Ugly lies and ugly truths

The many self-inflicted problems that plague the Arab world are not among the favorite topics of the liberal mainstream media, but some recent events like the massacre of Copts in Egypt and escalating protests in Tunisia have made it hard to avoid commenting on the subject. Unsurprisingly, the New York Times demonstrated exquisite sensitivity and offered its readers Rami Khouri’s pained and polite take on “Arabia’s Troubling Script.”
Khouri listed the “unfortunate realities” that make the Arab world a breeding ground for violent discontent and extremism as if he was writing about some natural disaster. What would be loudly decried as murderous intolerance if it happened in the West – let alone in Israel – was politely described as a regrettable “trend of depluralization.”
But then America’s diplomat-in-chief Hillary Clinton decided to be undiplomatically blunt about the Arab world’s “unfortunate realities.” During a regional development conference in the Qatari capital of Doha, she “blasted Arab governments for stalled political change, warning that extremists were exploiting a lack of democracy to promote radical agendas across the Middle East.” Clinton warned grimly that “[the] region’s foundations are sinking into the sand.”
The inevitable standard reaction came from an Al-Jazeera reporter who promptly asked Clinton “why Arab countries should listen to her criticism when the US can’t even get its longtime ally, Israel, to make peace with the Palestinians.”
It has long been one of the Arab world’s favorite memes: whenever there is any criticism of anything Arab, respond with criticizing or blaming the US and Israel. One of the most memorable examples of this reflex was provided a few years ago in an interview conducted by a Swiss magazine with the editor-in-chief of Al-Jazeera. Back then, in December 2006, Jeff Weintraub highlighted this interview as an example for the widespread Arab view that Israel is really the root cause for all the Middle East’s problems.
Weintraub argued that “when mass delusions come to occupy such a central role in a political culture, they have real effects, and generally pernicious ones. Furthermore, by dint of endless repetition, this delusional world-view is coming to take on the status of ‘common sense’ in western discussions of the Middle East as well.”
Fast forward a few years to January 2011, and you have a choice of articles that read like a sequel to Weintraub’s observations.
In the Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens commented on the various conspiracy theories that recently circulated in Egypt. He argued that “the ultimate source of Arab backwardness […] lies in the debasement of the Arab mind. When the only diagnosis Egyptians can offer for their various predicaments – ranging from sectarian terrorism to a recent spate of freak shark attacks at a Sinai beach resort – is that it’s all a Zionist plot, you know that the country is in very deep trouble.”
In Tablet Magazine, Lee Smith focused on the widespread tendency of Western media to uncritically report even the most absurd accusations leveled against Israel as if the charges were based on well-established facts. In his conclusion, Smith argued:
“[The] Arabs are not winning an information war against Israel, nor anything else for that matter. Rather, the stories and lies they tell to delegitimize the Jewish state are part and parcel of the war that they have been waging against themselves, and with stunning success. The tragedy is that everyone knows where the Arabs are heading, because the signs of failure and self-destructiveness couldn’t be clearer—poverty, violence, despotism, illiteracy, mistreatment of women, and the persecution of confessional minorities, like Egypt’s Coptic Christian population. The Western journalists and NGOs who repeat and credential these lies are doing no honor to either the values of their own society or those of the Arabs; they’re merely helping a culture kill itself.”
The problem is that it’s not about values: ugly lies about Israel will remain popular wherever it seems advantageous - ideologically, politically, or economically - to suppress ugly truths about the Arab world.