Friday, October 23, 2009

Middle East: Listen to What They're Saying, in their own language, not English

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By Barry Rubin

Here’s a tip for understanding the Middle East. For Arabic-speaking countries and groups, there are two parallel lines of discourse going on: one in English, one in Arabic. The English-language one is directed outward at the West; the Arabic-speaking is for the direction of policymakers, opinionmakers, and the masses. Not surprisingly, the first is more moderate; the latter, more radical.

The exact proportions vary with each country or movement. But even in Egypt, a large-scale recipient of U.S. aid, the state-controlled newspapers publish an almost unending stream of anti-American hate propaganda. A key problem, however, is that most Western policymakers, opinionmakers, and journalists either don't take non-English talk seriously or aren't even aware of it.

In contrast, democratic states like Israel or America says basically the same thing in both languages, with at most very small variations. Perhaps that's one reason why many or most Westerners aren't aware of the wide gap that exists in other societies.

The variation between true and false discourse—though sometimes in the same language—is, of course, quite ancient. In the "Communist Manifesto" of 1848, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote:

“The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution.”

But this was before the Age of Public Relations. Even the Communists quickly became masters of saying two contradictory things simultaneously. If they were still around today the Communists would have defined themselves as a race and called anyone who opposed them a racist or, more likely, would have coined the term Communophobia. But I digress.

Here’s a fun example of how doublespeak is done:

The Soviet leadership addressing the Polish people in 1920:

“Our enemies and yours deceive you when they say that the Soviet government wishes to plant communism in Polish soil with the bayonets of the Red Army.”

And now here’s the Soviet leadership addressing the Red Army in 1920:

“Over the corpse of Poland lies the road to world revolution. On bayonets we will bring happiness and peace to laboring humanity.”

I think you get the point. Back to the Middle East of today. The more radical the group—as with Hamas or al-Qaida, for example--the higher the proportion of radical statements made in English. They just don’t care. Hizballah is a little more devious.

As for Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a member of the Communist Manifesto school on that one, but Tehran gets a lot of mileage with a relatively few lies.

But why do should we believe the Arabic more than the English? Let me limit the answer to three of the most important points:

First, the Arabic dialogue establishes the main principles and the limits of what is acceptable. An example is the Palestinian debate. How is the Palestinian Authority going to accept a two-state solution based on ending the conflict, security guarantees, and settling all Palestinians in their own state if nobody even dares say that in Arabic? Exceeding the boundaries can get you killed, cost you your position, have you branded a traitor, and give your enemies ammunition against you.

For a Palestinian politician to say that Israel has ever done anything good and honestly seeks compromise peace is something like a Republican male politician putting on a dress and marching down the street with a poster proclaiming the virtues of Joseph Stalin. In Mississippi. On the Fourth of July. In the middle of an American Legion picnic.

That’s why it is almost impossible to find a moderate statement by any Palestinian leader in Arabic—and I’ve read many thousands of them. Two examples come to mind: when Arafat was making a televised speech from Gaza which he knew was being closely watched and an angry Palestinian general when they entered Hebron complaining that people who committed terrorist acts caused damage to the economy.

During the peace process era, by the way, when Arafat was to give a speech in front of an American Jewish audience, leaders of a dovish Jewish group edited the lecture to make it more palatable. That’s what I mean by lying for peace. Thinking that if you misrepresent the facts on the basis of wishful thinking somehow everything will work out ok in the end.

Second, discussion in Arabic encompasses a huge volume of statements made in all sorts of situations. In contrast, each English-language remark is crafted with a specific purpose in mind—to communicate to Western public opinion or governments.

Third, experience shows overwhelmingly that what is said in Arabic corresponds to what countries and groups actually do.

I fondly recall my biggest success ever with the New York Times. Meeting with an open-minded journalist, I pulled out a huge pile of translations from the Arabic—U.S. government ones from the Foreign Broadcast Information Service which in the pre-computer era used to take up large spaces on my bookshelves—and showed him what was actually being said by Palestinian groups, far more hardline than the American media was reporting. He wrote up a front-page piece on it. Ah, those were the days!

Today, MEMRI plays a very important role in bringing the Arabic discourse to Western attention. In fact, it has been so successful precisely because these facts are so distant from what is expected and reported in the media. Not only does it translate the many extremist statements but also the far fewer moderate writers who say divergent things.

Now, here’s why you have to study carefully the primary sources (original, Arabic-language material and not just what the Western media say). Someone always spills the beans. After all, you have to keep the troops’ morale high and prove you haven’t sold out.

So here’s a MEMRI translation of an interview given by Walid Sukariyya, a Hizballah member in Lebanon’s parliament. He tells it like it is.

Syria’s stance on peace with Israel? It’s just for “tactical bargaining chips.”

How does Syria fight America? “Since, for obvious reasons, Syria cannot [conduct] a confrontation through direct resistance it has opened [its] border with Iraq to all the resistance fighters of Al-Qaida, even though it does not share their ideology.”

Notice, he said al-Qaida. And of course that’s, as I’ve previously reported but which is pretty obvious, one of the main affiliations of the Iraqi insurgents. So, in other words,

--Syria is working with al-Qaida (this should not be a controversial statement but in the Western debate it’s considered as such).

--Al-Qaida is dedicated to the destruction of America and the West.

--Therefore, Syria is an enemy and even under the narrow definition of what used to be called the “war on terrorism”—which is now only against al-Qaida—Syria is on the other side.

Finally, “This is why Damascus supports the resistance – because it does not want to confront the enemy itself.” Right, Syria (and Iran) use Hamas and Hizballah to fight Israel without risk to themselves. And they won’t stop doing it.

Thanks, Walid. And let that be a lesson to all of you out there: Listen to what people in the Middle East actually say, especially when they are speaking their own language.

MEMRI translation, from Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London) October 19, 2009. Special Dispatch | No. 2612 | October 22, 2009

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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