Saturday, June 10, 2006

Thoughts On The Arab Mind

Some years back, when I actually listened seriously to those Liberals who could manage to make a statement or ask a question without sounding like they were doing a ‘Tony Montana’ impression from one of the last scenes in “Scarface”, I often heard the question, “Why do they hate us?”

Of course, being Liberals, they would usually answer their own question, blaming this Republican or that for all the ills of the world. “It’s War For Oil!” they cry, even though we do not seize oil fields, and send troops into countries which do not even have oil. “American aggression!” they shout, even when we were attacked first. “A rush to war!” they proclaim about Iraq, even though we invaded Iraq more than a year and a half after 9/11. It’s been a lot of fun watching Liberals try to explain their logic. I think they have finally figured out that their position is untenable by Logic, which would explain why they so quickly resort to insults and name-calling now. Seriously, no one expects a Liberal to be civil or reasonable anymore.

From the title of this article, you might think I have confused myself. What, after all, do the rants of Liberals have to do with the Arab mind? Quite a bit, actually. And that’s the first step in trying to understand what’s going on in their heads; you need to know who has been teaching them.

Most Americans do not know any more about Arabs than what they read or hear from the Media, and that has been neither balanced nor in-depth. It should hardly surprise anyone to consider that any group of people numbering in the tens of millions is far too complex to be considered in only one shade of mind or opinion. But it should also be understood that the environment of the Middle East also shapes the way people see things. As an obvious example, some Americans were surprised when the Iraqi people did not immediately cheer the Americans as their liberators. Yes, some did, but not many, and the media took that as a sign that the Iraqi people were unhappy with the removal of Saddam. In actual fact, anyone familiar with recent history - say 1991 and 1992, when Iraqis rose up against Saddam and believed the U.S. would support them, only to be brutally crushed by the Republican Guard - would understand that Iraqis were not about to put their own lives and families at risk by openly siding with the Americans, while so many Baathists and worse were rolling around, armed and bitter. This perspective greatly explains the wait and see attitude, and is supported by the slow but steady improvement in citizen cooperation as stability has become more assured.

The Middle East political condition is largely a creation of the Twentieth Century. Not only because of the World Wars and the creation of the State of Israel, but also because the Ottoman Empire (and other empires before it) dictated the condition of the region before that time. Also, most Arabs with direct experience with America come from privileged families, and so do not represent the average “street” opinion, which is sometimes surprising to the average American. For instance, most Americans were strongly surprised in 1978 to see violent protests against the Shah of Iran, in support of the renegade Ayatollah Khomeini. But in actual context, the protests were not surprising; most of the protests, as today, were orchestrated for the cameras, and represented extremist elements. Those extremists were in part promoting Jihad, which was Khomeini’s objective, while others were in desperate straits; the Shah’s “Land Reform” may have had the best intentions, but instead it most often left the poor starving and the former landowners rebellious. While government relations between the Muslim Revolutionaries and the United States was hostile, most Iranians had no particular dislike for Americans; those who had encountered Americans generally liked them, and a great many more had no contact with them, and so had no motive for hatred. The U.S. simply was not - and is not - a major influence in the personal lives of most Iranians or Arabs, and so they see no reason to hate someone they do not even know. Obviously, the reverse is also true: America is a strange and very alien land to most Arabs, so they are very unlikely to develop or express strong preference for American values, unless and until they have a chance to experience them directly and consider what they mean in real life.

This means that there are two sides to the coin for the Arabs; the past and the future. The past is written through the filter of non-representative governments, unchallenged Islamic hierarchies, and an unresponsive and archaic social order. The future is a forked road, either leading back to the past in continuity but also stagnation, or towards an unknown expanse as part of a living world. Let’s be clear; the American example both thrills and frightens the Arab who considers it. In Houston, for example, one can find churches, temples, and mosques in every neighborhood, for every known faith or belief, all equally respected and protected by a code of law which recognizes comprehensive freedoms. One can also find literally dozens of topless bars, gambling halls, and assorted locations for prostitution or drugs, which are less than effectively enforced by the police. Gang violence is a growing problem in every major city, as is racial strife. This is not to say, of course, that the caste system and sectarian violence in the Middle East is of no concern, but Arabs would be reasonable to worry about whether the American lifestyle is an improvement or a descent in morals.

Ironically, the Jihadists are helping Arabs become interested in Americans. Through draconian fatwas and the like, the extremists within Islam have created a backlash of sorts; not the Western-style immediate protest, but rather a slower but deeper examination of the Mullah’s motives, and the prima facie evidence of actual American behavior in contact. And the consensus among those who know American troops is a growing preference to at least consider what maner of nation produces men who would risk their lives for the freedom of others, and whose cause is strong enough to extend to opening the doors to freedom for people a world away. The rants and protests we see on Al-Jazeera are the echoes of the old generation; the future may be something altogether different, and better for everyone concerned.

1 comment:

Adjoran said...

Arab culture has failed to keep pace with the changes of modern society. They still respect power above all else.

Our problems in dealing with the Arab world stem in large part from the perception of a tepid or weak response from us to provocations like the Beirut bombing, TWA, Khobar Towers, Mogadishu, WTC I, and the Embassy bombings in Africa. Our restraint was seen as weakness in the Arab mind.

This is one more reason why the initiatives to establish democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan {technically not "Arab," but heavily weighted in extreme interpretations of Islam} are so important. If we succeed, we will have answered the questions both about our strength and resolve, and of our true intentions.

The results will determine the course of the world for decades to come.