“WHAT SORT OF MESSAGE IS THAT SENDING US?”
By Barry Rubin
The idea that poverty, relative backwardness, violence, and instability must be caused by external circumstances is engrained in much of the Western intelligentsia. It encourages a tendency to apologize for those regimes and radical groups which are the main cause of continued stagnation and suffering.
In fact, of course, the problems are very much—and usually more—based on history, culture, geography, ideology, and choices made. For example, Muslim-majority countries have much lower participation of women in the economy; are more rural and agricultural; and have had no Enlightenment or industrial revolution. Governments don’t care about developing good health and educational systems. Lack of freedom and cultural restrictions--things changed and challenged in Europe from the sixteenth century onwards--harm economic development and social progress. And so on.
Yet the idea that underdevelopment or instability is caused by imperialism is so highly developed among the Western intelligentsia that it ignores the fundamental internal shortcomings that are the real problem, thus understating the problems caused by traditional culture, the need for reform, or the value of the virtues that led to Western successes.
Most revealing in this respect is a recent exchange between Syrian author Nidhal Na'isa and Egyptian cleric Sheikh Ibrahim al-Khouli on al-Jazira television, October 30, 2007. Khouli said: “Western civilization is not really a civilization…."
Na’ísa responded by asking, "How did you come here [Qatar] from Egypt in two hours? On camels, it used to take you over six months to make a pilgrimage." [MEMRI translation] He might have added: Who developed the technology making it possible for you to speak to millions of people through airwaves to a box with pictures and sounds?Professor Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan) and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). Professor Rubin's column's can be read online.
Other Arab liberals have pointed out that the ability to build airplanes is superior to the ability to crash them into buildings (the September 11 attacks).
Of course, Khoulib doesn’t so much deny Western technological progress as to consider this endeavor worthless. He explains:"Your concept of progress and backwardness are mistaken. This materialistic, technological progress, which gave rise to homosexuality even among the Church's clergyman and monks, who even perform same-sex marriages, is not a civilization. It is decay, in the true human sense and in the true moral sense. This runs counter to everything humanity has accepted in its long history." [MEMRI translation]Obviously, the idea expressed here and by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that homosexuality does not exist among Muslims is false. It was glorified in the Muslim medieval golden age and Na’ísa gets in a good crack asking the purpose of the boys who (along with female virgins) are available to the Muslim martyr in heaven.
More basic is Khoulib’s total negation of Western culture, with which he is no doubt unfamiliar: Aristotle and the Arles of Van Gogh; Balzac, Bach, and Beethoven; Cocteau, Colette, and Chopin; Dickens, Descartes and Debussy; Erasmus and Einstein; Flaubert and Freud, and so on.
Indeed, there are four main arches critical to the Middle East’s dominant ideology:--That its problems arise from Western and Israeli oppression.The first three are too commonly accepted in the West; the last is largely ignored altogether. But the key to understanding the Middle East is not “Islamophobia” in the West but the region’s own “Westphobia,” “modernityphobia,” “secularphobia,” “democracyphobia,” “freedomphobia,” “femaleequalityphobia,” and “JudeoChristianphobia.”
--That the struggles and violence of radical Arab nationalists and Islamists are based on genuine grievances.
--That the West behaves wrongly because it is hostile or ignorant about Arabs and Muslims.
--And that Arab and Muslim society is vastly superior to the West which justifies their rejection of it and ultimately will pave the way for their victory over it.
The bottom line is that change is needed not in Western policies and perceptions but in the Middle East itself. After all, the West succeeded precisely—as Arab liberals well understand--because its societies pit a priority on internal change: education and honest inquiry; productive virtues; better social infrastructure; more human and civil rights; and a freer culture.
In this regard, a British student who lived in Syria has written a personal account entitled “Syrian Journal,” which reduces prevailing myths about the region to rubble. It brilliantly portrays a dictatorship using repression, demagoguery, and modern public relations’ techniques to stay in power.
Then compare this to a New York Times article on precisely the same topic, “Students of Arabic Learn at a Syrian Crossroads,” which falls for every regime trick and generally portrays Syria as a pretty good society.
Confronting with the daily avalanche of naïve nonsense or outright mendacity about the Middle East in the Western media, academia, and sometimes governments, I am haunted by something a Syrian friend told the “Syrian Journal” author:
“You know what pisses me off the most? Not the fascists here. But the appeasers in the West. What sort of message is that sending to us? Those of us who want some reform, who want our children to live in an open society like you have in the West?"