Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Majdalani Effect, The Zawahiri Strategy and the Curse on the Middle East

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This article appeared in the Jerusalem Post in a different version. I own the copyright and ask that you read and link to my text here.  

By Barry Rubin

In a rare glimpse behind the curtain, a Palestinian scandal sheds a lot of light on the Palestinian Authority, Arab politics, and Western illusions. Palestinian Authority (PA) Minister of Labor Ahmed Majdalani was being interviewed by a radio station when, not realizing that his microphone was on, he referred to Palestinian workers as “brothers of whores.” Hundreds of callers complained. Majdalani’s answer? He claimed he was talking about Israelis, not Palestinians!

What does this tell us? First, that Arab and Muslim-majority society ie still, in 2011, extremely traditional. Despite all the rhetoric of popular struggle, leftism, anti-imperialism, and so on, the leaders of both the establishment and, less surprisingly, the Islamists, and even of the “liberals” are extremely reactionary. They have total contempt for their own people and little or no interest in bettering their lot. Aid money goes into their pockets; power goes to their heads.

Where naïve Western leftists, liberals, and often “experts” see some kind of mirror-image of themselves, there is something quite different on display. That’s one reason why the “Arab Spring” has failed and led to something worse, even while the West celebrates it from wishful thinking and many locals do so out of desperate hope.

And then there’s a particularly vivid example of the “old switcheroo,” the con-man’s substitution of a scapegoat to hide his own culpability. No, it isn’t your own leaders who betray you and exploit you, it’s the Jews or the Americans, the Zionists and the Crusaders.

Western observers simply can’t believe that this political con-game works because they see through the scam. Of course, it’s always easier for people to understand another society’s foibles. But, yes, even today it works. We’ve seen the return of the old hatreds to Turkey, where many thought they were banished forever.

Electoral politics brings out the best and worst in people. They can be the domain of reasoned debate but  are also the playground of demagogues.

Deep down, most Westerners can’t really believe that people would elect the Muslim Brotherhood in a fair balloting. Such a result, they reason, can only be the result of a deep trauma or of a shallow propaganda trick that can be exposed and reversed. I’m amused to see that even now, in December 2011, with so much evidence available, the main critique of my work is that I exaggerate the power of the Islamists.    

Friends and colleagues tell me that people simply don’t want to face the dangers of the situation. For regular people, it is just too unpleasant; for policymakers, though, it requires awareness and action. Egyptians, Iranians, Lebanese, Syrians, and Turks, among others, know what’s going on. Israelis are in a special position to comprehend it also. The same applies to a lot of other people around the world, notably in Central Europe.

There is also, however a profound belief that people and governments are going to be “rational actors.” What is defined as “rational” is a materialistic desire for more goods and for more freedom, as that is defined in the West. It’s not so simple. As Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini explained three decades ago, the revolution is not about lowering the price of watermelons.

That’s also why the Nazi analogy is so used and over-used, in a desperate attempt to find some historical example that can get through to Westerners the idea that non-materialistic factors and an appeal to irrational beliefs can sway a populace.

But aren’t there people like Majdalani in the Western world? Of course, there are. More and more of them. I call this the “Middle Easternization” of the West.

What has happened is that regimes have lost their monopoly on the Majdalani Effect. For decades, for example, the Syrian regime used Israel and the West as a scapegoat for the lack of freedom and well-being in that society. It worked. No longer does it work for the Syrian regime because that government is discredited with its own people—which doesn’t mean, by the way, that it is going to fail when employed by others.

But the technique will still work for the Islamists. Majdalani’s quick thinking might not save his own job, nor did it save the Mubarak regime—because the army wanted the dictator gone--but it will still save and create many a new dictatorship. It is true that new governments are coming into power because of their predecessors’ corruption, repression, and inability to deliver material benefits. But their successors are campaigning on claiming they are able to fight the West and Israel even more effectively.

The best presentation of these points was made in Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian and a top leader of al-Qaida. True, while al-Qaida planted the seeds, the Muslim Brotherhood reaped the harvest. But that doesn’t make his points any the less relevant.

In a remarkable passage in his book, Zawahiri explained:

“The Muslim nation will not participate [in an Islamist revolution] unless the slogans of the mujahidin are understood by the masses of the Muslim nation….

“The one slogan that has been well understood by the nation and to which it has been responding for the past 50 years is the call for jihad against Israel [and] against the U.S. presence…The jihad movement has moved to the center of the leadership of the nation when it adopted the slogan of liberating the nation from its external enemies and when it portrayed it as a battle of Islam against infidelity and infidels.”

It is misleadingly easy to think that the “Arab Spring” has cancelled out the Majdalani Effect and the Zawahiri strategy. We were told repeatedly that there were no anti-American or anti-Israel signs in Tahrir Square. They didn’t need signs. The slogans are already in people’s heads.

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