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The Arab ideological straightjacket 1, March 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Lebanon, Middle East.
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Professor Barry Rubin at the Global Research Center for International Affairs (GLORIA), the people who manage, edit and produce the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA), wrote an interesting and insightful argument about the blanket ideological straightjacket that pervades the Middle East. He, somewhat unfortunately, dubs this the Arab Ideological Doctrine Syndrome: AIDS. This is used to describe a general state of mind and policy whereby fighting Israel or America is the ultimate way to gain acceptance and righteousness. It doesn’t matter how you pursue this; if you are successful, what the repercussions of this are, or how badly this affects your country, people or friends – to fight Israel and America is to be immune to criticism and to be a saint. As Rubin eloquently puts it:

 You can lose the war (like Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser), wreck your own country (like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein), be a dictator (like Syria’s Hafiz and Bashar al-Asad), lead your people into catastrophe (like Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat), and be extraordinarily corrupt (like…everybody) but it doesn’t matter as long as you fight Israel and the West.

Obviously, there are people who do not abide by such an ideology, who do not fight Israel or America. They are, therefore, by default and definition, pejoratively described as pro-US, appeasers, spies for the West, or moderates – and in this case, to be called a moderate is certainly a bad thing. Rubin uses the example of Lebanese cabinet minister Marwan Hamada. He was interviewed by Press TV, the Iranian news channel, where he defended himself from being accused of being a Western spy, the default position for anyone in the Lebanese government who is not out rightly supporting Hezbollah and castigating America or Israel as the devil incumbent.

He refuted the claim that he was a Western spy and simply maintained that he was a Lebanese patriot. Usually, as Rubin points out, such a line would be a sure-fire popular vote winner of a line. To be a patriot, to put your country’s interests first and foremost, to do all you can to ensure its viability, strength and security against all enemies is ordinarily the simple way to acquire legitimacy and respect. But not in the Middle East. Because Hamada puts his country first and above all else (unlike many of the actors in Lebanon) this means that he does not want to pitch Lebanon into the control of either Iran or Syria, allow Lebanon to be changed into an authoritarian Islamist state, or be “dragged into an unnecessary, damaging, unwinnable war with Israel.” All of which helps to explain why he was nearly assassinated a couple of years ago – he has no shortage of enemies.

Whilst Hamada may well be no saint himself, it is surely clear that he is one of many actors around the Middle East who try to eschew the typically damaging, retrograde but populist policies of attacking the common enemy. Rubin concludes by saying that this broad ideological outlook which makes enemies of moderates is the very reason why “peace, moderation, and pragmatism still cannot win there.” This is an unfortunately plausible and seemingly just conclusion. Perhaps the only hope is that the average ‘Arab on the street’ is able to distinguish between the seductive and the pragmatic policies as offered by politicians and people with power.