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The Tragedy of the Arabs

Posted By Rogers Emerson On July 16, 2014 @ 12:40 am In Daily Mailer,FrontPage | 84 Comments

Years ago, an Iraqi thinker and writer, Kanan Makiya, suggested that the Arab world was delusional with respect to the violence and antipathies that crippled its political culture.

He wrote several books documenting this harsh reality, including Cruelty and Silence and The Republic of Fear, which he wrote using a pseudonym. Sadly, a quarter century later, there is little reason to question Makiya’s perspective or to think the Arab world has any clue how to thrive and survive in the modern world. But for oil, the region would be a morass of failure and poverty – not a single working democracy or successful cultural entity (Lebanon tries, but is besieged north and south and internally); not an ounce of serious tolerance for plurality or civil discourse; no serious and sustained commitment to a culture of inclusion and government of modern law.

I am not convinced that any Arab thinker or writer – past or present – could honestly make sense of the disaster that is playing out in the Middle East today. I include such eminent men of letters and historians as Albert Hourani, Fouad Ajami (rest in peace) or even Edward Said, who no doubt would be tossing out the same old excuses about Western imperialism.

You can try to blame the West, Israel, Bernard Lewis, George W. Bush or Obama. But in fact the mess belongs mostly and squarely on the shoulders of an anti-modern, tribalist and sectarian mentality that continue to roil the region in cruelty and violence. The dominant religion and its more extreme faithful followers are trapped in in a world view that remains Medieval and frightening.

From Syria, to Egypt, to Iraq – the recipe for rule is tyranny and the answer to every difficult problem is violence.

I write this sadly, reluctantly, as someone who has lived in the region and who has had friends there and has seen the struggles firsthand of well-meaning and enlightened people. But what is unfolding today is not new to the region – read the Struggle for Syria by Patrick Seale or Hanna Batatu’s massive study on the political culture of Iraq.

It is convenient in some circles to blame the post-World War I partition of the region for the problems. But nearly a century later this feels like just another excuse for avoiding accountability and responsibility. Yes, bad line drawing and imposed regimes can wreak havoc on a culture for a time, but the underlying problem – the inability or unwillingness to live with neighbors, whether states or individuals – is a recipe for tension and violence in any culture or society.

No one seems to do worse at this these days than the Arab world. Even in Egypt, traditionally the most stable and civil of the Arab states, persecution of and discrimination against Christians and Jews has been rampant for decades. In recent months, there has been an almost genocidal fervor against Muslim extremists who themselves cannot tolerate an ounce of diversity or pluralism as a matter of right and justice.

In short, a culture either unites and coheres or it fragments. Or as Mr. Lincoln might have put it: a house divided cannot stand. These days, it is hard to argue against those who once suggested that partitioning Iraq was the best and only path toward stability.

As for those who argue that the United States should reengage militarily and become embroiled again in the region, sorry, but no. There is simply no way to help stabilize a region sweltering with so much hatred, animosity and insecurity. We have invested enough blood and treasure for the little return that was earned. The situation is pathological – and any power that inserts itself into this disaster will simply get swallowed up by it. We have already botched Iraq a couple of times and haven’t done much better in Afghanistan. Do we need to keep making the same blunders over and over?

Let the Arab League draw the new lines and remake the map, if they so desire. Our goal should be to engage constructively, negotiate as circumstances allow and to shore up our defenses and military capabilities. We should be defensive in posture and aggressive in that defense, but redeploying ground forces is simply a nonstarter.

That doesn’t mean we do nothing (James Baker recently laid out some ideas on next steps.) By all means, negotiate, discuss, and seek to mobilize where possible around saner options than regional chaos and war. It would be nice, too, to have a foreign policy of some kind, which the hapless Obama administration clearly does not have.

But let’s face it. Much of the Arab world is united mainly by its hatred of the West and of Israel.  That hatred is a sorry foundation on which to build a forward-looking or modern culture and economy. That is why a quarter century later, Makiya’s melancholy observations remain salient and true.

Mr. Ajami wrote some years ago in his book, The Arab Predicament, that the inability to accommodate others was a fundamental challenge in an Arab world where pockets of tribalism and traditionalism continued to divide and destroy. He called this delusional approach to the modern world an attempt to live in a “self-completed” world.

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