Isimply cannot comprehend why many in the West refuse to see that Arabs can be revolutionaries. It is remarkable that so many who claim to be experts don’t incorporate the idea that Arabs, like other peoples, might be motivated by ideologies claiming to be the blueprints for utopias.
After all, if Africans, Asians, Europeans and Latin Americans can think and behave this way, why can’t Arabs?
The two paragraphs above are written in response to yet another book, by
a very experienced expert on the region, claiming that al-Qaida is
almost completely motivated by the Palestinian issue, as well as a
couple of articles claiming that the only reason the United States or
President Barack Obama isn’t popular in the Middle East is due to
In fact, al-Qaida, Hamas, Hizbullah, the Muslim Brotherhood and other
Islamist groups have been overwhelmingly motivated by a desire to
revolutionize the entire Muslim-majority world (and even the whole
world) in line with their interpretation of Islam. Al-Qaida’s original
cause was to overthrow the Saudi royal family, followed by an effort to
help Iraq against Western pressure. In al-Qaida documents before and
after the September 11 attacks, the Palestinian issue was not mentioned
among the questions that motivated the group more than about 10 percent
of the time. It was never highlighted, unlike the Saudi and Iraqi
In addition, radical Arab nationalists, including many intellectuals and
several Arab regimes (Egypt, 1952-1970; Syria, 1949-present; Iraq,
1958-2003; Libya, 1973-present), have sought to unite the Arab world
under their leadership, overthrow neighboring governments and expel
Western influence in line with their ambitions and ideology.
When a recent poll in the Middle East showed that Obama was unpopular,
America is widely seen as an enemy, and support for revolutionary
Islamism is high, the explanation offered by the poll’s sponsors was
that this is all due to US support of Israel.
YET WHY should this be so? Something doesn’t add up here.
A while ago when my wife and I edited a book of readings on
anti-American terrorism in the region, which showed decisively how
little Osama bin Laden ever talked about Palestine, the (ironically
positive) review in one of the main American newspapers said the book
showed how September 11 was all about Israel.
About two years ago, a Swiss reporter interviewed a high-ranking
official in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates and asked why the school
system wasn’t better. Ah, explained the man, this was all due to Israel.
While the following are generalizations, they are generally true.
Arabicspeaking people live in terrible, unfree societies marked by
massive injustice and poor prospects for improvement. Their lives are
increasingly governed by restrictions based on religious interpretation,
large-scale segregation by gender, a contrast of which they are well
aware between the repression and stagnation of their own countries and
the relative freedom and progress in other parts of the world.
They know there are high levels of violence and instability in their
societies. There is ethnic and communal strife. There are wars over who
will rule Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Yemen and Algeria.
There are political values everywhere else. There are contending
ideologies, radical Arab nationalism and Islamism, promoting utopian
expectations, while three worldviews that would bring more calm
(traditional conservatism, liberalism and nation-state patriotism) are
far weaker than anywhere else in the world.
There is deep resentment of the West for past imperialism, its relative power and wealth and cultural and religious differences.
All of these factors are systematically fed to the masses on a daily
basis by mosques, schools, leaders, opposition politicians, media and
just about every other institution.
And yet we are to believe that this problem is entirely or almost
entirely caused by Israel’s existence, the Arab- Israeli conflict and
the situation of the Palestinians. That’s it? Why do people say this?
One reason is ignorance. The conflict is all they know about the Middle
East, and this answer is what they are constantly told by most experts
and some media.
Another reason is politics, as it is a talking point by those who for
various reasons want to wipe Israel off the map or weaken it.
A THIRD factor is a subtle West-centric view (with elements of the kind
of psychic thing that causes racism): that only what the West does
matters and that local peoples don’t have minds of their own. So since
Israel is considered Western and the West has generally supported
Israel, that is “real,” while Arab societies don’t really exist, Arabs
don’t really have political ideas and so on. They are merely blackboards
on which we, the West, write our ideas and record our deeds.
This same mentality also arises from the human desire for easy answers.
No, they say, we don’t have to battle terrorists and revolutionaries for
decades, just give them the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (or perhaps
all of Israel) and they will be happy, peaceful and love us. Rejecting
such a beautiful dream, such a “no-cost” solution isn’t easy.
There are also those who, motivated by their desire to change their own
Western countries, want to persuade people that the existing capitalist
democratic system is responsible for all the world’s ills.
Then, too, it is a very reassuring answer for Westerners: They don’t
hate us. They don’t want to kill us or kick out our presence from the
region. They’re just angry at the Jews and if we stop helping them, then
everything will be all right. We don’t even have to make concessions in
our own right, just force concessions on Israel that cost us nothing.
What a simple solution!
Of course, a fifth reason is that this is what Arabs so often say. There
is indeed an obsession with the Israel/Palestinian issue, though less
so than is generally believed in the West. What one often sees is that
there is a big debate within the Arabic-speaking world but when the
spokesman is interviewed by a Western media outlet, he attributes
everything to Israel.
Part of this is indeed used by governments and movements to further the
resentment, anger and violence. For the regimes, it is also useful for
distracting attention from their own rule and channeling revolutionary
energies against someone else.
Note also how, in fact, the Israel issue does function, but never as an
end in itself. For radical Arabs and regimes, it was a step toward Arab
unity and the expulsion of Western influence. For the Islamists,
destroying Israel is a step toward establishing a caliphate, Islamist
rule in every country, and defeating the West.
In short, a victory over Israel and its destruction would trigger more radicalism.
A two-state solution would trigger another round in attacking Israel and
a struggle over who would control Palestine (Fatah, Hamas, Iran, Egypt,
Syria, Saudi Arabia) just as there is a battle over controlling every
The writer is director of the Global
Research in International Affairs Center and editor of Middle East
Review of International Affairs and Turkish Studies. He blogs at