Here and there... mostly there

July 12, 2004

Not so fast...

This post is republished from about just a year ago. In looking it over while revitalizing this blog, I decided that it's still germane and still accurate. This blog will be doing less reporting on the Middle East: you can find my stuff on Saudi Arabia at my Crossroads Arabia site. This blog will be more domestically oriented, and a lot more opinionated.

Den Beste's Strategic Overview is a pretty amazing document. It clearly took a lot of time and work, though gauging by other "USS Clueless" blog entries, logorrhea is part of the Den Beste package.

What's most amazing about it is that it is so wrong. Here and there, there are obvious facts, recycled from other neo-con blogs, from materials found on the MEMRI website, and regurgitated factoids from a limited range of readings on the Middle East. What it lacks is any sense of the real Middle East or Islamic world. Third-hand information just doesn't hack it here, but it's all Den Beste has to offer.

From the viewpoint of the West, Arab culture is clearly in an eddy of the currents of history. From the Arab point of view, though, it's a somewhat different and more complicated story.

Den Beste wants Muslims to acclaim separation of church and state, to immediately see its inherent superiority. Funnily enough, Muslims don't quite see it that way. They cannot imagine--most of them--a world in which the church does not play a central role in life, political and social. They can't see why one would want to put a distance between man and God, particularly when God gave them clear guidelines on how to live political and social lives. While I personally think the separation of church and state, as well as disestablishment, is among the finest elements of the American Constitution, this American recognition did not spring up from nowhere. It took time for us to get there, as well as a lot of bad experiences that ranged over centuries.

That's not been the case in the Islamic world. Until recently, the Islamic state worked pretty well. People of various ethnic groups (as well as religious groups) generally got along. There were few internecine wars--and almost none of them gravitated around religion. People got on with their lives in a clearly understood world.

Now, that's not working so well. But it's not going to be changed with a dose of salts administered by the Den Bestes of the world. It is only going to come from internal change. That change will not take centuries, but it will probably take decades.

Den Beste's rant on "collective failure" is heavily qualified: he knows he doesn't have the facts, but maybe he can get by with a casual smear. Well, he can't.

Yes, parts of the Islamic world are blessed with mineral wealth, particularly petroleum. But most aren't. Yes, that was clearly a matter of luck, the same luck that saw Pennsylvania and Texas get 19th Century economic jump-starts. Most of the Arab oil states, though, used that luck to try and build modern infrastructures for their people: schools, roads, hospitals, drinking water, etc. Some, like Iraq, built armies instead. Secular Iraq, please note. Secular Iran under the Shah, please note. You don't read about vast Saudi, Qatari, Emirati and Indonesian armies for a reason; they didn't build huge armies.

As for contributions to international science and engineering, you only have to look in the right places. Many Arab and Muslim scientists have made great marks, most often when working in more developed Western laboratories. But even within the Muslim world, strides are being made. The world's first uterine transplant was first accomplished this year, in Saudi Arabia. A look at the King Faisal Award winners. (this link cites current winners, but can link back to earlier ones) might shed some light. But maybe not...

No arts and letters? I guess that depends where you look, too. Plastic arts are not prevalent in the Muslim world, particularly as they are religiously prohibited. But for every Orthodox Jewish sculptor Den Beste cares to name, I can come up with the name of a Muslim of equal renown.

No literature? Well, discounting a Nobel Prize in Literature won by the Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz a few years back, Den Beste is on stronger ground. But maybe part of that is because, amazingly, Arab writers write in Arabic, which is what their readers read. There's not a whole lot of translation from Arabic going on. It took me a while to figure out that "Most famous Muslim writer" meant Salman Rushdie. Rushdie, an Indo-Pakistani, was born Muslim, but is not Muslim other than in name. He lives in the West and writes in English. He wrote a tendentious book that fed the growing flames of Islamic fundamentalism. Most Islamic countries simply banned the book. Iran decided to issue a fatwa, which has since been rescinded. But who says he's the "most famous?" According to whom? He writes for Western audiences, not Middle Eastern, Arab or Muslim audiences. If the measure of importance is its place on the NY Times best-seller list, then I guess there aren't any Arab books of importance.

It's nice to see innocent minds at work, sometimes. But Den Beste's idea that the Middle East is important only because it has oil is simply naive. He may want to take a little look at a map sometime, and then talk to a logistician involved in moving USAF planes around the world. And while he may think little of the religion of 1.8 billion people, he may want to ask them about the "diplomatic relevance" of Mecca and Medina.

Den Beste has a little too high an opinion of the U.S.: America is not the enemy of Islam. It is, however, the symbol of the enemy. The enemy is a culture that goes face-to-face with another culture that has somehow managed to exist successfully for some 1,400 years. That culture, Islamic culture, has had its ups and downs; right now, it's pretty down. But a culture trying to hold onto its values in the face of external change isn't something to simply dismiss. Cultural changes take time and, again, they have to take place from within. Changes can be encouraged from outside, they can be rewarded from outside. But they must first be identified from inside and then modified. Change is not easy for anyone. But it only happens quickly in instances of total conquest. While Den Beste hints around at this, it's pretty clear that he hasn't thought it out well. Let's see what happens in Iraq first. Let's see how long the U.S. and what partners we can get stick around to make sure the changes are permanent before we take on a third of the globe.

I have no idea where Den Beste gets his ideas about Islam. It's clear he's read a few books, but he could expand his reading list beyond the narrow one he evinces. He might try reading what some Muslims have to say about it. Or, he could even look at what some more-or-less disinterested Westerners have written. I strongly recommend Maxim Rodinson's Muhammad for a start. As a Marxist atheist, Rodison doesn't have any parochial axes to grind.

The Arab and Muslim world is every much undergoing a "clash of civilizations", but not the capitalized one that Samuel Huntington proffers Instead, it is a much more traditional clash, where new methods and philosophies successfully challenge existing modes of life and thought. We've seen it in the Arab world before, witness the Mahdi in Sudan. But we see it also in the Ghost Dance of the 19th Century American Plains or the Christian re-awakenings of early and late 20th Century America. We see it in the cargo cults of the South Pacific as well as in the religious cults of Czarist Russia.

The old ways aren't working anymore, so something must be wrong. One of the time-honored ways of countering cultural clashes is getting back to that "old time religion", i.e. "fundamentalism". It's exactly what the Hindu fundamentalists in India are doing right now. It's also what Islamic, Jewish and Christian fundamentalists are attempting.

This is not a successful strategy primarily because it harkens back to a golden age that never was. But that does not stop people from trying. No amount of external "enlightenment" will get them over the hump, either. "Enlightenment at the end of a two-by-four", I'm sure plays into Den Beste's idea of a muscular foreign policy. But only time and experience will provide a solution.

Far too much is made of the idea of cultural "jealousy". The Arab states don't have major problems with modernity. They want it and they can get it easily enough. They just don't want the cultural baggage that seems to be attached to it in the West. Things like pornography, domestic violence, rape, high murder rates, and disrespect for authority are all things they'd rather avoid. So far, they've managed to avoid them pretty well, but they're losing the battle and they know it. If they can find a way to separate the good of modernization from the bad of Westernization, they'd like to do that. They're trying to find that way and doing a mixed job of it.

I'll forgo commenting on Den Beste's little fugue into the world of security affairs. He's reading it from the neo-con text, so I won't hold him personal responsible, even if it's simplistic beyond utility. His analysis of the whys and wherefores of the war in Iraq are just the usual tripe pulled off websites. And it's a bit churlish to ignore coalition partners like Poland and the Czech Republic who were there from the start.

Where Den Beste's "analysis" of the Middle East is most uninformed by experience, though, is in his ideas about Palestinian-Israeli issues. Whether he likes it or not, this is the issue that drives anti-American sentiment in the region, as he could learn from any amount of time spent with Arabs. Trying to de-link it is nonsense. The problem is that there are two people trying to share a single piece of ground. Like it or not, the people who call themselves Palestinians were there in large numbers, sharing the lands with a very small Jewish population in the 1930s and 40s.

Arabs simply do not like the fact that their Arab cousins got shoved off their land by another group, mostly European. It was not, as Zionist propaganda of the time put it, "A land without people for a People without a Land". Arabs don't understand why they had to pay for the crimes committed against European Jews in Europe, by Europeans. And as an object lesson, they did learn in the late 1940s that terrorism can be a successful policy; it worked very well for the Stern Gang, after all.

But the Arab world, excepting a few zealots (a nice Biblical word), have faced reality: they know that Israel is here to stay. But they don't like it, nor will they like it for a long time. They truly feel victimized by the imposition of an alien state in their midst. They will begrudgingly accept Israel as a neighbor.

But for most Arabs, it is not the politics that count, per se. What does matter is what the see in their daily newspapers and satellite TV: pictures of Palestinian children torn apart physically by weapons either made in Israel or the U.S. Those pictures say more than the traditional thousand words: they speak of horror.

I know fully well that the horror extends to Israeli children and others caught up in the suicide bombings, but we do not see those pictures. I doubt that the Arab media would be much inclined to show casualties of the "enemy" but my point is that those pictures are not even available. We in the West don't want to see dead bodies (witness the editorial tizzy surrounding showing pictures of the dead Uday and Qusay). When a bomb goes off in Israel, the area is cordoned off to the media for a two-block radius. At most, we see pictures of body bags and a blood stain. But in the U.S., we don't even want that much.

Sept. 11 is a telling example. On the 11th, TV ran pictures of people falling or jumping from the WTC. By Sept. 12, those pictures were deemed "inappropriate" and were taken off the air. The only body we saw was that of Father Michal, carried by the firemen he served. No blood, no body parts, nothing too ugly. In terms of imagery, Sept. 11 was antiseptic.

But Muslims seem to have a different attitude toward death: once a person dies, what is left is pure matter; there is no spiritual essence left. Thus, a body can be shown to make a political point. And they are shown, often and widely. Arab media, as well as the Internet, and e-mailed Power Point presentations, have no qualms about showing pictures that could never be shown in the West. Children with large parts of their heads missing; little girls with their brains and guts spread across the street; babies with bullet holes in their backs. In the face of these pictures, there is just no place for political discourse. There is room only for anger, rage and frustration.

The Arab media have done a bad job in achieving either objectivity or the education of their readership and viewers. They go instead for the emotive and they hit that target consistently. Is this wrong? Only in the sense that it does not tell the full story. What story it tells, though, is real and honest. This is at least one, true part of the story of what goes on in Palestinian areas. I'm sure we'd all rather that the story be balanced by the terror, horror and tragedy of both sides. That will happen one day, but not today.

Media in the Arab world are not the state-controlled entities they were even ten years ago. The Internet and satellite TV have seen to that. It is no longer possible to control information; information is free of political restraint in almost every sense. Arab journalists still have to contend with petty bureaucracies, there's no doubt. But more than state pressure, there is popular pressure on what and how they report. People on the whole don't want "bad news" whether they're in the U.S. or Arabia. They don't want to be daily challenged in their assumptions and beliefs. Adventurous journalists have more to fear from disgruntled readers than they do state control.

The Arab world is in crisis, as is the Muslim world. They have let antiquated political structures run too long, unchallenged and unchanged. But there is also incredible ferment in those worlds today. Women are demanding greater say in their lives and politics. Parents are insisting on good, broad educations. There are steps being taken, even in the most traditional of Arab societies, to make government more representative, transparent and responsible. Whether these steps are enough is still in question.

There is terrific societal inertia to be overcome. People are mostly happy doing things the way they've always done them, accepting change when it was clearly in their benefit. The benefits of modernization are not always clear, though, and people react to change they believe is being imposed from above or outside. Time, education and experience will provide the answers.

What should not be in question, though, is the ability of the U.S. to simply come in and enforce change in favorable directions.