Politics & Policy

Empty Gestures

Why President Bush's appearance on Arab television makes no difference.

The appearance of a contrite President George Bush on Arab televisions earlier this month was unprecedented. But will his effort have any positive effect and if it does not, then why not?

There’s been no overwhelming evidence that his appearance changed hearts and minds-and that’s no surprise. Most likely, any long-term positive effect on Arab public opinion will be limited to Iraqi Shiites and Kurds. Outside of Iraq the Arab street will remain hostile to the United States, irrespective of measures taken against those responsible for poor judgment and criminal behavior in Abu Ghraib.

The reason is, in part, because the Arab media contributes to inflaming street sentiment. In responding to a question asked by the journal Foreign Policy in its current issue, Mouafac Harb, a Beirut-born Muslim Arab and news director of the American-sponsored Arabic television outfit Al Hurra (the “Free One”), observed: “If you measure Arab public opinion before Al Jazeera and after Al Jazeera, you will discover that anti-Americanism has risen. Is that the direct impact of Al Jazeera? It’s debatable, but I think Arab media in general helps increase anti-Americanism.”

The Arab media is as much a mirror of Arab society as it is a product of its political culture. But the history of this political culture remains opaque to Americans despite their best intentions and efforts to understand it. The political culture in Arab-Muslim history offers no example by which to measure and appreciate the sort of apologetic television appearance the American president recently made.

This history is one of tension between rulers as despots and mobs set loose by demagogues. Elias Canetti, the 1981 Nobel Laureate for Literature, wrote perceptively on this subject in his memorable book Crowds and Power. Though Canetti rarely makes any reference to Arabs and Muslims, his framework of analysis is fitting for an understanding of politics in the Arab-Muslim world.

The absence of democracy in this region between the Atlantic Ocean and the Indus River–with the exception of Israel and Turkey–is not a quirk of history. It is an effect of the predominantly tribal nature of Arab-Muslim society. A tribal society is a closed circle, closed to the outsider, and an outsider is anyone without a tribal patron. In this insular world the concept of individual freedom is non-existent, and an individual is completely subordinate to collective norms. Here a minority of any sort is barely tolerated, and is often ruthlessly repressed for not conforming to the majority tradition.

An Egyptian diplomat, Tahseen Bashir, famously coined the phrase for Arab politics as “tribes with flags.” A leader in tribal politics is one who possesses greater force of arms and numbers of followers against any putative challenger. A leader emerges in such a system by knocking out the power-holder within the tribe, and remains a leader until deposed by a challenger. In such a system no leader can be seen as weak, hesitant in the use of force, apologetic, or contrite. For a leader in tribal setting, politics is a zero-sum game. For instance, no former Arab-Muslim leader is to be found living in peaceful retirement in his home country.

The tribal system makes for a despotic leader. The mob is its natural opposition. It is the crowd on the street that comes together as a mob when it senses any weakness in the leader. How a crowd is formed is an interesting sociological phenomenon that Canetti described. In the Arab-Muslim world a crowd is always at hand in any number of mosques, for mosques are not merely houses of worship but also centers of political dissent and opposition to power. Inside the religious garb of most prayer-leaders in a mosque lurks a demagogue. This is why mosques have always been strictly controlled by leaders, and only officially sanctioned sermons are allowed from the mosque pulpits.

Moreover, the traditional view in Islam there is no separation of religion and politics has meant that the language of religion is indistinguishable from the rhetoric of politics. Since politics regularly shapes religious discourse in the closed circle of Arab-Muslim society, whenever a crack appears in the leadership’s façade a mosque congregation can be made transformed into a politically volatile crowd, and then, when joined by similar crowds, rapidly turns into a mob.

This ever-present tension between despots and mobs in modern times has resulted in regimes of a totalitarian nature. The precursor of such politics goes all the way back to the formative years of Arab-Muslim history immediately following the demise of the prophet Muhammad in 632.

The politics that followed the prophet’s death was one of tribal wars, disputes over leadership, insurrections, and killings of the prophet’s companions who succeeded him as temporal rulers. The violence culminated in the events of Karbala in 680 when the prophet’s grandson, Husayn, and his male companions were brutally killed by fellow Arabs.

This history marked the beginning of Muslim violence on Muslims, and it has continued to the present day. The first casualty was Islam, a transcendent faith, which was turned into a blood-soaked instrument of the struggle for power.

There is a famous 13th-century episode that cuts through Muslim apologetics and reveals what became the political norm. In 1258, the Mongol horde captured Baghdad, eliminated the ruling dynasty, and demolished what remained of Arab power in the region. Hulagu Khan, the Mongol warlord, ordered the leading religious leaders to assemble at his court and posed them the question, “Which is preferable, according to your religious laws, the disbelieving ruler who is just, or the Muslim ruler who is unjust.” Those assembled were silent until one scholar eventually scribbled a response, “The disbelieving ruler who is just.” If we reflect on this episode it reveals what was missing then, and has been missing since in the Arab-Muslim world: Just rulers accountable to the people and to God.

Despots and mobs are inseparable. Neither recognizes the prerequisites of a democratic culture–respect for individuals and minorities, the tolerance of dissent, sharing of power–to enable them to understand President Bush’s gesture of speaking to Arabs apologetically and with contrition. In their closed world of tribal politics such gestures are merely signs of weakness to be scorned and exploited.

Salim Mansur is a professor of political science in the University of Western Ontario.


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