Thursday, March 18, 2010

Explaining the "Obvious": Why It's Necessary

By Barry Rubin

A frustrated pro-democracy reader from a Muslim-majority country asks me: “Do we have to explain that the Earth is round to any idiot who says it is flat? Or do we have to hold a rational argument about the evils of cannibalism with someone who practices it?”

What bothers him are the frequent articles I must write stating the “obvious,” things like radical Islamist forces aren’t about to moderate; too much of the Western world is missing the obvious threats; that it's wrong and dangerous to indoctrinate people in Western countries to be hostile to their own countries, viewing their histories as shameful; and much of what occupies our media and universities regarding international politics is rubbish.

If stoning people, mutilating little girls, and forcing children to wed while still in grade school can be regarded as acceptable cultural practices simply because they are carried out by societies where we don't live, it has become necessary--even, sad to say, courageous--to talk about these things.

Ten or more years ago, who would have thought this to be necessary? But when you have to deal with an article saying that Iran getting nuclear weapons is a good thing (New York Times), an Islamist takeover of Turkey is something we should celebrate (Newsweek), and—well, you can add to that list—there’s some serious insanity loose in the world.

My reader's flat-earth/cannibalism analogy is closer to the truth than many would think. There were times when cultures strongly believed in these things as the very gemstone in their cultural crown. At the time, it could have been said--and indeed was said--that one could not challenge such cultural norms or they would face serious punishment.

It was a sign of progress in history when people could respect what other cultures did rather than view them as barbaric and inferior. But it is a sign of regression when people are not allowed to distinguish between things they see as good--maybe worth borrowing--and those they see as abhorrant.

I never thought we’d be living in such a situation either. What’s especially dismal for me is to have to explain to younger people that things weren’t always like that. I can only do my best to try to see that things won’t be that way much longer.

Is there hope? Sure. The best hope is that reality forces people to acknowledge itself, eventually; that the enemies of democracy push so hard that they force people to fight them, and that the "common" people have a lot of common sense even when their “betters” do not.

Oh, yes, and some day someone will write history books (or, by then, perhaps history blogs) recording that some folk stood up for what was right even though it cost them dearly. It has been ever thus, hasn’t it?

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). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood. 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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