Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Middle East’s Disease Infects the West; The West Feeds the Middle East’s Irrationalism

By Barry Rubin

If you want to understand the Middle East, don’t read the Western media, read Arab writers like Mshari Al-Zaydi. His September 9, 2009, op-ed in Al-Sharq al-Awsat, "They Feed Our Illusions," is aimed at those who write or speak in Arabic about how all the problems of the Arabic-speaking world is the fault of those who don’t live there (Israel, the West, conspiracies).

If this were to be true a solution would require not reform within the Arab-majority countries (democracy, human rights, equality for women, etc.) but merely a struggle to defeat the external enemies. That is, of course, precisely what happens.

Zaydi is inveighing against conspiracy theories, particularly regarding the September 11 attacks, whose anniversary prompted the article. It speaks volumes, for example, that Muhammad Husanayn Haykal, the Egyptian who many routinely say is the best journalist in the history of the Arabic press, claimed shortly after the attack that it was carried out not by radical Islamist followers of Usama bin Ladin but by Serbian nationalists

Of course, Zaydi says, all societies have conspiracy theorists and irrational people. But:

"Societies that are free of injured pride…and regrets of being backward in civilization do not allow such people to make decisions on important and sensitive issues. In these societies, such issues are studied with complete, or as close as possible to complete, objectivity–so as to protect the state and decision-making from the impact of fleeting emotional [reactions].”

He suggests:

“While facing up to the truth is bitter and painful, it is temporary bitterness and pain that will soon go away–and putting up with that is better and more beneficial than resorting to intellectual drugs and evasion tricks."

This is quite true, though it is a point made by other reform-minded and liberal Arab thinkers, notably Tarek Heggy, But what fascinates me is how the points Zaydi make also apply to Western coverage, of which it can also be said, “They feed our illusions.”

Here’s how it works. The Arab world produces wild stories and conspiracy theories which are now given credence in the Western media and academia. Not only do they influence Western thinking but they also “replay” back to the Arab world and reinforce fantasies there.

Some stories are too absurd to get much attention in the West—for example persistent claims in Egypt, among Palestinians, and elsewhere that Israel is distributing aphrodisiac gum. The same generally holds for Hamas’s claim that Jews have been behind all modern wars, control the world’s media (that’s a laugh!), and conspire to seize power throughout the globe (or have already done so).

The fact that Fatah unanimously voted—not a single speaker contested this idea—that Israel poisoned former leader Yasir Arafat should suggest that the organization suffers from a form of institutional insanity. And one cannot make peace, hand over a state, or deal rationally with an organization in the throes of such an inability to deal with the real world.

At other times, even far-out scenarios get some attention.

For example, claims that Israel’s army was killing Palestinians in order to sell their organs—a rather typical crazed conspiracy story—gained total credibility on the part of a fanatically anti-Israel Swedish reporter who received funding from the Swedish government. He submitted an article to a fanatically anti-Israel Swedish features’ editor who prominently published it. The chief editor, whatever his personal views, didn’t seem to care particularly about the story’s accuracy.

This was a ludicrous blood libel but now, as a result of the article in the Swedish newspaper, it is circulating inside the Arabic-speaking world, with the Palestinian Authority officially calling for an investigation. It is unlikely that any investigation it carries out will not conclude that the tale is a true one.

The most popular stories in the Western world, however, are ones that seem superficially more credible. Countries don’t distribute aphrodisiac gum or kill people to sell their organs. But some countries do murder civilians in cold blood and torture people. (Ironically, most likely the kind of countries that accuse Israel of doing so.)

So here’s how it works: if bad people do x and Israelis are bad people then—such is the level of contemporary logic among large portions of the intelligentsia—Israel must be doing x.

Of course, what’s supposed to happen is that a) one has to conclude dispassionately that Israelis have proven themselves evil and b) that there is specific, credible evidence they have done some particular such act. The two-stage process—both parts of which have been abandoned—is supposed to be a safeguard against making a mistake, something the slanderers don’t care about whatsoever.

In recent months, these types of stories have revolved around alleged Israeli war crimes during the fighting in the Gaza Strip. No material evidence has been offered, just testimony by Palestinians highly motivated to spread such tales and processed by those motivated not by professional ethics but by a desire to score political points. These tales circulate back through the Arab world, reinforcing existing beliefs, hatred, intransigence, and a passion for revenge there.

Today, in many classrooms of North American and European universities, these kinds of explanations, lies, and conspiracy theories (at least those less obviously crazed) are taught to a whole generation of students. A fairly large proportion of them are likely to believe these lies.

Specific examples I have heard either first-hand or from credible students who were present are shocking. After such an “education,” the unfortunate recipient is certainly incapable of understanding the region or comprehending what is likely to happen here in future.

What is striking is how easily many of them are disproven. For example, a petition submitted to the Toronto film festival claims Tel Aviv was built on the ruins of Arab villages. As a Tel Aviv resident, I can state that this is simply untrue. There are no such villages and the city existed four decades before 1948. But, of course, no actual villages are named or proof supplied. It is not hard to establish that this claim is false. When the “intellectual immune system” of Western societies still existed, such stories would have been completely discredited within 24 hours.

Rather than help deal with the Arabic-speaking world’s psychological malformation, much of the West—ironically among what are supposedly the “best and brightest” minds—have caught the same disease. This epidemic has also shown that a specific malady long-present in the West and thought to have been cured, namely antisemitism, was merely in remission and the infection has broken out afresh.

The reaction in the Arabic-speaking world tends to be, of course, if the West says it then it must be true. Of course, this means that those in the West who pose as defenders of the downtrodden back the very dictators and totalitarian movements which are doing the downtrodding. Rather than helping the victims of “intellectual drugs,” these Westerners become “drug pushers” selling heroin to societies which are already suffering from all the aspects of being “junkies”: unnecessary impoverishment, the inability to get their lives on track, hallucinations, a failure to form beneficial and stable relationships, the commission of crimes, and of course death.

One day will this terrible irony be understood and mourned? That the greatest danger the West has done the Middle East is none of those real or imagined deeds one hears so much about but rather from being an enabler of the real addiction keeping Arabic-speaking and Muslim-majority countries and their people doomed to so much unnecessary suffering.

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), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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