February 13, 2006
by Nibras Kazimi
What connects Hamas's recent parliamentary victory with the havoc that was wrought by Lebanese demonstrators over a provocative Danish cartoon, and with the recent release of a big-budget Turkish movie in which renegade American soldiers indiscriminately kill Iraqi babies? There is a dark spiritual effervescence that sputters out periodically from the Middle East in fits of mayhem stemming from a revenge fantasy that has been festering for 300 years. It gets couched in convenient "us" versus "them" diatribes to explain away failure, whereby the eternal enemy is the Christian West - besting the Muslim East for several centuries on the battlefield and in all walks of life, and actively subjugating it.
The three top terrorists in the world originally hail from America's three best regional Arab allies; Osama Bin Laden from Saudi Arabia, Ayman Zawahiri from Egypt, and Abu Musa'ab Al-Zarqawi from Jordan. These three countries typify the realist vision that attaches stability to autocracy. But seemingly, that is not enough to console restive jihadists. On the other hand, Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Authority, the three areas where George Bush's vision for democracy as the provider of enduring stability was supposed to initially take root, have been effectively ceded through the ballot box to political proxies that make common strategic cause with a dangerous bully to the east, Iran. Again, something went wrong in the calculus, leaving yesterday's pariahs in control of the destinies of these newly empowered nations.
So what is going on? Why is it that supposedly stable autocracies have produced the world's most determined terrorists, while when the relatively free people of the Middle East are given a chance to vote, they elect those associated with Iran's mullah-cracy?
Sure, there are all sorts of complex local vectors that produce these outcomes. A vote for Hamas was a protest vote against Fatah's corruption, and Iraqi Shias voted along confessional lines because they fear an impending civil war, while their coreligionists in Lebanon feel that Hezbollah provides the best bulwark within the stratified sectarian make-up of that troubled country. But why didn't Palestinians vote for secular democrats untainted by corruption or Fatah? Similar questions can be asked about Iraq and Lebanon: Why is it that the masses prefer to err on the side of radicalism rather than reason?
Muslim males, who have had it well for many centuries and who took to seeing themselves as masters of the world, have not been doing all that great since the second time the Ottomans made a go at Vienna. Once, nations to the east, west, north, and south cowered before mighty and oft-resurrected Muslim empires. Now they offer prime destinations for Muslims refugees escaping the miseries of home. Back in the old days, there were setbacks here and there, but nothing that a return to the original zeal of the first Muslims did not set right, turning unfolding events into an outright rout of the infidels.
Those sneaky Europeans would come up with half-hearted efforts to turn back the tide, launching Crusades or recapturing Spain, but these were temporary affairs, since Islam is mightier in spirit and carries the blessing of the divine. This thinking still lingers, even though it has been a while since the last rejuvenation of the faith, and throughout this delay a sense of emasculation has crept into Muslim consciousness. What should be considered passing slights are thus magnified beyond any sense of proportion; every move is a conspiracy, every word a lie, and everything adds up to the final tally of defeat or victory.
But is it logical that a cartoonist would be able to shake Islam to its foundations? Why would a great faith be so quick to anger when provoked by so insignificant a stimulus? There is no logic to it. If Arabs were thinking logically, then they would have deduced that their boycott of Danish goods is ridiculous given that Denmark probably exports more stuff that the whole club of Arab countries combined, if one discounts fossil fuels. But Denmark is part of the West, and its flag a representation of the crucifix. Torching its embassies and canceling trade contracts provide an opportunity to show some flex yet in the Muslim spiritual muscle.
Furthermore, radicalism is being actively bankrolled, and its message disseminated, by advancing technology. Today, with chat rooms and text messaging, mobs can be coordinated and incited to riot after watching inflammatory images on Saudi-owned satellite channels. Hamas and Hezbollah, flush with Iranian petrodollars, can build clinics and schools, while American and European taxpayer money arriving as aid disappears into corrupt pockets. Secular democrats counseling moderation and taking a hard look at the wretched state of affairs - the potholes in the streets and potbellies behind idle desks - are drowned out by cries of jihad propagated in part by autocratic regimes that put this battlecry to use in distracting the masses from their real problems.
This malevolent effervescence claimed many would-be avengers over the years. They were disappointed because the Christian West was not decisively destroyed and crippled. Granted, the West has not always come out smelling of roses, and a big chunk of its legacy in dealing with the modern Middle East is shameful. Thus, there is something to the image of an Englishman kissing the boots of a Muslim dictator, Idi Amin, that so intoxicates the Eastern masses. Myths are cobbled together in one form or another for every Middle Eastern schoolboy to recite: Orabi, Zaghloul, the tribes of the Middle Euphrates, Al-Atrash, Ataturk, Omar Al-Mukhtar, Nasser, Mossadaq, Qassim, Asad, Qaddafi, Khomeini, Saddam, and many others - a jumble of adventurers that left the region unhinged and unfulfilled.
And that is why the Middle East is languishing and sending up all these irrational messages: The people of the East are waiting for an avenger, not a savior. They long for whoever will wash away the humiliation of having their principal cities, once seats of far flung empires, now roamed by infidel troops or their perceived lackeys. "More schools, hospitals, and functioning sewers? Better Copenhagen burning to the ground!" And these days, the names most talked are those of Bin Laden, Zawahiri, and Zarqawi. They provide the fantasy of victory: American soldiers in body bags, and American diplomats in retreat. The mujaheddin toughing it out in the mountains, or flicking off scorpions in the desert, while huddled down with rusty rifles to waylay a tank or helicopter - shaping the battlefield and expanding the writ of havoc - conjure up powerful images and role models for idle youths. They project the heady aroma of masculine virility: It used to be about nationalizing the Suez, but now it is about bombing trains in Spain. It is now about the nation of Iran, forgetting about its massive economic and societal ills, wanting to reequip itself with a nuclear weapon.
This dangerous vengeful energy will expand to recruit more jihadists and mark out more victims over the next decade. But maybe when the flames on TV begin to lap up at the curtains of the Middle East's middle class, and their blood-lust is drenched with their own blood, then enough momentum will be unleashed for sober politicians to re-orient the Orient toward self-improvement, rather than self-immolation.
This article appeared in The New York Sun on February 8, 2006
Mr. Kazimi, an Iraqi writer and visiting scholar at Hudson Institute, writes a weekly column on the Middle East for The New York Sun. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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