Monday, March 29, 2010

The Significance of Passover for Contemporary Arab and Muslim History

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By Barry Rubin

One of the greatest little challenges of my life--at least in terms of needing to react instantly--came when I was sitting in a meeting with high-ranking Egyptian officials during Passover. One of them asked me if it was true that the Jews had a holiday about defeating the Egyptians. I realized I had about ten seconds maximum to come up with the best answer.

And it then came to me: "Ah, I replied, those were jahiliyya times."

In Islam, the time before the beginning of that religion is viewed as a time of not only paganism but barbarism. Pharoah is a villain in the Koran. So they instantly accepted my answer: celebrating a story which ends with the drowning of pharoah isn't an act against Egypt but against a hated tyrant.

We are in a similar situation today. Change for the better will only come when the ideas and individuals who dominate the Middle East today--and oppose modernization, women's equality, democracy, peace with Israel, and real friendship with the West--are seen not as heroic leaders embodying Arabism and Islam but as unrepresentative tyrants.

That is not going to happen any time soon. It will take decades. Coincidentally, I just read the following written by George Orwell in 1946:

"Whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible….This habit of the mind leads also to the belief that things will happen more quickly, completely, and catastrophically than they ever do in practice. The rise and fall of empires...are expected to happen with earthquake suddenness, and processes which have barely started are talked about as though they were already at an end.”

Yes, this process has only "barely started" and there is a long way to go. Indeed, it is arguably true that more in the West have accepted the "Middle East" interpretation of reality in the last decade than the other way around, viewing Islamists as heroic revolutionaries and tyrannical regimes as fighters for the underdog.

A brave Syrian oppositionist once asked me whether I thought democracy would come soon to his country. I choked up, having too much respect for him to tell him a pleasing lie. He understood my silence: "Oh, well," he sighed, "maybe in my children's time."

And so let me give greetings today especially--though not exclusively--for the democratic forces in Turkey, the democratic opposition in Iran, and in Syria, and those who dream of a free Lebanon. Your liberation will come also. Not when those tyrants' and the revolutionary extremists triumph. On the contrary, it will come when the waters close over them for the last time.

But only when the masses see what so very many of them are so proud to extol today as greatness as instead the political and social equivalent of the jahiliyya times they despise--the time of slavery to men who acted as pharoahs and to ideologies that extolled the equivalent of barbarism--will it be anywhere near an end.

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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