The Region: It's hard to be an Arab

How can one not feel the misery of the Arab peoples, intoxicated as many are by nationalism and Islamism?

barry rubin 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin 88
(photo credit: )
Once, many years ago, I stood outside the door of a Middle East Studies Association meeting addressed by the late Edward Said as he thundered against those he deemed "the enemies of the Arabs." He even provided a list of names. Strange it was to think this was supposedly an academic meeting, not a rally of some extremist totalitarian political party. Supposedly, there are those who love the Arabs and their cause, and those who hate them. It is common to see the "supporters" as those who extol or apologize for the dictatorships that oppress Arab peoples; the "resistance" which blows them up; steals their children to be suicide bombers or fighters in futile battles; radicals who urge them to fight to the death; and journalists who make good livings by lying to them. Pretty ironic, isn't it? While many experiences have prompted these observations, the two latest ones is Hamas's triumph in the Gaza Strip -due to be followed by horrendous repression and a Taliban-style regime - and a statement by Kuwaiti parliament speaker Jassem al-Kharafi explaining that his and other Arab countries, "have no fear" about Iran having nuclear capabilities, adding that Iran was obviously seeking nuclear technology for solely peaceful purposes. Imagine his situation. The Kuwaitis went through a terrible invasion and looting by Iraq in 1990-1991 and are no doubt quaking at what could happen to them if Iran has the bomb. Not that Teheran would drop it on them but because they would do anything to save themselves from being obliterated, hopping to Iran's every demand. Come to think of it, though, they tirelessly appeased Iraq before the invasion. Poets wrote odes to Saddam Hussein's greatness, Kuwaitis strained to prove their Arab nationalism, and of course the money flowed freely. It's a tough, stressful life. YOU CANNOT even speak up in your own self-defense. A few years ago, a Lebanese friend of mine living abroad was invited to come home by the son of his country's president. When he told his aunt of the planned visit, she told him in no uncertain terms that he dare not set foot in the country. "Even if the president himself is your host, any Syrian sergeant can throw you into prison‚" she said. Last week, I heard the same story from a Lebanese journalist, except now the threat isn't a Syrian prison but a Syrian assassination team. At best, you have to keep your mouth shut; at worst you have to sing the praise of your dictators, those leading you to disaster. What if you are a Palestinian or Lebanese and terrorists chose to use the roof of your house to fire rockets at Israelis? Do you run upstairs and tell these desperate armed men to stop shooting and go away? Can you even dare criticize them publicly after your home gets blown up in an attack? It must be funny, if it were not so tragic, to see the Western leaders, diplomats, academics, and journalists who come and praise the corrupt and the tyrants, supposedly thinking that they are helping you. All too often, they echo or adapt the claims of the dictators and their hired demagogues that everything is the fault of America, the West, or Israel. Not long ago, a highly-paid, highly praised "left-wing" American journalist who has made himself the tool of the Syrian regime and others of that ilk, spreading their lies, visited Cairo. He gave a talk sponsored by an Egyptian writer whose career embodies that of the well-rewarded regime propagandist, and began of course by praising him for his contribution to truth and exemplary journalism. When dealing with the most thoughtful, and idealistic Arab intellectuals, I have a repetitive sadly amusing experience. In private, they speak honestly about the need for peace with Israel, their own leaders' shortcomings, and their hope for change. Then, the microphones and cameras turn on and they recite, parrot-like the official line. Sometimes they get caught up in the discussion and suddenly realize near the end that they have forgotten to insert the appropriate anti-Israel and anti-American remarks. They have to rush to put them in, lest they get in trouble. And, of course, much of the audience thinks that this is what they really believe. Then there is the constant temptation to sell out and join the crowd, shout the slogans along with everyone else, become not only a phony hero but a well-rewarded scoundrel. And isn't it sad enough that they know all these laurels will be given them for selling out without their also knowing that it will win them respect in the West as well? PERIODICALLY, people think they have scored some point when they tell me that polls show ordinary Palestinians want peace with Israel and an end to the fighting. That may well be true, I respond, but do their leaders and all those gunmen care at all for how these people feel? And these are the forces ensuring that there be no two-state solution and end to the endless violence from which they benefit. Years ago, when Saddam Hussein was still in office, I was asked to address a visiting delegation of Arab journalists. The other American speakers gave the standard blah-blah. We felt their pain, we were working to resolve the Israel-Palestinian issue, we were sensitive to their Arab nationalist sentiments. Having no ambition to hold high political office, I decided to introduce a dose of reality. Let's face it, I explained, we know that your real enemy isn't Israel or the United States but the regimes in Libya, Iraq, Syria, Iran, as well as Yasser Arafat and others. They are the ones who take away your rights, wreck your societies, destroy your dreams. Afterward I was mobbed - in the friendliest sense possible - by the audience who all wanted to thank me and say that they agreed. It is heart-breaking. What do you say to a Syrian dissident who is facing prison and quite possibly torture? Can you tell him that the West will support him, that journalists will condemn the regime that beats him, Middle East experts will give papers at conferences praising his work, US congressional delegations won't visit unless he is freed, or European governments will demand his release? How can one not feel the misery of the Arab peoples, intoxicated as many are by the opiate of Arab nationalism and Islamism, the false promises of impending triumphs and the horror stories of satanic foes? How can one not sympathize with the frustration of real moderates who live in societies where they are treated as madmen and traitors. And how can one not feel the utmost disgust at those living comfortably in the West who celebrate or advocate their own countries' surrender to all the evil forces holding them down and back? The writer is director of the GLORIA Center, Interdisciplinary Center (IDC); editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, and author of the just published The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan.