Saturday, May 28, 2005

Hope in the Middle East?

The hard and unavoidable truth is that the Middle East is still dominated by the values of both its tribal past and its despotic present. The history of the Middle East is, in a thumbnail sketch, a series of bloody conflicts between tribes and men who have seized power with the thrust of a sword. Violence is normative. When two tribes are locked in conflict, violent force is more often than not the only honorable manner of arbitration. Following this immemorial pattern, the winner in a bloody contest will, as soon as possible, solidify his position through intimidation and outright murder of anyone who might challenge him.

When respected cleric Majid al-Khoie returned to Najaf, Muqtada Al-Sadr, sensing confrontation and feeling that his toes were being stepped on a bit, simply assassinated him, using the standard preemptive strike against an opponent. Al-Khoie was in fact hacked to death right in front of the holy shrine. Westerners unfamiliar with the violence at the heart of Arab culture would be of course surprised that two religious leaders would act more like Mafiosi than members of a clergy. When was the last time that a minister here in the United States took out a contract hit on a minister he thought might encroach on his territory? And, these same Westerners would be even more puzzled by the basic acceptance of the killing by Iraqis themselves. For Iraqis, it was tragic, yes, but certainly not unusual.

In the context of Middle Eastern culture, Al-Sadr was just employing one of the time-honored methods of getting ahead. Kill the competition. Saddam killed Al-Sadr’s father using that very logic. Assad did the same with Rafik Hariri. Ayatollah Khoemeini, once in power in Iran, simply rehired the Shah’s SAVAK torturers and put them to work in the name of Islamic despotism and tyranny. Nothing had really changed for the people on the ground. Like all the others in the Middle East for whom oppression is assumed as a basic component of life, they continued walking around in fear of doing the wrong thing, crossing the so-called “red lines,” and finding themselves inside a cell. For many, it made no difference if you lived in Iran or Iraq. If you were critical in either regime, you could quickly find yourself tied to a metal bedframe and jumper-cables used to rid you of your “bad thoughts.”

In the last fifty years the Middle East has been free to choose its own kind of governance, but so far the tribal strictures have held firm and the region has produced an endless succession of despots. Nasser, Ghaddafi, the Saud family, Hafez Assad, Bashir Assad, and, of course, Saddam Hussein are just a few. Within the context of the Middle East, Saddam Hussein is not an aberration. He is, in fact, a representative Arab leader. The story of his rise to power is similar to all the other despots in the Middle East. If you read their biographies, as I have, you see that they all have blood on their hands -- and for good reason. You don’t rise in the Middle East without killing your competition. The problem is that the constant killing and oppression and siphoning off national treasure reduce those nations to shadows of what they could be under a system of governance that would harness the resources of the land and intelligence of the population.

Faiza Jarrar, like many in the Middle East, looks around her and has the courage -- to her credit -- to admit that she and her neighbors live in failed nations. On her good days, she acknowledges that Saddam Hussein, a murderous tyrant, ruined her country. She realizes that the Arab League is filled with idiots and despots. On her bad days, however, she looks for an easy scapegoat for her country’s ills and, like Bin Laden, blames the West. It’s an easy way to view one’s problems, but it will only hide the truth.

The Middle East will have a very dismal future if it cannot accept having homegrown individuals of critical intelligence who engage others in all kinds of debates -- especially those that examine basic institutions -- without fear of being imprisoned or killed. One of the secrets of the power of the West is the way our societies abide all kinds of harsh discussion around ideas about which we strongly disagree. Joseph Conrad, whose novel Heart of Darkness from 1899 Faiza Jarrar cites in a recent blog entry, was a Western writer and his critique of colonialism, in all its shaded nuances, took place within the West’s own debate about the human condition and the eternal tension between the individual and the demands of community and larger ideological forces. It was and remains to this day part of our dialogue.

Conrad, it must be emphasized, was participating within a wide Western tradition that included many others writing at the time, including such American authors as Henry James, Mark Twain, and Frank Norris, each one offering the reader compelling imaginative creations that engaged people on both sides of the Atlantic. And the generation of Conrad and James would, in turn, be answered by such post-World War I modernist masterpieces as James Joyce’s Ulysses and Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. And the dialogue continues unabated today.

What has been most noticeably missing from the Middle East for the last hundred years is exactly the same breadth of imaginative and critical awareness. Why? The countries in the Middle East have been controlled by despots and freedom of speech and thought have been constantly under attack. The list of Middle Eastern writers who have been jailed, killed, or forced to emigrate is indeed a long one.

Today, however, there is real hope for the first time in the Middle East. Iraq has a chance, as does Lebanon, to become models for the rest of the region. The Iraqi bloggers represent the first genuine signs of an open, public discussion of ideas among citizens in the Middle East. Those of us who are fans of the Iraqi blogosphere view our Iraqi and Egyptian friends as unique and courageous individuals.

When I first read the passionate and articulate blog entries from Omar, Ali, and Mohammed Fadhil, I knew that if other Iraqis like these brothers were allowed to engage with other citizens of Iraq and the Middle East and with the rest of the world a democratic and productive future might be possible for both Iraq and for the region that has suffered terribly for decades now from tyrants and their ubiquitous secret police.

Other bloggers have now joined Omar, Ali, and Mohammed, and a lively discussion has begun, one that you too can participate in every day if you wish. If the terrorists succeed in Iraq, then all of this is for nothing. Zarqawi will then simply be the next despot to rule Iraq and he will guide the newly-constituted Mukhabarat to hunt down and kill the voices that you now hear coming from Iraq.

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On the other hand, we are confronted with the daily contorted lunacy coming from Raed Jarrar.

Raed writes today:
All the evidence shows that the Japanese security contractor was killed before being taken as a "hostage".

Um, Raed, how did he die before he was taken "hostage"?

Accidentally cut himself shaving?

Slipped on a banana peel and wanged his head on the pavement?

Read Jarrar: Listen, the Japanese guy was killed by the resistance, yes, but that was BEFORE he was taken "hostage," so it doesn't count. See? He wasn't REALLY killed as a "hostage" -- we just killed him earlier as he walked down the street.

Oh yeah, that makes perfect sense.

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