force Israel out of south Lebanon “is in stark contrast to what ‘Arab moderates’ could show for in the same decade they spent negotiating with the Israeli state.”

The Saudi-backed, London-based al-Sharq al-Awsat, however, reminded readers that Hizballah’s success cost “$5.2 billion in losses and 1,200 dead” in the 2006 war. In addition, the south Lebanon war took almost 20 years, and Israel would have withdrawn far sooner if it had not been trying to block attacks against its territory.

The claim that Arab moderates have gained little through negotiation is also quite wrong. By negotiating with Israel, Egypt got back the Sinai, reopened the Suez Canal and western Sinai oilfields, and received about $60 billion to date in U.S. aid. The PLO got the Gaza Strip and much of the West Bank, putting more than two million Palestinians under its rule. Thousands of its prisoners were freed (more, of course, were taken because of its continuing violence), many billions of dollars in aid were obtained, and it could have had a Palestinian state if it so desired.

So who came out better, Egypt and the PLO (especially if it had really stuck to negotiating) or Hizballah?

Psychologically, the Arabic-speaking world says Hizballah because the “honor” gained through fighting and not yielding the dream of total victory trumps material benefits. Better martyrdom than compromise, better resistance than prosperity.

As long as this is true, there’s no hope for peace; even those who know better are dragged into shouting militant slogans. This doesn’t fit Western concepts of pragmatism, expectations that militants are just aching to be transformed into moderates, or that settling grievances through concessions defuses hatred.

That’s why policy prescriptions based on those premises are disastrous. While the West concludes that trying to defeat enemies by isolating and vilifying them has failed, the other side concludes its policy of trying to defeat its enemies by violence, vilification, and intransigence is working. That means more of the same: many decades more of the same.

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 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). To read and subscribe to MERIA and other GLORIA Center publications or to order books, visit http://www.gloriacenter.org.

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One Response to “Arab Thinking 101”

  1. Shalom Freedman says:

    The implication and lesson of this is clear. There must be a dramatic shift in values, in Islamic and Arab culture if there is to be any hope of lasting Peace in the Middle East. But such a shift is not now taking place. In fact the motion is in the opposite direction towards the most backward and anti- human elements in the Tradition.
    The question which might be asked, and I have no idea of what the answer is, is how such a change might be promoted and developed.