From my Middle East Guy in re today’s column:
It’s worse than you think. I suspect you haven’t read Ajami’s “Dream Palace of the Arabs” (which I think I’ve recommended) in which he patiently, sadly demonstrates that much of what passes for political thought among Arab _élites_ is almost literally delusional. To use an American example suggested by reading John McWhorter’s books recently, Arab conspiratorialism might be analogous to some of the myths that America’s black community has constructed in the past thirty years or so: Racism is everywhere; Whitey will never let us succeed; Most blacks are poor and confined to the slums; Only a few superstars escape the horrors of ghetto life.
In Arab culture, not only are these pernicious untruths “on the street,” but they’re reinforced, fed, and to some extent subscribed to by regimes who, if they aren’t totalitarian in the Soviet sense (like Syria or Iraq), certainly do not admit anything approaching free inquiry, press, etc. (These are our “moderate” friends, Jordan, Egypt, Kuwait, etc.)
I don’t think there’s another part of the world so caught up in wacky conspiracy theories as the Middle East. Turkey is an exception, though it does seep in there a bit, too. But the Turks are generally more empirical and self-critical. Most of the Middle East, from North Africa to Pakistan, tends to put stuff from the fever swamps on the state-censored front page. It’s going to be a long, hard row to hoe if we want to engage “hearts and minds.” And I’m increasingly skeptical
about the possibility (or desirability) of democracy in the short term.
If we just declare victory and set up a quickie election mechanism, I think Iraq might have a stable shelf life of ten years (plus or minus five). Democracies favor the views of the _demos_. And the Arab _demos_ has been nurtured on lies and grievances at least since Nasser.
And freedom may not cure it. Again, to return to the (very imperfect) analogy of black America, it has only been since the late sixties, early seventies that cultural despair and separatism have come to the fore. In other words, just when the most serious legal and political handicaps were removed, people took refuge in increasingly unrealistic, but psychologically comforting victimology and myth-making.
But perhaps I woke up on the gloomy side of the bed this morning.