Understanding the Mideastern theory of truth

I’ve said before that the Arabs invented a postmodern theory of truth long before it became fashionable. But while a penchant for bending reality to political purposes may help recruit the uneducated (or, in some cases — viz. academic boycott movements — the overeducated), it also limits a culture’s economic, political and social advancement.

Method in Their Madness
By Barry Rubin

One evening you’re walking down a street. A robber jumps on you to steal your wallet. You fight back and after a protracted battle you injure him enough so that he flees the scene.

The next day newspapers report that you assaulted a poor innocent man to mug him. From pulpits, religious leaders denounce you as a bad moral example that should be punished. Politicians urge that the forces of the law be deployed against you. Your attempts to defend yourself are ignored and dismissed as lies and excuses. Most people never even hear your version.

And then after all that, someone explains: “You know the reason why people don’t like you? It’s the way you behave; after all you assaulted that poor man.”

That, my friends, is another way for saying that your policy is the cause of your problems.

Of course, the parallel outlined above is too simple — deeds have been done, mistakes made, conflicts occurred — and yet it does convey something essential about the Middle East and the September 11 attacks, as well as being part of a much broader pattern of how much of the area deals with the United States, Israel, and the West in general.

For example, the most outrageous lies and exaggerations are told in the Arabic-language world about Israel. This material then serves as a basis for explaining that Israel is hated, under constant terrorist attack, and targeted for genocide because of what it does.

But the question remains: does according to whom?

Or consider this question: What’s the main lesson the Middle East has drawn from September 11? That terrorism is bad? Don’t mess with America? Radical Islamism is dangerous and irrational?

Surely, some have done so. Yet probably the dominant idea is that the United States is responsible for the attack on itself. The less “sophisticated” idea, though common among the well-educated, is that the event was a direct conspiracy; the more “educated” notion is as a response to U.S. actions. And this latter concept itself comes in two versions: the more radical (you had it coming to you) and the more moderate (regrettable but necessary).

Just because the Middle East refuses to learn from the experience, however, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t.

First, we should understand that a sphere of dictatorship requires a surrounding universe of lies to protect it. Of course (being a Western thinker requires I engage in self-criticism), that doesn’t mean Western democracies are perfect by any means. But they do try hard, and their systems seek to correct themselves when they make mistakes because democracies have numerous independent people and institutions protected by freedom of speech who can challenge and correct each other, presenting different viewpoints.

In Arabic-speaking states, diversity means a choice between agreeing with the dictatorship or being even more extreme in misrepresenting reality.

Second, this situation is not just a matter of repression or regime misinformation to be corrected by either regime change from outside or massive apologies and concessions. There is a popular base of support for the system based on culture, history, and interpretation of religion which makes such ideas appeal to the masses.

As Tarek Heggy, the most incisive contemporary Arab intellectual, wrote in 1998, “Even the most outlandish statement, if repeated often enough, can…be accepted as true…in a society in which half the population is illiterate and the other half displays only a very modest standard of education…” This situation provides, “A fertile breeding ground for the most untenable, demagogical and unfounded assertions to take root and flourish.”

The only solution is to set different goals and interpretations of the world through rethinking, reform, and education. Western glorifications of the Middle East’s status quo — these are customs which must be preserved, how dare you criticize people’s beliefs and offend their sensibilities? — will merely ensure another century of bloodshed, dictatorship, and poverty.

Third, just because you’re nice and tolerant doesn’t mean you’re wrong. Otherwise, you’ll never understand that just because it is the “other” doesn’t mean it’s wise. No amount of apology or concession will change those who hate you on the basis of ideology and need to hate you to preserve their political, ideological, and cultural system.

Or as former Syrian information minister (note the significance of his past job) Mahdi Daklallah explained recently regarding his regime’s philosophy, “But who cares about the truth?” His words, claiming the United States planned the September 11 attacks, apply much better to the worldview in which he exists: “What is important, always, is the use of the events in order to carry out a strategy planned in advance…”

Fourth, politics happens. The Islamist upsurge is no more a mere reaction to what foreigners have done in the Middle East than was the French revolution (Austria did attack France), Russian Revolution (World War One undermined the Czarist regime), Nazi revolution (the Versailles treaty and indemnities punished Germany and angered its people), and so on.

The point in discussing the distortion of September 11 in the Arabic-speaking world is that the vast majority of issue discussions there are dominated by lies and nonsense. What is needed is to understand the intellectual preconceptions and social-political structures that create this situation.

Reform-minded Arab intellectuals have repeatedly made these points and been ignored, or vilified, for doing so. Shortly after the first anniversary of September 11, the Egyptian writer Abd al-Moneim Said explained the response “was to deny that the perpetrators were Arab and that the event had any connection with Arab society and culture.” Wild conspiracy theories were spread precisely because to confront the tragedy’s implications would require examining real problems “which Arab societies have been so assiduously avoiding.” The more Middle Eastern terrorism spread globally, “the greater was the rush to look the other way.” Five years later, that statement is all the more true.

We hear endlessly that the problem is the West doesn’t understand the Middle East. The truth is the exact opposite: the Middle East doesn’t understand the West and, by the same token, doesn’t understand what it needs to do to get out of the hole it has dug for itself.

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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