Thursday, January 28, 2010

Political Secrets of the Middle East: Intimidation Works (If You Really Mean It)

By Barry Rubin

Intimidation works. That might seem obvious, and it certainly seems to be understood by some people regarding domestic American politics, but it is very much neglected when thinking about foreign policy.

Here’s an obscure little story that caught my attention. There’s a Muslim imam in the town of Paris, near Drancy, named Hassan Chalghoumi. He was leading a service with around 300 people in the mosque when about one-third of them interrupted him, screamed he was an infidel traitor, and threatened to kill him. He thought he would not escape alive.

What was Chalghoumi’s sin? He has spoken against Islamic extremism, the very ideology the demonstrators espouse, and condemned antisemitism. After he requested Muslims to respect the memory of Jews killed in the Holocaust, his home was vandalized.

Will Chalghoumi give in and shut up? I don’t know. But the point is that dozens of others will never get started in the first place. There are always a few people who will not be intimidated even by death threats. Yet they will be few.

Perhaps if huge numbers of French citizens took to the streets in huge marches to extol Chalghoumi--who after all is precisely the moderate, tolerant Muslim they profess to applaud—this would not only encourage him but also inspire others to step forward.

If huge numbers of Muslims in France and around the world took to the streets in huge marches to extol Chalghoumi, thus showing they are the moderates they claim to be, then that, too, would inspire others to step forward.

Instead, Fouad Alaoui, president of the Union des Organisations Islamiques de France (UOIF), said, "We've warned him several times to moderate his words because he risks to attract these sort of reactions." In other words, we won't support you, you're making people angry, so shut up. What makes this especially significant is that the UOIF is an organization created and funded by the French government in an attempt to moderate Islam and isolate extremists. Apparently, its response to extremists is to appease them.

Meanwhile, though for decades, Western intellectuals, artists, journalists have boasted of their courage in defending the right to free speech, how quickly, faced with a real, albeit extraordinarily minimal and remote, threat did they crumble.

But it gets even better (or actually, worse). They can now boast of their enlightened tolerance for being cowardly and put those who disagree with them, who are willing to risk intimidation, on trial. And of course if you want a job in publishing, journalism, academia, Hollywood, or various strongholds of the current dominant ideology, toe the line or forget about a job.

Let’s list the three main categories of intimidation.

First and most obviously there is the physical: the threat or act of violence. While thousands of Westerners have been killed by random Islamist terrorism, probably no more than a half-dozen individuals have been murdered in attacks from the same sources targeting them because of their use of free speech. Yet this has been sufficient to silence the main institutions of Western society that are supposed to function as truth-tellers, fearless critics of everything. .

Probably even more people have been intimidated by verbal intimidation, which alone has several varieties.

Second, there is ridicule. One of the most effective weapons in intimidating people in Western elite society is to make fun of them and the most successful tool of all—the Weapon of Mass Destruction in this context—is to portray them as unfashionable. Rather than being part of the elite, they are among the uneducated, uncultured hicks, those bigoted people clinging to guns and religion. So if you want to be part of the elite, holding the “right” views is like a membership card.

A great gimmick here is to take some proposition that is easily demonstrable to be wrong and make it sound extremely silly. For example, regarding the Middle East:

“Wow, these people really believe that a nuclear Iran would be a threat; that we are not on the verge of Israel-Palestinian peace; that Israel is a great country; that Islamism is a form of totalitarian ideology; that Syria is wedded to its alliance with Iran; that Islamist terrorists actually have some connection to Islam; that the United States has played—despite errors—a noble role in the world. Have you ever heard of anything so ridiculous? Hahaha! What a bunch of uneducated, uncultured hicks.”

Labeling: Beyond the unfashionable, the “wrong” views have to be presented as fitting into categories which most observers—not only the dedicated supporters of the dominant view but also independent, undecided bystanders—will consider to be wrong and even evil.

We now have a multiplicity of such labels: racist, imperialist, reactionary, conservative, Republican, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, and so on. Indeed, contemporary political debate often seems like a parade of insults. But if you can label an idea as falling into a forbidden category you can scare off lots of people from accepting or even considering it. Those intimidated fall into two categories: those who believe that the idea is evil and those who may be sympathetic but fear being tarred with a sin in their brain.

Misrepresenting: The systematic misquoting and distortion of ideas or actions to make them seem evil. To pick one example, Israel was attacked by thousands of rockets from a terrorist group which openly called for genocide against its people. After the other side—let’s call it Hamas—tore up a ceasefire and attacked, Israel defended itself while using serious efforts to limit civilian casualties, though Hamas used civilians as human shields.

The mission: To make Israel look like an aggressive war criminal by distorting what happened. Mission accomplished. And that’s only one of dozens of such missions achieved on a wide variety of issues during the last decade or so.

Remember when we used to say, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me?” During the era of Political Correctness, that kind of sticks and stones rule the West culturally and intellectually.

Third and last there are legal methods, suing those who say something you don’t want or trying them as purveyors of hate speech. These are few in number but panic vast institutions, especially in publishing.

In the Middle East, the traditional instruments of intimidation as part of statecraft are very much alive. In the West, however, the goal of foreign policy nowadays seems to try to prove that you have no intention of intimidating anyone. Intimidation seems reserved largely for internal social and political matters. When it comes to foreign policy, such methods are relics of the bad old days for which apologies are now given.

A society cannot win at home if its free institutions succumb to intimidation. A country cannot win abroad if it isn't willing to use intimidation against the enemies of freedom.

Forget Che! Where are the Hassan Chalghoumi tee-shirts?

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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