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In Mideast, Bet on a Strong Horse
A new book on Arab politics has diagnosed a pathology.


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Daniel Pipes

The violence and cruelty of Arabs often perplexes Westerners.

Not only does the leader of Hezbollah proclaim “We love death,” but so too does, for example, the 24-year-old man who last month yelled “We love death more than you love life” as he crashed his car on the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge in New York City. As two parents in St. Louis honor-killed their teenage daughter with thirteen stabs of a butcher’s knife, the Palestinian father shouted “Die! Die quickly! Die quickly! . . . Quiet, little one! Die, my daughter, die!” — and the local Arab community supported them against murder charges. A prince from Abu Dhabi recently tortured a grain dealer whom he accused of fraud; although a video of the atrocity appeared on television internationally, the prince was acquitted while his accusers were convicted.

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On a larger scale, one accounting finds 15,000 terrorist attacks since 9/11. Governments throughout the Arabic-speaking world rely more on brutality than on the rule of law. The drive to eliminate Israel still persists even as new insurrections take hold; the latest one has flared up in Yemen.

Several excellent attempts to explain the pathology of Arab politics exist; my personal favorites include studies by David Pryce-Jones and Philip Salzman. Now add to these The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations (Doubleday, $26), an entertaining yet deep and important analysis by Lee Smith, a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute.

Smith takes as his prooftext Osama bin Laden’s comment in 2001, “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse.” What Smith calls the strong-horse principle contains two banal elements: Seize power and then maintain it. This principle predominates because Arab public life has “no mechanism for peaceful transitions of authority or power sharing, and therefore [it] sees political conflict as a fight to the death between strong horses.” Violence, Smith observes is “central to the politics, society, and culture of the Arabic-speaking Middle East.” It also, more subtly, implies keeping a wary eye on the next strong horse, triangulating, and hedging bets.

Smith argues that the strong-horse principle, not Western imperialism or Zionism, “has determined the fundamental character of the Arabic-speaking Middle East.” The Islamic religion itself both fits into the ancient pattern of strong-horse assertiveness and actively promulgates it. Muhammad, the Islamic prophet, was a strongman as well as a religious figure. Sunni Muslims have ruled through the centuries “by violence, repression, and coercion.” Ibn Khaldun’s famous theory of history amounts to a cycle of violence in which strong horses replace weak ones. The humiliation of dhimmis daily reminds non-Muslims who rules.



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