Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Sad Fate of Arab Moderates and The Arab World’s Tragic Success in Not Needing Them Any More

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By Barry Rubin

You have to feel sorry for those courageous enough to be Arab moderates. Most of your countrymen hate you, the government wants to crush you, the Islamists want to kill you, and the West doesn’t want to help you. I told this story in my book, The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East. (more information; order)

Despite all the endless talk of finding moderates in the Arab world, the real ones—few and far between—generally get ignored while preening, posturing extremists are treated as romantic figures.

So given all this pressure, the limited space permitted for free thought, the moderates have to talk like radicals to survive. In political terms, faced with the battle between the two giant movements of Islamism and Arab nationalism, they have to choose sides. Most liberals back their governments even though these are repressive dictatorships as a lesser of two evils to living under an Iran-, Gaza-, or Taliban-type state.

Except for some in Egypt, almost all the liberals pick the nationalists over the Islamists. I always think of the case of the Syrian dissident who'd spent some nasty time in prison and in an interview referred to the Syrian government as “fascist” but then, a few minutes later, explained that he supported that same government.

Hala Mustafa is a brave person. But when you see the stance she has to take—and I can give other examples of precisely the same exchanges by liberal intellectuals in other countries—the hopelessness of real reform or rethinking hits home very hard.

Mustafa, it may be recalled, is the editor of Egypt’s state-controlled democracy journal who got in trouble because she actually spoke a few minutes with Israel’s ambassador in her office.

The television interviewer asks her if that brief chat constituted “normalization” of relations with Israel. This is a real no-no, despite the fact that Egypt and Israel have been at peace for 30 years (happy anniversary!). The Palestinian Authority, by the way, followed the same view even during the height of the 1990s’ peace process. There was and is something pathetic and funny at watching well-intentioned Jewish peace activists running after Palestinians for dialogues in which the latter have no interest or are too fearful to do.

But the only line Mustafa can take—whether she believes it or not is another matter—is that the main reason Egypt must reform itself is to defeat Israel more effectively. She begins by saying:

“As long as we are part of the international community, and as long as we strive to belong to the developed countries, we need to speak their language.…Perhaps the reason that Israel was able to gain ground overseas, and that there is more recognition of Israel, its path, and its culture than of Arab culture, is that Israel speaks of the language of the international community….

“Interviewer: They are better integrated in the international system?”

“Dr. Hala Mustafa: Absolutely. They speak the same language, and know how to talk to them and convince them.”

“Interviewer: They are more skillful in obtaining their material, political, or moral support.”

“Dr. Hala Mustafa: Definitely. Their greatest success is in portraying the other side – the Arabs – as extremists, who carry weapons, shout, and make hysterical decisions. This image has become a stereotype, just like after 9/11, when the Muslims’ image became stereotypical and negative.”

Now I am definitely not attacking Mustafa here but merely pointing out the almost incredibly small maneuvering room such people have.

The usual response by mainstream Arab thinkers has been: You want us to talk or act like people in the West? That is a betrayal! We will not surrender an inch…. Etc., Etc. Read a speech, for example, by Syrian President Bashar al-Asad or by a lot of Arab nationalist intellectuals, as well as of course by Islamists, to hear this kind of thing.

And yet both they and Mustafa are missing a rather obvious and important point.

The Arabs have learned to speak the language of the modern international community and they are doing better at it than Israel.

Old style [which most Islamists still use, though even them not all the time]: The Jews are inferior. We will kill them all. We will never accept peace. We will wipe out Israel.

New style: The Israelis say that we are inferior. They want to kill us all. They don’t want peace. They violate our human rights. We are the victims. They want to wipe us out.

And by this brilliant inversion everything has changed. Leftist movements, humanitarian-oriented groups, huge sections of academia, large parts of the media, and various European governments bash Israel and extol the poor victims of the war criminal, racist, war-mongering, intransigent Israelis.

Of course, in fact, the positions of the Arab states and the Palestinian movement haven’t changed even in the tiniest iota. For example, in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, the “one-state” solution argument was something that isolated the Arabs and increased Western support for Israel. Then it was presented as: Throw Israel into the sea. Jewish-Zionist nationalism cannot be allowed to live. Palestine is Arab, Arab, Arab alone!

Today, exactly the same “one-state” concept is spun with the colored lights and tinkling bells of multiculturalism and political correctness into seeming like a utopia where nationalism is passé and everyone will just be nice to each other and get along just fine.

In short, Arab governments and societies don’t need Mustafa and the other liberals to bring a compromise triumph through real moderation. The extremists “know how to talk to them [the West and the world] and convince them.” And, to use the interviewer's words: “They [the radicals, not the moderates] are more skillful in obtaining [the West’s] material, political, or moral support.”

Israel just gets slandered but is a free and democratic country whose people are able to move forward in developing its culture, raising living standards, and enjoying freedom. The Arabs are the ones who have to live with the consequences of their own disastrous “success” in gaining international sympathy by changing nothing.

What a remarkable but horrible irony. The “progressive” and “humanitarian” forces of the West have helped make real democratic and social reform unnecessary for the Arabic-speaking world and delivered it into decades more of violence, dictatorship, repression, stagnation, and failure.

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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