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.
#ad#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.
#page#Smith’s prism offers insights into modern Middle East history. He presents Pan-Arab nationalism as an effort to transform the mini-horses of the national states into a single super-horse and Islamism as an effort to make Muslims powerful again. Israel serves as “a proxy strong horse” for both the United States and the Saudi-Egyptian bloc in the latter’s Cold War rivalry with Iran’s bloc. In a strong-horse environment, militias appeal more than do elections. Lacking a strong horse, Arab liberals make little headway. The United States being the most powerful non-Arab and non-Muslim state makes anti-Americanism both inevitable and endemic.
#ad#Which brings us to the policies of non-Arab actors: Unless they are forceful and show true staying power, Smith stresses, they lose. Being nice — say, withdrawing unilaterally from southern Lebanon and Gaza — leads to inevitable failure. The George W. Bush administration rightly initiated a democratization project, raising high hopes, but then betrayed Arab liberals by not carrying through. In Iraq, the administration ignored advice to install a democratically minded strongman.
More broadly, when the U.S. government flinches, others (e.g., the Iranian leadership) have an opportunity to “force their own order on the region.” Walid Jumblatt, a Lebanese leader, has half-seriously suggested that Washington “send car bombs to Damascus” to get its message across and signal its understanding of Arab ways.
Smith’s simple and near-universal principle provides a tool to comprehend the Arabs’ cult of death, honor killings, terrorist attacks, despotism, warfare, and much else. He acknowledges that the strong-horse principle may strike Westerners as ineffably crude, but he correctly insists on its being a cold reality that outsiders must recognize, take into account, and respond to.
– Daniel Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum and Taube distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. © 2010 by Daniel Pipes. All rights reserved.