Politics & Policy

Moment of Truth

These are trying times for proponents of liberalism in the Middle East.

It’s been a tough year for us proponents and allies of Arab liberalism. We have spent a decade trying to solicit Arab good will. We sent troops to Somalia to end starvation. While we denied solace and assistance to endangered Christian communities in Sudan and Lebanon, we interceded in Bosnia to put an end to genocide and used our power to block the Serbs from further harming the Kosovars. We distanced ourselves from our “special relationship” with democratic Israel to be a neutral arbitrator with the Palestinians. We turned a blind eye to money flowing from the Arab world to various radicals in Europe and Muslim extremists around the world. We sent our wealth to rebuild Muslim societies, not only in the war-torn Balkans, but also in places like Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories.

We have spent a decade demonstrating our good will. And yet, we still find that the Arab world holds us in so much contempt and hatred that even after devastating, unprovoked attacks in New York and Washington that claimed thousands of innocents, Arab elites can–without a moment of introspection, remorse, or humility–blame us and our policies as the legitimizing “root cause.” Instead of a welling-up of popular indignation at the barbarities committed in their name, we hear excuses from most quarters of Arab society.

Recently we saw the mutilated body parts of six Israeli soldiers gruesomely displayed in the streets of Gaza. We saw an American citizen, who came to help rebuild Iraq, monstrously beheaded by al Qaeda, with the grizzly scene captured on video cameras and proudly displayed over the Internet. Some popular commentators told us not to expect any wellspring of condemnation from any quarter of the Arab world–even from those who call themselves moderates. Once again we wonder whether the West is caught in a hopeless clash of civilizations with the Arab and Muslim worlds.

It is not an easy question to ask for those who are historic optimists or believe in the basic ability of human nature to seek freedom, reform, and improve over time. It is even more difficult for those of us in Washington who believe that the regimes that engage in evil, reckless policies are often oppressive dictatorships ruling over innocent populations. Change the regime, goes the logic, bring freedom and democracy, and people will choose moderate, rational, more peaceful policies.

Thus, after September 11, we went to destroy the dictatorships of the Middle East that had brought so much radicalism and violence to the region, starting with Afghanistan and Iraq. We believed that encouraging freedom in the Middle East was the only answer to the core problems of the region and moreover a policy that reflected the American spirit and American values. In the months following September 11, many of us in leading magazines and research institutes argued that our relationships with liberal-minded Arabs and Muslims could lay the foundation for a forward-looking strategy of freedom. We were not naive; we knew that they represented a small minority in their societies. But we believed that with the right policies and encouragement from governmental and non-governmental forces in the West they could be brought to positions of power. These Arabs and Muslims were not our agents–they were our allies in what we believed was a large Arab civil war. We were willing to help because we believed that doing so would improve their lives and ours. As in World War II, it would require defeating and destroying the dictatorships in the region. The free societies that would be established in their place were thought to be the only long-term solution to terror and the best guarantee for the security of the West.

Moreover, we wanted to demonstrate to these freedom-seeking Arabs and Muslims that we rejected the idea of a clash of civilizations between our world and theirs. We did not ascribe to the notion that there was something inherent in Arab and Muslim history, religion, or culture that made it more violent and less free. We thought that, beyond cultural and religious differences, all people were alike and equal in their desires and aspirations. The dictatorial regimes of the Middle East were not the result of a culture that rejected progress but rather were born out of specific, sometimes unfortunate, historical developments. These developments produced destructive ideologies–both secular and religious in nature–that swept the region and gave rise to those regimes. Since there was nothing that was specifically violent or oppressive in their culture, there was no reason why–once free governments were established in the Middle East–there could not be peaceful co-existence between their societies and the West.

This logic was also applied by the Bush administration to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Palestinian society was engaged in terror and violence because it needed to release its frustration with Arafat’s corrupt and oppressive regime. A regime change in the Palestinian-controlled territories and the establishment of a democracy–coupled with the eventual creation of a Palestinian state–would help moderate the population and put an end to political oppression. This was the logic behind President Bush’s speech in June 2002 and was viewed by his administration as the only way to bring about long-term stability and end Palestinian terror.

But a complete lack of respect for human life, demonstrated in the streets of Gaza and Baghdad, casts doubt on these hopes for reform in the Middle East. There are many Arabs and Muslims who are just as revolted as we are by the photos of mutilated body parts of Israelis and Americans. But they remain a silent minority. Even if the perpetrators themselves are only a small minority of blood-thirsty extremists, too many others applauded their actions. As we have often seen in recent years, there was no sweeping condemnation of these hideous acts by Arab leaders–no remorse, no apology. There is no real introspection. Even those who condemn such violence regard it as a legitimate reaction to the West’s own brutality.

Coming on the heels of events at Abu Ghraib, the difference between American society’s reaction to American misdeeds and the reaction of the Arab world to the brutal acts in Iraq and Gaza tell the whole story. For those of us who believe that the Middle East can be improved this is a moment of crisis, of soul-searching. It is very difficult not to think that, after all, there may be a hopeless clash of civilizations taking place between the Middle East and the West. It is impossible not to ask whether there is inherent violence and lack of civility in Arab society.

It now has become clear that we are confronted with a deep malady. So many years of corruption, despotism, and tyranny–not just a century of Arab ideologies, but also centuries of Ottoman imperial rule and centuries of Arab tyrannies before that–have distorted, even sickened, Arab societies.

There has always been a divide among those who study history. Some argue that cultures and civilizations are organic entities with lives of their own, creating the states they deserve; proponents of this view write off the Arab world as incapable of liberalism. Others continue to hope that the crafty state is, over time, the main forger of society. But merely removing a despotic state after a millennium of tyranny is no longer a sufficient corrective to the illness afflicting Arab society. The problem now is not only political. Arab economies have been reduced to Mafioso-like monopolies and fights to control the state. Arab culture and art have been reduced to statist self-glorification. Most of all, Arab politics have been reduced violence and personal destruction rather than debate and mutual respect. In Arab politics, opponents are not answered or rebutted, they are discredited or destroyed.

We should not give up on all Muslims or all Arabs. But the burden of proof now is on them. It is no longer up to us to show that we treat them as equals and are not motivated by Western (or Jewish) anti-Arab conspiracies. It is no longer up to us to solicit their approval and acceptance. We should no longer blame ourselves.

This is now more than a struggle for Arab and Muslim freedom; it is a struggle for Arabs and Muslims to reclaim their souls, and it can only be decided within their own societies. It is up to the Arabs and the Muslims of the Middle East to decide not whether they want to be a part of modern, Western society, but whether they want to be a part of the civilized world. Now is their moment of truth.

Meyrav Wurmser is senior fellow and director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the Hudson Institute.


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