Welcome to MEWorld
MEWorld stands for Middle East world. It is a realm with its own ideas where the scientific laws of the rest of the world might stand but the political and intellectual standards appl ied elsewhere just don't happen that way.
Let's begin your visit with a very mild example of what happens when tourists encounter MEWorld. Here is a quote from the New York Times of November 12, 2008, chosen pretty much at random. The author is one of the better reporters covering the region; the topic is the Israeli mayor's election in Jerusalem. See if you can spot the problem:
"Palestinians in East Jerusalem have consistently boycotted city elections in the belief that participating would be tantamount to recognizing Israeli sovereignty.'
If you can understand why this sentence is off it is possible that you might comprehend the Middle East.
The assumption in the sentence is that Palestinians are, like the Western readers, people who live in a social and intellectual atmosphere of free will in which individual decisions are made on the basis of rational calculation. The process goes something like this:
Version A: Khalid: "I'm thinking of voting in the election because I want better schools and roads."
Version B: Khalid: "I'm thinking of voting in the election because I want a candidate to win who will be more dovish and will favor giving this part of the city to a Palestinian state as part of a comprehensive two-state solution."
This is the kind of process which a Western reader would expect. It implies mas sive voluntary action on the basis of choice. After all, the individual "Palestinians" have a "belief."
In practice, the real issue is that before the decision not to vote is made the Palestinians in east Jerusalem are told:
"Anyone who votes is a traitor. If you vote it is against Islam and you are a heretic; it is against our people, and you are a monster. And if you do vote and we find out about it we will boycott your business, shun you personally, and perhaps someone with a big club will smash down your door one night and hit you upside the head until you pass out or die."
In MEWorld, every Palestinian knows this and the message is repeated before each election. Of course, even without threats not all the Palestinian residents would vote but perhaps, 20 or 30 or 40 percent would.
After I wrote this article I came upon Khaled Abu Toameh's piece on the same story in the Jerusalem Post. After making the same point the Times did, he added--which the Times did not mention--the following:
"The PA issued several warnings to the Arab residents not to participate in the election. Issam Abu Rmaileh, a shopkeeper, said he didn't vote because he was afraid that PA activists would harm him. `I heard that they were standing outside the voting centers and threatening people who wanted to come and vote,' he said. `I would have liked to vote becau se it's in our interest, but who's going to protect me and my family afterwards?'...
"Graffiti painted overnight on the walls also warned the Arabs against participating in the election. The warnings were issued by masked men belonging to various Palestinian factions, including Hamas and Fatah."
If you don't understand the reality of dictatorial behavior, threats of violence, and a social pressure that forces conformity, anything else that happens in the region is a mystery to you.
Now you are ready for a more advanced course in MEWorld. Let me stress that the following is not typical but it is revealing. On November 12, 2008, MEMRI published its video clip No. 1903 which you can see here: http://www.memritv.org/clip/en/1903.htm. It is from a television show aired on October 31, 2008. First, I will tell you what it says which is profoundly shocking. But then I will give you seven reasons why it is far more shocking than you thought.
The person being interviewed proposes that Arab men sexually harass Israeli women as a new means of resistance against Israel. "They are fair game for all Arabs," the interviewee explains, because they "rape the land" by their very existence.
Might this cause a legal problem if an Egyptian or Jordanian rapes an Israeli tourist? No problem, the interviewee explains, "Most Arab=2 0countries do not have sexual harassment laws. Therefore, if [Arab women] are fair game for Arab men, there is nothing wrong with Israeli women being fair game as well."
If an Israeli woman is threatened, abused, or harassed, she has no right to defend herself. They are merely being given a choice: "Leave the land so we won't rape you."
Now you might say that is pretty shocking. Even in the context of Arab political discussion, the above-quoted position is very different. There are many Arabs who would disagree and even ridicule such an idea.
And yet it still tells us a great deal about mainstream thinking and the weakness of moderation. Consider these points:
- The person saying this, Nagla al-Imam is a woman. She obviously has no idea of women's solidarity. Nationalism and religion come first. Her priority is not to demand stronger laws in her country to protect women but the exploitation of such law's absence to lower the level of treatment for all women. The philosophy is: It doesn't matter if you abuse me if you treat the Israelis even worse. Don't take that idea lightly, it defines how millions of people behave.
- She is a young woman. The optimistic idea that time is inevitably bringing about moderation is just plain wrong. All too often, the younger generation--especially since it is imbued with Islamist ideas and much more intensively20propagandized--is more extreme than its parents. I remember here the anecdote, and this is not a joke but a real story, in which a Saudi girl pretended to play Brittany Spears records to appease her wealthy, educated parents but when they weren't around put on radical Islamist diatribes about martyrdom by becoming a suicide bomber.
- She is a secular young woman, obviously not, judging from her rhetoric and clothing, an Islamist or even a traditionalist living in a previous century. Thus, while Islamists are most radical, their basic thinking is often duplicated by Arab nationalists and permeates among the less pious as well.
- She is a lawyer, meaning she has a high level of modern education and intelligence. She is of the middle class at least and not an illiterate peasant or fanatical cleric. While people in the West are still babbling that poverty causes terrorism, the most extreme are often the best-off and most-schooled. Being poor usually requires spending most of your time in the practical pursuit of economic survival. Education does not necessarily mean discovering the wider world and the humanity of the "other." It teaches people to hate systematically and justify their inner beast with an ideological gloss.
- She is from Egypt, not Saudi Arabia. Egypt is a country which has been formally at peace with Israel for almost thirty years and an ally of the United States. Extremism is found in all Arab states. Even the most moderate either refrain from opposing such ideas to avoid confrontation or--more often--actively fomenting them to muster popular support and a blind eye toward their own failings.
- The interview appeared on al-Arabiyya, arguably the most moderate of the main Arab satellite television stations. The opinion spectrum is much skewed to one side. This is clear on al-Jazira television programs where there is a moderate and a radical speaker, followed by phone-ins during which every single caller favors the extremist position and the host insults the moderate to side with the radical guest.
- The interviewer asked reasonable questions but did not seem to find this suggestion shockingly extreme or something that had to be angrily rejected. People are not signaled toward moderation by their political leaders, teachers, clerics, intellectuals, and other authority figures. On the contrary, these are often sources for the most violent, hate-filled, and anti-reality ideas.
Now, if you believe that MEWorld is going to make peace with Israel, love America, and become democratic or moderate in the near-term future--even to please President Barry Obama-- consider the intellectual, political culture, and social atmosphere that breeds Nagla al-Imam as a person who thinks as she does even though she fits the profile of someone who should be, according to the conception of reality held in WestWorld, a booste r of the opposite worldview.
The same applies if you think you are going to win over such people and their societies by kind words, apologies, concessions, appeasement, confidence-building measures, or even dramatic policy shifts.
"Oh you, who philosophize disgrace/And criticize all fears/Take the rag away from your face/Now ain't the time for your tears." --Bob Dylan
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs 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 Dem ocracy in the Middle East (Wiley).
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