In my article, “How to Understand Islamism: Read What Its Leaders Actually Say,”
I wrote about how Sunni Islamist leader Yusuf al-Qaradawi: “Does not talk about
the need for urbanization, the equality of women, modern education, and greater
freedom as the solution. Indeed, his view is totally contrary to a leftist or
liberal or nationalist Muslim who would stress the need to borrow any ideas and
methods other than purely technological ones, from the West in order to gain
equality and even superiority.
Think of how Asia has succeeded – Japan,
South Korea, Singapore, and now even China – through eagerness to blend
borrowings, adaptation, and its own historic culture. No, for al-Qaradawi the
issue [of why the Muslim world hasn’t done better] is completely one of the
abandonment of Islam.”
A reader pointed out that in the West, it is
assumed to be obvious that Arabs understand that material advancement is
necessary for progress and power. For example, Tom Friedman talked about the UN
Arab Human development report written by Arab liberals. In other words, the
Arabic speaking world is shaped by the failure of leaders to understand that
Western pundits know far more about their society than they
Understanding that Friedman doesn’t understand the Middle East,
though he has persuaded a big audience otherwise, is the beginning of wisdom on
He still insists: “Read the UN’s 2002 Arab Human Development
Report about what deficits of freedom, women’s empowerment and knowledge did to
Arab peoples over the last 50 years. Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Syria are
not falling apart today because their leaders were toppled. Their leaders were
toppled because for too many years they failed too many of their people. Half
the women in Egypt still can’t read. That’s what the stability of the last 50
But this is not the real issue. It is because – as
happened in the USSR, Nazi Germany and elsewhere in history – the problem is
radical ideology in command on the sides of both leaders and the masses. As a
result, the masses of the Middle East don’t care about deficits but mainly about
hatred, killing, revenge, and – to borrow a term – what is politically correct,
not factually correct. As for the rulers, they know how devastating in terms of
stability the kind of policies naive Westerners advocate are.
the West saw the fall of Communism as the blooming of democracy; the Middle
Eastern leaders see it as the wilting of empires. The West remembers the passing
of the Soviet bloc as the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Middle East leaders saw
it as the fall of their counterparts, and the putting of Romania’s dictatorial
couple, the Ceausescus, in front of a firing squad. Now, 20 years later, Mubarak
is in prison and Gaddafi was killed.
Is Syria in a state of civil war
because the regime failed its people or because it tried to ride the tiger by
toying with the promotion of Sunni Islamism? Perhaps the regimes inevitably must
fail their people because of a lack of resources, the state of their societies,
the nature of the dominant ideas, and the era of anarchy that would have to be
unleashed by even the best attempt to address the “deficits.”
there is a Western “deficit” in understanding the Middle East, a failure to take
religion, ideology and radicalism seriously; the inability to grasp truly that
one is dealing with a different history and culture.
Often in this case I
think of an incident that happened shortly after the US overthrow of the Taliban
regime after September 11, 2001. Pro-Taliban and al-Qaida prisoners rioted and
an incredibly brave CIA man went in to try to deal with the situation. He said
to one of the Arab al- Qaida volunteers, “Why did you come here [to
Afghanistan]?” It was the typical Enlightenment question, an attempt to gain
knowledge, the belief that dialogue leads to better understanding.
al-Qaida terrorist replied, “I came here to kill you.” He knew what he wanted
and would not be reasoned with or dissuaded by an explanation that his real
enemy was women’s inequality. The mob preceded to murder the American
Now, the United States is still trying to negotiate with the
Taliban, to find its moderate wing; the Taliban and al-Qaida still want to
murder Americans. And they do.
Think of the perfect symbolism of what
happened on February 18, 2011, in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, which shows where the
locals think the West can physically insert its deficits. President Hosni
Mubarak had just been overthrown in the “Arab Spring.” There was the huge rally
to greet al-Qaradawi with an estimated one million people, 10 times what the
“moderates” (many of whom were Muslim Brothers in disguise) had been able to
Wael Ghonim, an executive of Google on leave who had been a
leader of the revolt, a young man of about 30 and married to an American convert
to Islam, tried to get on the platform. He was thrown off.
Ghonim has been a political zero.
And so Ghonim, the 30-something hero in
the West, got to be in Time magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential
people; was presented by the JFK Profile in Courage Aware (whose name was based
on a book that had Kennedy’s name on it but was written by my PhD adviser, Prof.
Jules Davids) by Caroline Kennedy on behalf of “the people of Egypt.” He was
listed as the second most powerful Arab in the world by Arabian Business
magazine for leading Egyptian youth.
Yet perhaps it would have been more
appropriate if the award had been given by a hijab-wearing Caroline Kennedy to
the Muslim Brotherhood leadership, who really represented “the people of
What happened to the 80-something al- Qaradawi? Oh, he didn’t get
any Western awards or plaudits. He just got Egypt.
Perhaps you remember
the old joke about two guys fishing. One says: “I know everything about fishing
because I’ve read all the books about it.” To which his companion replies, “But
have the fish read the books?” The author is the director of the Global Research
in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center. His forthcoming book, Nazis,
Islamists, and the Making of the Modern Middle East, is being published by Yale