Friday, May 27, 2011

What is the Political Difference Between The West and Middle East

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By Barry Rubin

In the West, moderate democracy--somewhere between social democrats and conservatives--trumps militant nationalism and religion (Christianity) every time. It wasn't like that in 1930, it wasn't like that in 1830, or 1530, but it has been like that since 1945.

Westerners think, living in this environment, that everyone is like them (or basically like them, or behind all of those colorful customs, costumes, and food they are really just like them).

But in the Muslim-majority Middle East generally, militant nationalism and religion (Islam) trumps moderate democracy. The main elements are: radical nationalists, Islamists, with some neo-Marxist leftism thrown in.

By 2050--more likely 2100 or thereafter--the Middle East may be like the West in 2011. But in political terms it is more like the West in 1930 or 1830.

To quote the poet John Keats:

"that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

What was Keats writing about? The poem, "Ode on a Grecian Urn," published in 1820. He was in awe of the artistic power of ancient Greece. If you've never seen one of those magnificent urns in the British Museum then you've missed something about the power of Western cultural experience.

Western culture and society largely stands on two legs: Classical culture and philosophy and the Bible. But that's another story.

The same discovery that Keats romanticized (hah, good pun!) helped make possible the developments in Western philosophy, the arts, literature, and worldview that laid the basis for both democracy and scientific progress.

William Shakespeare and the roots of the Elizabeathan cultural and scientific explosion was based on the first generation of school boys who studied ancient Greece and Rome. In those days they still cut off people's heads and you had to be a Protestant adhering to the Anglican church to get a college degree. But it was the beginning of change in a better direction.

Guess what? The Muslim-majority Middle East are also having their Keats' moment. They are seeking ancient solutions for modern problems. But that tradition is not one of Aristotle, Plato, and Sophicles. Nor is it the one of John Locke, John Adams, John Stuart Mill, or even John Maynard Keynes or of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, or Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (better known as Moliere).

Rather than a Grecian urn, they are contemplating their ancient glories from the seventh century. It is just as legitimate but the results are somewhat different. This is truly "multi-culturalism" in action. The far left has hijacked liberalism but the Islamists have not exactly hijacked Islam. They are drawing on valid (though not the only) interpretations.

A comparable example: in reviving the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome, Keats could have been writing an ode to Caligula or Nero, or feeding Jews and Christian to the lions for sport.

Here's the ridiculous contradiction at the heart of the mainstream Western interpretation of the modern Middle East by the dominant leftists-pretending-to-be-liberals. I'll do it in the Greek philosophical style

Proposition One: All peoples are different. They have their own history, culture, religion, and values. All of these are equally true and valid.

Proposition Two: The Arab and Muslim societies of the Middle East think basically as we do. The average person just wants a nice house, an energy-efficient automobile, and a good education for their children in a peaceful world. The politically active person will naturally see the best system as democracy, the past approach as moderation, will revere peace over war, and will be tolerant of the "other."

See the contradiction? You can't have both. If proposition one is true, then proposition two must be false. Either societies are very different or they aren't. Which is it?

There is a way out of this problem. It's called "time." If the England of 1500 cut off heads and persecuted other religions and the modern Middle East does so, it also can move forward. Though that problem of history and tradition slows things up considerably.

At any rate, on the rollercoaster of Middle East history the train is about to lurch down, leaving our stomachs--but hopefully not our heads--somewhat behind. Western governments think the ride is over. They want to unbuckle their seatbelts, stand up and take in the fresh air.

Of the picture on the urn, Keats wrote:

"Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands dressed?"

Why is there a rift between Israel and Obama? Because we were the heifer last time. We aren't being led to that green altar (how appropriate the color for today in two respects! The last time it was "brown" and then they tried to fool us with a "red" altar).

So who's being led by that mysterious priest this time?

Answer: The Western democratic states. Just say Obamoo.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, and a featured columnist at PajamasMedia His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is His PajamaMedia columns are mirrored and other articles available at

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