Since September 11, we have heard mostly slander and lies about the West from radical Islamic fundamentalists in their defense of the terrorists.
But the Middle Eastern mainstream—diplomats, intellectuals, and journalists—has also bombarded the American public with an array of unflattering images and texts, suggesting that the extremists’ anti-Americanism may not be an eccentricity of the ignorant but rather a representative slice of the views of millions.
Americans, reluctant to answer back their Middle Eastern critics for fear of charges of “Islamophobia” or “Arab smearing,” have let such accusations go largely unchecked.
Two striking themes characterize most Arab invective:
first, there is some sort of equivalence — political, cultural, and military — between the West and the Muslim world; and
second, America has been exceptionally unkind toward the Middle East.
Both premises are false and reveal that the temple of anti-Westernism is supported by pillars of ignorance.
Few in the Middle East have a clue about the nature, origins, or history of democracy, a word that has no history in the Arab vocabulary, or indeed any philological pedigree in any language other than Greek and Latin and their modern European offspring.
Democracy’s lifeblood is secularism and religious tolerance, coupled with free speech and economic liberty.
Afghan tribal councils, without written constitutions, are better than tyranny, surely; but they do not make consensual government. Nor do the Palestinian parliament and advisory bodies in Kuwait.
None of these faux assemblies are elected by an unbound citizenry, free to criticize (much less recall, impeach, or depose) their heads of state by legal means, or even to speak openly to journalists about the failings of their own government.
Plato remarked of such superficial government-by-deliberation that even thieves divvy up the loot by give-and-take, suggesting that the human tendency to parley is natural but is not the same as the formal machinery of democratic government.
Our own cultural elites, either out of timidity or ignorance of the uniqueness of our own political institutions, seldom make such distinctions.
But the differences are critical, because they lie unnoticed at the heart of the crisis in the Muslim world, and they explain our own tenuous relations with the regimes in the Gulf and the Middle East.
Israel does not really know to what degree the Palestinian authorities have a real constituency, because the people of the West Bank themselves do not know either — inasmuch as they cannot debate one another on domestic television or campaign on the streets for alternate policies.
Arafat assumed power by Western fiat; when he finally was allowed to hold real and periodic elections in his homeland, he simply perpetuated autocracy — as corrupt as it is brutal.
By the same token, we are surprised at the duplicity of the Gulf States in defusing internal dissent by redirecting it against Americans, forgetting that such is the way of all dictators, who, should they lose office, do not face the golden years of Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton. Either they dodge the mob’s bullets or scurry to a fortified compound on the French coast a day ahead of the posse.
The royal family of Saudi Arabia cannot act out of principle because no principle other than force put and keeps them in power.
All the official jets, snazzy embassies, and expensive press agents cannot hide that these illegitimate rulers are not in the political sense Western at all.
Democracy is the formal icing on a preexisting cake of egalitarianism, economic opportunity, religious tolerance, and constant self-criticism. It cannot appear in the Muslim world until men and women demolish the medieval forces of tribalism, authoritarian traditionalism, and Islamic fundamentalism.
The catastrophe of the Muslim world is also explicable in its failure to grasp the nature of Western success, which springs neither from luck nor resources, genes nor geography.
Like third-world Marxists of the 1960s, who put blame for their own self-inflicted misery upon corporations, colonialism, and racism—anything other than the absence of real markets and a free society—the Islamic intelligentsia recognizes the Muslim world’s inferiority towards the West, but it then seeks to fault others for its own self-created fiasco.
Government spokesmen in the Middle East should have the courage to say that they are poor because their populations are nearly half illiterate, that their governments are not free, that their economies are not open, and that their fundamentalists impede scientific inquiry, unpopular expression, and cultural exchange.
Tragically, the immediate prospects for improvement are dismal, as the war against terrorism has further isolated the Middle East. Travel, foreign education, and academic exchanges — the only sources of future hope for the Arab world — have screeched to a halt.
All the conferences in Cairo about Western bias and media distortion cannot hide this self-inflicted catastrophe — and the growing ostracism and suspicion of Middle Easterners in the West.
But blaming the West for the unendurable reality is easier for millions of Muslims than admitting the truth.
Billions of barrels of oil, large populations, the Suez Canal, the fertility of the Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates valleys, invaluable geopolitical locations, and a host of other natural advantages that helped create wealthy civilizations in the past now yield an excess of misery, rather than the riches of resource-poor Hong Kong or Switzerland.
How could it be otherwise, when it takes bribes and decades to obtain a building permit in Cairo; when habeas corpus is a cruel joke in Baghdad; and when Saudi Arabia turns out more graduates in Islamic studies than in medicine or engineering?
To tackle illiteracy, state-sanctioned killing, and the economic misery that comes from corruption and state control require courage and self-examination.
Has the Muslim world gone mad in its threats and ultimatums?
Throughout this war, Muslims have saturated us with overt and with insidious warnings.
If America retaliated to the mass murder of its citizens, the Arab world would turn on us; if we bombed during Ramadan, we would incur lasting hatred; if we continued in our mission to avenge our dead, not an American would be safe in the Middle East.
More disturbing even than the screaming street demonstrations have been the polite admonitions of corrupt grandees like Crown Prince Abdallah of Saudi Arabia or editor Abdul Rahman al Rashed of Saudi Arabia’s state-owned Al Sharq al Awsat.
Don’t they see the impotence and absurdity of their veiled threats, backed neither by military force nor cultural dynamism? Don’t they realize that nothing is more fatal to the security of a state than the divide between what it threatens and what it can deliver? There is an abyss between such rhetoric and the world we actually live in, an abyss called power.
We are militarily strong, and the Arab world abjectly weak, not because of greater courage, superior numbers, higher IQs, more ores, or better weather, but because of our culture.
Many Middle Easterners have performed a great media charade throughout this war.
They publish newspapers and televise the news, and thereby give the appearance of being modern and Western. But their reporters and anchormen are by no means journalists by Western standards of free and truthful inquiry.
Whereas CNN makes a point of talking to the victims in Kabul, al-Jazeera would never interview the mothers of Israeli teenagers blown apart by Palestinian bombs.
Nor does any Egyptian or Syrian television station welcome freewheeling debates or Meet the Press–style talk shows permitting criticism of the government or the national religion. Instead, they quibble over their own degrees of anti-Americanism and obfuscate the internal contradictions of Islam. The chief dailies in Algiers, Teheran, and Kuwait City look like Pravda of old.
The entire Islamic media is a simulacrum of the West, lacking the life-giving spirit of debate and self-criticism.
A novelist who writes whatever he pleases anywhere in the Muslim world is more likely to receive a fatwa and a mob at his courtyard than a prize for literary courage, as Naguib Mahfouz and Salman Rushdie have learned.
No wonder a code of silence pervades the Islamic world. No wonder, too, that Islam is far more ignorant of us than we of it. And no wonder that the Muslims haven’t a clue that their current furor is scripted, whipped up, and mercurial.
Millions in the Middle East are obsessed with Israel, whether they live in sight of Tel Aviv or thousands of miles away. Their fury doesn’t spring solely from genuine dismay over the hundreds of Muslims Israel has killed on the West Bank; after all, Saddam Hussein butchered hundreds of thousands of Shiites, Kurds, and Iranians, while few in Cairo or Damascus said a word.
The murder of some 100,000 Muslims in Algeria and 40,000 in Chechnya in the last decade provoked few intellectuals in the Middle East to call for a pan-Islamic protest.
Clearly, the anger derives not from the tragic tally of the fallen but from Islamic rage that Israelis have defeated Muslims on the battlefield repeatedly, decisively, at will, and without modesty.
If Israel were not so successful, free, and haughty — if it were beleaguered and tottering on the verge of ruin —perhaps it would be tolerated.
But in a sea of totalitarianism and government-induced poverty, with a stable culture clearly irks its less successful neighbors. Envy, as the historian Thucydides reminds us, is a powerful emotion and has caused not a few wars.
If Israel did not exist, the Arab world, in its current fit of denial, would have to invent something like it to vent its frustrations.
That is not to say there may not be legitimate concerns in the struggle over Palestine, but merely that for millions of Muslims the fight over such small real estate stems from a deep psychological wound.
It isn’t about lebensraum or some actual physical threat. Israel is a constant reminder that it is a nation’s culture — not its geography or size or magnitude of its oil reserves — that determines its wealth or freedom.
For the Middle East to make peace with Israel would be to declare war on itself, to admit that that its own fundamental way of doing business — not the Jews — makes it poor, sick, and weak.
Throughout the Muslim world, myth and ignorance surround U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East.
Yes, America gives Israel aid, but less than the combined billions that go to the Palestinians and to Egypt, Jordan, and other Muslim countries.
And it is one thing to subsidize a democratic and constitutional (if cantankerous) ally but quite another to pay for slander from theocratic or autocratic enemies.
Though Israel has its fair share of fundamentalists and fanatics, the country is not the creation of clerics or strongmen but of European émigrés, who committed Israel from the start to democracy, free speech, and abundant self-critique.
Far from egging on Israel, the United States actually restrains the Israeli military, whose organization and discipline, along with the sophisticated Israeli arms industry, make it quite capable of annihilating nearly all its bellicose neighbors without American aid.
Should the United States withdraw from active participation in the Middle East and let the contestants settle their differences on the battlefield, Israel, not the Arab world, would win. The military record of four previous conflicts does not lie.
Saudi Arabian and Kuwaiti Westernized elites find psychological comfort in their people’s anti-American rhetoric, not out of real grievance but perhaps as reassurance that their own appetite for all things Western doesn’t constitute rejection of their medieval religion or their thirteenth-century caliphate.
Dads and moms who watch al-Jazeera and scream in the street at the Great Satan really would prefer that their children have dollars, an annual CAT scan, a good lawyer, air conditioning, and Levis in American hell than be without toilet paper, suffer from intestinal parasites, deal with the secret police, and squint with uncorrected vision in the Islamic paradise of Cairo, Teheran, and Gaza.
Such a fundamental and intolerable paradox in the very core of a man’s heart—multiplied millions of times over—is not a healthy thing either for them or for us, as we have learned since September 11
So a neighborly bit of advice for our Islamic friends and their spokesmen abroad: topple your pillars of ignorance and the edifice of your anti-Americanism.
Try to seek difficult answers from within to even more difficult questions without.
Do not blame others for problems that are largely self-created or seek solutions from the West when your answers are mostly at home.
This article has been abridged from here