One of the greatest little challenges in my life – at least in terms of needing to react instantly – came in a meeting with high-ranking Egyptian officials during Pessah one year. One of them asked me if it was true that the Jews had a holiday about defeating the Egyptians and causing them great harm. I realized that I had about a total of ten seconds to come up with the best answer possible.
And it then came to me: “Ah, I replied, those were jahiliyya
times.” In Islam, the time before that religion is viewed as a time not only of paganism but also of barbarism. Pharaoh is a villain in the Koran.
So the gentlemen instantly accepted my answer. To celebrate an event that ends with the drowning of Pharaoh isn’t an act against Egypt but against a ruler who is considered to be a hated tyrant.
Instantly, in this conversation, the whole framework of understanding history changed.
WE ARE in a similar situation today. In Arab nationalist and Islamist ideology, the great enemies are considered to be the West, modern society, and Israel. For the nationalists, at least in public discourse, the heroes are their current and past rulers: people like Gamal Abdel Nasser, Saddam Hussein, and Yasser Arafat. For the Islamists, the equivalents are Osama bin Ladin and Ruhollah Khomeini, among others.
In other words, their heroes and those who they look to at present are the modern-day pharaohs, the kind of people who have repeatedly led them right into the Red Sea where the waters closed over them.
Change will only come when the ideas and individuals who dominate the Middle East today – and who oppose modernization, women’s equality, democracy, peace with Israel, and real friendship with the West – are seen not as heroic leaders embodying Arabism and Islam but as unrepresentative tyrants.
That is not going to happen any time soon. It will take decades.
Coincidentally, I just read the following written by George Orwell in 1946: “Whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible….This habit of the mind leads also to the belief that things will happen more quickly, completely, and catastrophically than they ever do in practice. The rise and fall of empires... are expected to happen with earthquake suddenness, and processes which have barely started are talked about as though they were already at an end.”
In an age where things happen quickly, communication is faster than ever, and people have accustomed themselves to a pace of change that would dazzle their ancestors, the expectation is that historical evolution will be correspondingly swift. Moreover, in an era built on unbridled optimism – at least in the West – and where it has been forgotten that things may take decades to develop, there is a deep-seated conviction that events can only go in a positive direction.
Thus, many people can look at the Israel-Palestinian peace process, ignore all the reasons it wasn’t settled years ago, and insist that a solution is just months away if only proper leadership or pressure or ideas are applied. No amount of failure can seem to convince them otherwise.
It is not much of an exaggeration to say that the current US policy seems to be based on the belief that if only Israel didn’t build apartments in Jerusalem, there would be peace. And that if there’s peace on this front, the entire Middle East will settle into a pattern of quiet and stability. The notion that a “peace agreement” could lead to new problems and crises isn’t even considered.
Nobody wants to hear this, but this is precisely what they most need to hear.
TO RETURN to Orwell’s point, this process of change has only “barely started” and there is a long way to go. There will even be reversals of direction. It is quite conceivable – especially with current Western policy – that one or more Arabic-speaking states will fall under a radical Islamist government which will make the current dictatorships look mild by comparison.
It is very likely that Iran is going to get nuclear weapons, which, even if they are never fired will transform the strategic balance in the region and lead to a big increase in revolutionary and terrorist activity in all Arab countries.
It is also arguably true that more in the West have accepted the Middle East interpretation of reality over the past decade than the other way around, viewing Islamists as heroic revolutionaries and tyrannical regimes as fighters for the underdog.
A brave Syrian oppositionist once asked me whether I thought democracy would soon come to his country. I choked, having too much respect for him to tell him a pleasing lie. He understood my silence: “Oh, well,” he sighed, “maybe in my children’s time.”
And so let me offer praise especially – though not exclusively – for the democratic forces in Turkey, the democratic opposition in Iran, and in Syria, and those who dream of a free Lebanon. Your liberation will come also. Not when those tyrants and revolutionary extremists triumph. It will come when the waters close over them for the last time.
The same is probably true for a Palestinian state. Under the current
hardline leaders, those behind the scenes who hold the top jobs, there
isn’t going to be any breakthrough in negotiations.
What’s important in this assessment is not whether it is optimistic or
pessimistic, whether it makes us feel good or bad. The only measure is
whether it is true.
But the end can only truly be in sight when the masses see that what so
many of them extol as greatness is in fact the social equivalent of the
times they despise – as embodied by the jahiliyya
times of slavery to men who acted as pharaohs and to ideologies that were the equivalent of barbarism.
The writer is director of the Global
Research in International Affairs Center and editor of the Middle East
Review of International Affairs and Turkish Studies.