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The idea that poverty, relative backwardness, violence and instability must be caused by external circumstances is ingrained in much of the Western intelligentsia. It contributes to a tendency to apologize for those regimes and radical groups that are the main cause of continued stagnation and suffering in the Middle East.
In fact, of course, these problems are usually based more on history, culture, geography, ideology and choices made.
For example, Muslim-majority countries have much lower participation of women in society; 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 16th 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-Jazeera television, October 30, 2007. Khouli said: "Western civilization is not really a civilization."
Na'isa 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." [translations by www.memritv.org] 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?
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 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."
Obviously, the idea expressed here and by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - that homosexuality does not exist among Muslims - is false. Homosexuality was glorified in the Muslim medieval golden age, and Na'isa gets in a good crack when he asks about 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 pillars critical to the Middle East's dominant ideology:
â€¢ that its problems arise from Western and Israeli oppression;
â€¢ that the struggles and violence of radical Arab nationalists and Islamists are based on genuine grievances;
â€¢ that the West behaves wrongly because it is hostile or ignorant about Arabs and Muslims;
â€¢ and that Arab and Muslim society is vastly superior to the West - which justifies their rejection of it and will ultimately pave the way for their victory over it.
The first three pillars are too commonly accepted in the West; the last is largely ignored - creating a critical flaw in Western thinking, since the key to understanding the Middle East is not "Islamophobia" in the West, but the region's own "Westophobia." Within this broad category we can discern many other phobias: of modernity, secularity, democracy, freedom, female equality and of Judaism and Christianity.
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 put 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. Read it at: (http://tinyurl.com/yw46h9).
Then compare it 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 (http://tinyurl.com/2eh2ld).
Confronted by the daily avalanche of naÃ¯ve 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?"
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