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Commentary

What Went Wrong in the Arab World? Ask Yourself

November 25, 2001|HUSSEIN IBISH | Hussein Ibish is communications director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee

A growing chorus of American and Israeli voices is demanding that the Arab world engage in some serious introspection. Such self-criticism is clearly warranted. However, those handing down this prescription may not care for the results, and they are badly in need of a dose of the same medicine themselves.

There is no doubt that the state of political, social and economic malaise and stagnation in the Arab world generally demands self-examination. For decades, the Arab world has been dominated by repressive and parochial regimes that have failed to mine the region's only great resource, its people. Public discourse all too often is stultified. Dissent is regarded as treason. Education is reduced to a third-rate patronage racket. And religious bullying is tolerated, even encouraged.

Under such circumstances, social and national consciousness withers. Politics becomes the art of back-room manipulation, and political discourse becomes paranoid and given to the most absurd conspiracy theories. Worst of all, absent a functional political process, people seeking change are easily driven to various forms of extremism.

Westerners demanding Arab introspection seem to expect that this will mean the adoption of their perspectives. However, a truly empowered and dynamic Arab public would surely demand not only stronger and more direct support for the Palestinians but also would raise serious questions about the level and role of American military and corporate presence.

It would insist on using the region's natural resources in a very different manner. It would mean the assertion of Arab national interests in a manner not seen in many decades and which has been regarded as threatening in the past. It would not, and could not, mean greater subordination to the interests of others.

Israelis and their supporters, who lead the calls for Arab introspection, are in no position to do so. Israeli society is engaged in an extended exercise in neurotic denial about the basic facts of its own brief history, which remain a largely repressed scene of national trauma.

Israel proceeds as if it had not violently wrested control and ownership of all its territory from the Palestinians. Worse, it is utterly blind to the nature of its relationship with the Palestinians living under Israeli military rule and the effects its actions have on the people it is abusing and killing.

In truth, Israel acts as a predatory, 19th century-style colonial power toward the Palestinians, and yet it insists on seeing itself as democratic and equitable.

Never, for the sake of its own future, was a society more desperately in need of introspection, not to mention a simple reality check.

Which brings us to the United States.

The whole world has a stake in American introspection, but we seem to be perfect postmodern subjects, incapable of even the most basic kind of historical memory.

Each international crisis is treated as if it had no context whatever, at least no context involving ourselves, which prevents us from learning any lessons from the past. Our current bout of willful amnesia involves forgetting the role we played in promoting right-wing Muslim extremism in Afghanistan and throughout the Islamic world over many decades.

Americans denounce the "foreign invaders" in Afghanistan, but who sent them there? Who launched the first great global jihad? Whose massive covert war resulted in the collapse of all forms of civil society in Afghanistan, which led to the rise of the Taliban?

The most dreaded word in Washington is "blowback."

What we in the U.S. are forgetting is the long history of American and British promotion of the most right-wing Muslim politics as a counter to socialism and nationalism in the Arab world. We call for democracy and openness in the Arab world, but our government steadfastly opposes everything that tends in that direction. We seem unaware that the contemporary Middle East is as much the product of our own meddling, and that of France and Britain, as it is of any local forces.

"I'm amazed that people would hate us," remarked President Bush, "because I know how good we are." A discourse that casts the American role in the world as simply "good" and acknowledges none of our own self-interested brutalities and exploitations is profoundly dangerous to the entire planet.

Arab introspection is urgently required, but given the current state of affairs, everybody needs a hard look in the mirror.

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