No more passes and excuses for the Middle East
by Victor Davis Hanson
What are we to make of scenes from the eighth-century in Fallujah? Random murder, mutilation of the dead, dismemberment, televised gore, and pride in stringing up the charred corpses of thosewho sought to bring food to the hungry?Perhaps we can shrug and say all this is the wage of Saddam Hussein and the thirty years of brutality of his Baathists that institutionalized such barbarity? Or was the carnage the dying scream of Baathist hold-outs intent on shocking the Western world at home watching it live? We could speculate for hours.
Yet I fear that we have not seen anything new. Flip through the newspaper and the stories are as depressing as they are monotonous: bombs in Spain; fiery clerics promising death in England, even as explosive devices are uncovered in France. In-between accounts of bombings in Iraq, we get the normal murdering in Israel, and daily assassination in Pakistan, Turkey, Morocco, and Chechnya. Murder, dismemberment, torture—these all seem to be the acceptable tools of Islamic fundamentalism and condoned as part of justifiable Middle East rage. Sheik Yassin is called a poor crippled “holy man” who ordered the deaths of hundreds, as revered in the Arab World for his mass murder as Jerry Falwell is condemned in the West for his occasional slipshod slur about Muslims.
Yet the hourly killing is perhaps not merely the wages of autocracy, but part of a larger grotesquery of Islamic fundamentalism on display. The Taliban strung up infidels from construction cranes and watched, like Romans of old, gory stoning and decapitations in soccer stadiums built with UN largess. In the last two years, Palestinian mobs have torn apart Israeli soldiers, lynched their own, wired children with suicide bombing vests, and machine-gunned down women and children—between sickening scenes of smearing themselves with the blood of “martyrs.” Very few Arab intellectuals or holy men have condemned such viciousness.
Daniel Pearl had his head cut off on tape; an American diplomat was riddled with bullets in Jordan. Or should we turn to Lebanon and gaze at the work of Hezbollah—its posters of decapitated Israeli soldiers proudly on display? Some will interject that the Saudis are not to be forgotten—whose religious police recently allowed trapped school girls to be incinerated rather than have them leave the flaming building unescorted, engage in public amputations, and behead adulteresses. But Mr. Assad erased from memory the entire town of Hama. And why pick on Saddam Hussein, when earlier Mr. Nasser, heartthrob to the Arab masses, gassed Yemenis? The Middle-East coffee houses cry about the creation of Israel and the refugees on the West Bank only to snicker that almost 1,000,000 Jews were ethnically cleansed from the Arab world.
And then there is the rhetoric. Where else in the world do mainstream newspapers talk of Jews as the children of pigs and apes? And how many wacky Christian or Hindu fundamentalists advocate about the mass murder of Jews or promise death to the infidel? Does a Western leader begin his peroration with “O evil infidel” or does Mr. Sharon talk of “virgins” and “blood-stained martyrs?”
Conspiracy theory in the West is the domain of Montana survivalists and Chomsky-like wackos; in the Arab world it is the staple of the state-run media. This tired strophe and antistrophe of threats and retractions, and braggadocio and obsequiousness grates on the world at large. So Hamas threatens to bring the war to the United States, and then back peddles and says not really. So the Palestinians warn American diplomats that they are not welcome on the soil of the West Bank—as if any wish to return when last there they were murdered trying to extend scholarships to Palestinian students.
I am sorry, but these toxic fumes of the Dark-Ages permeate everywhere. It won’t do any more simply to repeat quite logical exegeses. Without consensual government, the poor Arab Middle East is caught in the throes of rampant unemployment, illiteracy, statism, and corruption. Thus in frustration it vents through its state-run media invective against Jews and Americans to assuage the shame and pain. Whatever.
But at some point the world is asking: “Is Mr. Assad or Hussein, the Saudi Royal Family, or a Khadafy really an aberration—all rogues who hijacked Arab countries—or are they the logical expression of a tribal patriarchal society whose frequent tolerance of barbarism is in fact reflected in its leadership? Are the citizens of Fallujah the victims of Saddam, or did folk like this find their natural identity expressed in Saddam? Postcolonial theory and victimology argue that European colonialism, Zionism, and petrodollars wrecked the Middle East. But to believe that one must see India in shambles, Latin America under blanket autocracy, and an array of suicide bombers pouring out of Mexico or Nigeria. South Korea was a moonscape of war when oil began gushing out of Iraq and Saudi Arabia; why is it now exporting cars while the latter are exporting death? Apartheid was far worse than the Shah’s modernization program; yet why did South Africa renounce nuclear weapons while the Mullahs cheated on every UN protocol they could?
No, there is something peculiar to the Middle East that worries the world. The Arab world for years has promulgated a quite successful media image as perennial victims—proud folks, suffering under a series of foreign burdens, while nobly maintaining their grace and hospitality. Middle-Eastern Studies programs in the United States and Europe published an array of mostly dishonest accounts of Western culpability, sometimes Marxist, sometimes anti-Semitic that were found to be useful intellectual architecture for the edifice of panArabism, as if Palestinians or Iraqis shared the same oppressions, the same hopes, and the same ideals as downtrodden American people of color—part of a universal “other” deserving victim status and its attendant blanket moral exculpation. But the curtain has been lifted since 9-11 and the picture we see hourly now is not pretty.
Imagine an Olympics in Cairo? Or an international beauty pageant in Riyadh? Perhaps an interfaith world religious congress would like to meet in Teheran? Surely we could have the World Cup in Beirut? Is there a chance to have a World Bank conference in Ramallah or Tripoli? Maybe Damascus could host a conference of the world’s neurosurgeons?
And then there is the asymmetry of it all. Walk in hushed tones by a mosque in Iraq, yet storm and desecrate the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank with impunity. Blow up and assassinate Westerners with unconcern; yet scream that Muslims are being questioned about immigration status in New York. Damn the West as you try to immigrate there; try to give the Middle East a fair shake while you prefer never to visit such a place. Threaten with death and fatwa any speaker or writer who “impugns” Islam, demand from Western intellectuals condemnation of any Christians who speak blasphemously of the Koran.
I have purchased Israeli agricultural implements, computer parts, and read books translated from the Hebrew; so far, nothing in the contemporary Arab world has been of much value in offering help to the people of the world in science, agriculture, or medicine. When there is news of 200 murdered in Madrid or Islamic mass-murdering of Christians in the Sudan, or suicide bombing in Israel, we no longer look for moderate mullahs and clerics to come forward in London or New York to condemn it. They rarely do. And if we might hear a word of reproof, it is always qualified by the ubiquitous “but”—followed by a litany of qualifiers about Western colonialism, Zionism, racism, and hegemony that have the effects of making the condemnation either meaningless or in fact a sort of approval.
Yet it is not just the violence, the boring threats, the constant televised hatred, the temper-tantrums of fake intellectuals on televisions, the hypocrisy of anti-Western Arabs haranguing America and Europe from London or Boston, or even the pathetic shouting and fist-shaking of the ubiquitous Arab street. Rather the global village is beginning to see that the violence of the Middle East is not aberrant, but logical. Its misery is not a result of exploitation or colonialism, but self-induced. Its fundamentalism is not akin to that of reactionary Hinduism, Buddhism, or Christianity, but of an altogether different and much fouler brand.
The enemy of the Middle East is not the West so much as modernism itself and the humiliation that accrues when millions themselves are nursed by fantasies, hypocrisies, and conspiracies to explain their own failures. Quite simply, any society in which citizens owe their allegiance to the tribe rather than the nation, do not believe in democracy enough to institute it, shun female intellectual contributions, allow polygamy, insist on patriarchy, institutionalize religious persecution, ignore family planning, expect endemic corruption, tolerate honor killings, see no need to vote, and define knowledge as mastery of the Koran is deeply pathological.
When one adds to this depressing calculus that for all the protestations of Arab nationalism, Islamic purity and superiority, and whining about a decadent West, the entire region is infected with a burning desire for things Western—from cell phones and computers to videos and dialysis, you have all the ingredients for utter disaster and chaos. How after all in polite conversation can you explain to an Arab intellectual that the GDP of Jordan or Morocco has something to do with an array of men in the early afternoon stuffed into coffee shops spinning conspiracy tales, drinking coffee, and playing board games while Japanese, Germans, Chinese, and American women and men are into their sixth hour on the job? Or how do you explain that while Taiwanese are studying logarithms, Pakistanis are chanting from the Koran in Dark-Age madrassas? And how do you politely point out that while the New York Times and Guardianchastise their own elected officials, the Arab news in Damascus or Cairo is free only to do the same to us?
I support the bold efforts of the United States to make a start in cleaning up this mess, in hopes that a Fallujah might one day exorcize its demons. But in the meantime, we should have no illusions about the enormity of our task, where every positive effort will be met with violence, fury, hypocrisy, and ingratitude.
If we are to try to bring some good to the Middle East, then we must first have the intellectual courage to confess that for the most part the pathologies embedded there are not merely the work of corrupt leaders but often the very people who put them in place and allowed them to continue their ruin.
So the question remains did Saddam create Fallujah or Fallujah Saddam?
© 2004 Victor Davis Hanson