Arabian Nightmares

“A man can fail many times,

but he isn’t a failure until he begins to blame somebody else.”
J. Paul Getty (1892 – 1976) U.S. oil magnate
According the UN Arab Human Development Reports of 2002, 2003 and 2004, written by an independent group of leading Arab scholars and intellectuals, oil has become a curse rather than a blessing for the Arab world. Unlike Japan, Taiwan, Israel, Singapore and many other countries who recognized early on that their scarce resources required them to turn their lack of material resources into technological strengths in order to become competitive in the world economy, the Arabs relied exclusively on the great sea of oil beneath their deserts as a substitute for intellect, creativity and entrepreneurship. It has now cost them their future and saddled the world with a parasitic and pathologically suicidal movement that has proven its capacity to destroy and its incapacity to create anything of substance to human civilization.
While it can be argued that the borders of the Arab Middle East are man-made deformities that must be redrawn to take into account the tribal nature of Arab society rather than the strategic interests of the French and the British who created them in the early 20th century, border corrections alone cannot account for, nor will they resolve the sorry state of affairs in the Arab world. While a redefinition of borders would separate Shiites from Sunnis and Kurds from Baluchis, the problems inhibiting Arab society as we enter the 21st century cannot be so easily resolved.
Arab societies, for the most part, are dysfunctional and have immersed themselves in a culture of denial. They emphasize struggle, negative competition and the rejection of alternate approaches or ways of thinking. Arab governments live in a state of internal fear that avoids investigating their failures or acquainting themselves with or opening their societies up to the cultures of others.1 Theirs societies will never be able to hand down positive achievements to future generations unless they overcome their secretiveness, their isolation, and especially their need to blame others for their own failings. Several years ago, Abd Al-Munim Said, head of the Al-Ahram Research Center in Egypt, wrote: “We thought that by the end of the 20th century, the Arab mind would be open enough not to explain everything with a ‘conspiracy theory’…the biggest problem with conspiracy theories is that they keep us not only from the truth, but also from confronting our faults and problems…This way of thinking relates any given problem to external elements, and thus does not [lead] to a rational policy to confront the problem.” In Arab politics today, from Egypt to Tehran, opponents are not answered or rebutted. They are discredited, imprisoned or destroyed.2 Each time Arab peoples are afflicted with disaster, defeats, or tragedies, it is always blamed on Zionists, colonialists, or American imperialist conspiracies. As a result, the obstacles the Arabs have erected for themselves have become enormous.
For all the oil revenues that have flowed into the wealthier Arab countries, the overall state of the Arab world is appalling. It does not produce a single manufactured product of sufficient quality to sell on world markets. Arab productivity is the lowest in the world. Nowhere in the Arab world is there a single world-class university. The once-great tradition of Arab scientific achievement that flowed from Andalusia has degenerated into a few research programs in the fields of chemical and biological warfare. There is not one true democracy in the Arab world. No Arab State genuinely respects human rights. No Arab State hosts a responsible media. No Arab society fully respects the rights of women or minorities, and no Arab government has ever-accepted public responsibility for its own shortcomings. Worse, the Arab Middle East has become “the world’s first entirely parasitical culture; (it) imitates poorly, consumes voraciously, spits hatred, exports death, and creates nothing… Blame is the opium of the Arabs, and the sweetest blame for their failures is that directed at the United States (and, of course, Israel). It is our power itself, not its uses, that enrages Arabs trapped in their self-made weakness.”3
A central Bernard Lewis theme is that Muslims have felt downtrodden since 1683, when the Ottomans failed for the second time to sack Christian Vienna. For 300 years, Prof. Lewis says, Muslims have watched in horror and humiliation as the Christian civilizations of Europe and North America have eclipsed them militarily, economically and culturally. The Arab Muslim world prefers to blame others, to sleepwalk through history, and to cheer when tyrants and terrorists avenge them. They knew that Saddam Hussein was a monster. They knew he had killed more Arabs than Israel ever could. In fact, Saddam was the worst thing to happen to Arabia since the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258 (with the possible exception of when the Saudis began using their petrodollars to incite worldwide Islamic jihad).4 But they were and are so discouraged that they needed to inflate even Saddam Hussein into hero status. Lacking a leader of world stature, they had no one else. The Palestinians cheered him on and threw candies into the air to celebrate his defiance of the American war machine, and as their own leaders have betrayed them, so he betrayed them as well.
While most Arabs understand America’s current dilemma in Iraq and fear the expansion of Iranian Shiism, they are not eager to help stabilize the country. They would prefer to see America leave humiliated, even if Iraqis benefited by the removal of Saddam Hussein and even if it is at the expense of the Iraqi people and the stability of the entire region. Above all they do not want to see America, a non-Muslim superpower, as the cause for Iraq’s good fortune, especially when the Arab countries did nothing to stop Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime.5 And because Arab societies require a target for the release of their anger and frustration, they are increasingly drawn to radical Islam. Saudi Wahhabism teaches them that it is the infidel (Christian/Jewish) West that is the source of all evil in the Islamic world. Since external conflict is the lifeblood of dictatorships (be they secular or theocratic) conflict in the Arab world is not seen as a problem that requires a solution. The enemy of the Middle East is not the West so much as modernism itself and the humiliation that accrues when millions are nursed by fantasies, hypocrisies, and conspiracies to explain their own failures. Quite simply, any society in which citizens owe their allegiance to the tribe rather than the nation, do not believe in democracy enough to institute it, shun female intellectual contributions, allow polygamy, insist on patriarchy, institutionalize religious persecution, ignore family planning, expect endemic corruption, tolerate honor killings, see no need to vote, and define knowledge as mastery of the Quran is deeply pathological.6
Barry Rubin, Director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center and Editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs has analyzed the manner in which anti-Americanism (as opposed to modernization) has been used in the Arab world as an excuse for corruption, repression and stagnation. He contends that anti-Americanism is not a response to actual U.S. policies, but the product of self-interested manipulation by various regimes and groups within Arab society, groups that use anti-Americanism as a foil to distract public attention from other, far more serious problems within their societies. According to Rubin: “For years now, anti-Americanism has served as a means of last resort by which failed political systems and movements in the Middle East try to improve their standing. The United States is blamed for much that is bad in the Arab world, and it is used as an excuse for political and social oppression and economic stagnation. By assigning responsibility for their own shortcomings to Washington, Arab leaders distract their subjects’ attention from the internal weaknesses that are their real problems. And thus, rather than pushing for greater privatization, equality for women, democracy, civil society, freedom of speech, due process of law, or other similar developments sorely needed in the Arab world, the public focuses instead on hating the United States.”7 Instead of responding to demands for democracy, human rights, higher living standards, less corruption and incompetence, reducing illiteracy or improving education and educational standards, Arab rulers blame America for their societies’ ills and refocus popular anger against it.
Arab regimes can demand national unity and silence reformers in the face of the supposed American “threat,” and by seizing the anti-Americanism card, they insure that their opponents will not use it against them. As a consequence, Arab civilization has backed itself into an historical corner where it deteriorates by the day.8 Rather than analyzing their plight, the downtrodden want someone to blame – and the United States and Israel fit the bill perfectly.
Hence Egypt and Saudi Arabia have obtained American weapons and protection over the years yet continue to promote popular anti-Americanism through their government’s policies and their state-controlled media. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq used anti-Americanism as a weapon in its battle to re-assert its power over the Arab world, escape sanctions, and rebuild its military might. If America could be blamed for Iraqi hardships under Saddam Hussein, who will remember his own brutality or his rape of Kuwait? Iran, meanwhile, uses anti-Americanism to develop its own nuclear weapons program and pushes for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Persian Gulf to draw attention away from its own failings and abuses and to exert regional hegemony under a nuclear shield in the name of Islam. Anti-Americanism is a convenient way for Iranian hard-liners to de-legitimize domestic reformers by portraying them as agents of the U.S. And Syria, for its part, has used anti-Americanism to distract its population from the reforms that President Bashar al-Assad promised but never delivered. Syria recently stepped up its campaign against political activists, accusing opposition figures of inciting the U.S. to attack Syria.
For Palestinian leaders (Hamas or Fatah, it matters not) anti-Americanism has functioned as a cover for their own rejection of compromise peace offers from Israel and as a way to mobilize Arab backing. Nearly six decades after the UN decided to establish two states, Palestinian leadership continues to put forth “peace plans” that refuse to explicitly recognize Israel’s legitimate right to exist as a Jewish state. Having long ago chosen victimhood and martyrdom over statehood, they are content to blame their own failed state on anyone but themselves. Hatred of Jews continues to pour out of Palestinian Authority television, newspapers, and mosques. Israel is to blame for every wrong that has beset Arab countries; the Holocaust is either a lie or didn’t go far enough. By claiming that U.S. support for Israel is the cause of anti-Americanism among their populations, Palestinian leaders, along with other Arab politicians, seek to obtain more U.S. concessions. This strategy also gives these leaders an excuse for rejecting American policies with which they disagree; Arab leaders can claim their hands are tied by the passions of their people although public sentiment never seems to stop their own repressive practices when they feel their own self-interests are at stake.9
In the end, casting the blame for their own misfortunes on the West will not save them from the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism in their midst. That is because the histories of these countries are so intertwined and their socioeconomic problems so interrelated that none of them will be able to escape the consequences of their failures. Today’s Arab world is bereft of all nationalist pride, lacking any solidarity or self-confidence, more subject to foreign domination than at any time since the Second World War, and at war with its own angry citizens.10“The painful truth,” writes columnist Suleiman Al-Hatlan in the daily Al-Watan in Saudi Arabia, “is that the acts of violence and barbarism occurring at present are nothing but the natural consequence of generations of Muslims having been misled and force-fed speeches (filled with) hostility and hatred for others over the course of decades, which deepened the backwardness and the ignorance in the Islamic world.”11
A dark, long winter has descended upon Arab civilization. Despite hundreds of billions of dollars of income from oil, the Arabs have yet to create one single monument to human achievement. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Arab leaders blamed everything on Western Imperialism. From the 1970s on, the Islamists chose to cast the blame on the secular Arab Left and the corrupt, opulent monarchies of Arabia as well as the cultural influences of the Western world. In fact, at different times, the Arabs have pointed the finger of blame at colonialists, multinationals, missionaries, communists, liberals, religious and/or ethnic minorities, middle classes and even poor Orientalists. But the blame rests only in themselves.12
To the best of my recollection, the Arab League has never once convened an Arab summit to discuss the state of education in the Arab world? The sad truth is that the dream of the “Arabian Nights” has long since become an Arabian nightmare. The Arab world has no real consensual governments; statism and tribalism hamper market economics and ensure stagnation. Sexual apartheid, Islamic fundamentalism, the absence of an independent judiciary, and a censored press all do their part to ensure endemic poverty, rampant corruption and rising resentment among an exploding population. Siesta for millions is a time not for napping between office hours, but for weaving conspiracy theories over backgammon.13 By all the standards that matter in the modern world – economic development, job creation, literacy, education, scientific achievement, political freedom and respect for human rights – what was once mighty Andalusia has indeed fallen….. and there is no mistaking the growing anguish, the mounting urgency, and of late, the seething Islamic anger that has resulted.
Today, not a single Arab Muslim country can be found among the developed nations of the world.14 For the Arab world, the status quo is no longer sustainable and time is not on its side. The jihadists are gaining strength in Egypt, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and in the Palestinian territories and warn that an apocalyptic  “final battle” between the Muslim world and the West is approaching.  Whether moderate Muslim intellectuals and Western-educated Muslim technocrats will be able to bring on a new Islamic Enlightenment before rising Islamic fundamentalism draws us all into a nuclear clash of civilizations remains to be seen. The outcome is by no means certain.

    1. “An Arab Diplomat on the Leadership Crisis in the Arab World,” MEMRI, Special Dispatch Series #540, July 22, 2003; Ralph Peters, “Blood borders: How a better Middle East would look,” Armed Forces Journal, June 2006.
    2. Steven Stalinsky, “A Vast Conspiracy – Nothing funny about this top list,” National Review Online, May 6, 2004.
    3. Ralph Peters, “Escaping Arab Failure,” The New York Post, April 24, 2004.
    4. Ralph Peters, “Tragedy of the Arabs,” the New York Post, March 30, 2003.
    5. Nonie Darwish, “Don’t Expect Arab Apologies,” The Jewish Week, May 28, 2004.
    6. Victor Davis Hanson, “The Mirror of Fallujah: No more passes and excuses for the Middle East,” Archives, April 4, 2004; Outpost, May 2004.
    7. Barry Rubin, “The Real Roots of Arab anti-Americanism,” Foreign Affairs, November/December 2002; “Arab Development: Doomed to Self-Failure,” The Economist, July 4, 2002; see also Salim Mansur, “We Muslims have work to do,” Toronto Sun, June 10, 2006.
    8. Ralph Peters, “The Persuasion Myth,” the New York Post, November 3, 2003.
    9. “Arab Liberal Writer: Blames Arab Media for Hatred of the U.S,” MEMRI, Special Dispatch Series, #605, November 7, 2003; Barry Rubin, “The Real Roots of Arab anti-Americanism,” op.cit.
    10. Hamid Ansari, “The Question of Arab Unity and Reform,” The Hindu, April 15, 2005.
    11. “Arab and Muslim Reactions to the Terrorist Attack in Breslan,”  MEMRI, Special Dispatch Series, #704, September 8, 2004.
    12. New York Times, “Editorial: The Anger of Arab Youth,” August 15, 2002.
    13. Victor Davis Hanson, “Middle East Tragedies: Pressing ahead is our only choice,” National Review, May 23, 2003.
    14. MEMRI, Special Dispatch – Reform in the Arab and Muslim World,” #460, January 24, 2003.

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