Persian Translation

Why We Keep Getting the Middle Eastern World Wrong

April 11, 2003

The Hate-America-International had hoped and prayed for a "Stalingrad 1942" or at least a "Mogadishu 1992" in Baghdad.

This week, however, the Iraqi capital, liberated by the U.S.-led coalition, offered an astonished world a "Paris 1944."

The Hate-America-International, and its unwitting allies, the "useful idiots," had told the world that Iraq would become "another Vietnam," that thousands of "candidates for martyrdom" were lining up for a journey to paradise and the promised 70 "perpetual virgins" and that the so-called "Arab street" would explode, presumably shattering the global system.

(We had, of course, heard all this before, most recently in connection with the war that liberated Afghanistan from the Taliban fascists and their Arab terrorist allies.)

None of that happened.

Saddam Hussein, the latest champion of Hate-America-International, and his fellow rats ran as hard as they could in search of holes in which to hide.

The Western world's apparent inability to understand the Arab countries, and the Muslim world in general, is not solely due to the efforts of Hate-America-International and naive fellow-travellers within the so-called "peace movement."

The roots of misunderstanding go deeper. One such root was created by the old-style Orientalism of the 19th century that grouped a vast chunk of humanity together under the exotic label of "The Orient."

The Orientalists fabricated a world in which fantasy was indistinguishable from reality: a world in which people chopped off heads during the day and read Omar Khayyam, watched a belly dance and drunk wine in the evenings.

By the start of the 20th century that kind of Orientalism had more or less disappeared. The new Orientalists were serious scholars who did much valuable work. But by then a new fog of misunderstanding was covering "The Orient" from another direction. That one came from the Arab Bureau of the British Colonial Office that assumed that all the heads covered by the "towel-like" headgear thought and dreamed alike.

From the 1950s onwards a new layer of confusion was added by "return-ticket" revolutionaries, Western leftists who dreamed of a revolution in the Third World because they knew that their own fat, conservative societies would no longer storm any Bastilles or operate any guillotines. They resembled ageing voyeurs who, afflicted by impotence, draw pleasure from watching young lovers from a peephole.

I remember Michel Foucault, a French philosopher, who came to Tehran in 1978 to watch our "revolution." He loved every moment of it.

"Here we have the explosion of spirituality in the street," he opined. "In the West we have nothing but crass materialism."

But when the mullahs started shooting people by the thousands, and hanging gay men, including one of the Frenchman's Iranian lovers, in public, Foucault was outraged.

"The revolution has been sullied," he moaned, as if any revolution could be immaculate.

Then we have the roving "specialists" who spend a few days each year in this or that Arab or other Muslim capital (depending on who gives them a visa), talk to the taxi driver and a few officials and return to write a series of authoritative articles.

The cumulative result of all this is the caricature of Arabs and Muslims who are supposed be:

1. Extremely religious

2. Extremely angry about whatever happens to be the subject of the day. (Their "street" is always about to explode but doesn't!)

3. Drunk with the idea of Palestine and hatred of Israel and the United States

4. Incapable of conceiving of politics beyond terrorism, suicide-attacks, and war.

Once such a caricature is established, two opposite ways of dealing with it are proposed.

One is to press a gun to the caricature's temple, push its back to the wall, and force it to submit to the will of the West, whatever it happens to be.

The other is to recall "the crimes of Colonialism and Imperialism," blame the West for the caricature's supposed "suffering and humiliation," and regard even the most vicious behaviour by Arabs and Muslims as "legitimate responses to injustice."

(If Saddam Hussein kills the Kurds in Halabja with chemical weapons, it is because the Arabs are "angry and humiliated about Palestine." If Hafez al-Assad massacres dissidents in Hama, it is because Israel wants to annex the Syrian Golan Heights. If the Egyptian ruling elite is plundering the nation, it is because the Arab masses are humiliated by Israel. And so on.)

In both cases the Arabs, and Muslims in general, are assumed to belong not to humanity as a whole but to a special category in which they are either abused or flattered.

This is why Islam is the only religion that cannot be subjected to a normal critique in the West. It is presented either as the sole source of all that is noble and beautiful (for example it gave the West all science and philosophy!) or as the embodiment of all that is evil and ugly.

The illusion that there is a uniform Arab or Muslim world is, in part, fostered by the existence of such toothless bodies as the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). These have virtually no authority, even as debating societies. They are bureaucracies to provide sinecures for ageing politicians whose governments want to get rid of them with dignity.

The Arab League has 22 members some of which, like Somalia, Jibouti and the Comores, are not even Arabic-speaking. In others such as Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya there are large communities of Berbers with their own languages and cultures. At least 25% of Iraq's population are not ethnic Arabs.

The standard Arabic used in the media as a lingua franca is hardly spoken by any Arab at home.

Although the Arabs are predominantly Muslims, they are divided into numerous sects (madhahib) and ways (tariqats). There are also substantial communities of Christians, notably in Egypt, the Sudan and Lebanon. Iraq is home to 18 different religious communities.

There are other differences.

The so-called Arab World includes some of the world's smallest states: for example Qatar with a native population of 60,000, and some of the largest, for example Egypt with almost 75 million people.

At one end of the spectrum there is the United Arab Emirates, with income per head figures of around $20,000 per annum. At the opposite end there is Yemen, with a GNP per head of $400 a year.

While 80% of Arabs survive on less than $2 a day, the so-called Arab World is also home to thousands of billionaires. (A few hundred metres from Saddam's super-luxurious palaces in Baghdad, for example, one finds the shanty town of Madinat al-Thawrah.)

Some of the world's most brutal regimes are found in the Arab world. Saddam's was certainly the worst but not the only one. But there are also Arab countries, notably in the Persian Gulf, plus Jordan and Morocco, that are close to average for Third World nations in terms of respect for human rights.

The Arab states are also a diverse lot when it comes to the political system. There are absolute monarchies, constitutional monarchies, emirates, sheikdoms, military juntas, one-party states, pluralist regimes and even sectarian systems. Some organize more or less clean elections. In others the sole candidates of the regime always win with 99.99% of the votes.

Most of the wars the Arab states have been involved in since independence have been among themselves. Apart from the four wars in which Israel has been involved since 1948, a further 11 wars have been fought between various Arab states.

Even when it comes to the issue of Palestine, there has never been a unified Arab position. Today six members of the Arab League have full diplomatic relations with Israel while five others maintain de facto contacts with it.

A similar account could be given of the so-called Muslim World. The 57 countries that form the membership of the OIC are too diverse to be considered as a bloc on any issue. The OIC has failed even to harmonize Islamic religious dates and foster agreement on such issues as the Haj pilgrimage quotas and procedures.

To pretend that Malaysia, Turkey, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Nigeria pursue the same national strategies simply because they are members of the OIC is, if anything, laughable. It is like saying that Norway and the Philippines will behave in the same way on all key issues because a majority of their respective populations are Christian.

(Incidentally, today there are more Muslims in the United States, France and Germany than in almost half of the OIC's member states.)

The so-called Arab World and Muslim World are as diverse and divided as the so-called West. On the issue of how to deal with Saddam Hussein, for example, France and Germany, both allies of the United States and Britain, waged a veritable diplomatic war to prevent the removal of the despot by force. Six Arab and nine other Muslim countries, however, gave the U.S.-led coalition practical help in their campaign against Saddam.

Here is another example: France has a far more active anti-Israeli policy than, say, Morocco, an Arab monarchy, or Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country.

The issue of Palestine, for example, is about land, borders, water resources and statehood, and not a religious feud between Islam and Judaism.

The wisest way to deal with Arab and Muslim countries is to deal with them as individual nation-states and on the basis of real issues and interests. The world could not be divided between Arab and non-Arab or Muslim and non-Muslim. Each nation must be judged by, and treated in accordance with, international law and accepted practice, and not on the basis of real or imaginary linguistic or religious affiliations.

Being Arab or Muslim should not confer any particular advantage or opprobrium on any state.

Those who uphold secularism within their own societies, cannot discard it when it comes to treating other nations in the international life-space.

Amir Taheri is an Iranian author of 10 books on the Middle East and Islam.

Other article: Is Democracy a cheap import?