Let us confess it: Many of the things that are bothersome in the world today originate in the Middle East. Billions of air passengers each year take off their belts and shoes at the airport, not because of fears of terrorism from the slums of Johannesburg or because the grandsons of displaced East Prussians are blowing up Polish diplomats. We put up with such burdens because a Saudi multimillionaire, Osama bin Laden, and his unhinged band of Arab religious extremists began ramming airliners into buildings and murdering thousands.
The Olympics have become an armed camp, not because the Cold War Soviets once stormed Montreal or the Chinese have threatened Australia, but largely because Palestinian terrorists butchered Israelis in Munich 40 years ago and established the precedent that international arenas were ideal occasions for political mass murder.
There is no corn or wheat cartel. There are no cell-phone monopolies. Coal prices are not controlled by global price-fixers. Yet OPEC adjusts the supply of oil in the Middle East to ensure high prices, mostly for the benefit of Gulf sheikhdoms and assorted other authoritarian governments.
Catholics don’t assassinate movie directors or artists who treat Jesus Christ with contempt. Jewish mobs will not murder cartoonists should they ridicule the Torah. Buddhists are not calling for global blasphemy laws. But radical Muslims, mostly in the Middle East, have warned the world that Islam alone is not to be caricatured — or else. Right-wing fascists and red Communists have not done as much damage to the First Amendment as have the threats from the Arab Street.
The world obsesses over Israel and the Palestinians because of the neurotic Middle East. The issue is not really the principle of a divided capital — or Nicosia would be daily news. Nor is the concern over refugees per se, since well over 500,000 Jews were religiously cleansed from the major Arab capitals following the 1948 and 1967 wars. No one cares where they went or how they have fared in the decades since. Is the global worry really over occupied territories? Hardly. Lately it seems that every desolate island between China and Japan is equally contested. Are there special envoys to the Falklands, and do the islanders receive international aid? Will there be a U.N. session devoted to the Kuril Islands? Does Gdansk/Danzig merit summits? We are told ad nauseam that the Arab minority in Israel suffers — would that the ignored Coptic minority in Egypt had similar protections and freedoms.
The oil-rich Middle East is just different from other regions. We don’t expect another Cal Tech to sprout in Cairo in the way it might in either Bombay or Beijing. Nor do we assume that a cure for prostate cancer could ever emerge from Tripoli as it might from Tel Aviv. The world will not be flooded by Syrian-made low-cost, durable products that make our lives better — comparable to what comes from South Korea. There will be not a Saudi or Algerian version of a Kia. High-speed machine lathes will not be exported from Pakistan as they are from Germany. I doubt that engineers in Afghanistan or Yemen will replace our iPads. The Middle East’s efforts in the production of biofuels will not rival Brazil’s. Libya will not send archaeologists to the American Southwest to help investigate Native American sites.
In other words, in politically incorrect terms, the world tacitly gives exemptions to the Middle East — and expects very little in return. It assumes that the rules that apply elsewhere of civility, tolerance, and nonviolence are inoperative there — and perhaps have reason to so be. Money is made in the Middle East either by pumping out oil that others have found and developed or, less frequently these days, by catering to tourists who wish to see the remains of what others built centuries earlier. Few foreigners decide to spend a relaxing week in Egypt, or to sunbathe on the beaches of Gaza, or to enjoy the wine and cheese of Libya, or to snorkel in the waters off Syria, or to study engineering in Algiers. How many tourists choose to mountaineer in Afghanistan or visit Persepolis or unwind in Pakistan?
The world also assumes a sort of Middle Eastern parasitism: Daily its millions use mobile phones, take antibiotics, hit the Internet, fire RPGs, and play video games, and yet they not only do not create these products that they rely upon, but largely have antipathy for those who do.
Asymmetry is, of course, assumed. One expects to be detained for having a Bible in one’s baggage at Riyadh, whereas a Koran in a tote bag is of no importance at the Toronto airport. The Egyptian immigrant in San Francisco, or the Pakistani who moves to London, expects to be allowed to demonstrate against the freewheeling protocols of his hosts, while a Westerner protesting against life under sharia in the streets of Karachi or Gaza would earn a death sentence. What is nauseating about this is not the hypocrisy per se, but the Middle Eastern insistence that there is no such hypocrisy. We expect the immigrant from Egypt to deface public posters and call it freedom of expression; we expect Mr. Morsi, who enjoyed American freedom while he studied for his Ph.D. and then taught for three years in California, to deny it to others and trash his former host.