Saturday, March 01, 2008


Barry Rubin

One of the things least understood by people in the West is the framework—or should I say straitjacket?—of the dominant ideology in the Arabic-speaking world in shaping thought, speech, and political alternatives. This shows up in the smallest of exchanges. But atoms, too, are very tiny yet make up all the wide variety of things in the world. Call it AIDS (Arab Ideological Doctrine Syndrome), a disease that doesn’t just threaten the Middle East, it’s been a plague since the 1950s with few signs of a let-up. Here’s a little example that illustrates the big picture. On February 25, Lebanese cabinet minister Marwan Hamada gave an interview to Press TV.[1] It is a commonplace for supporters of Lebanon’s government to be accused of being Western agents, an implication often repeated in the Western media referring to it as “pro-U.S.”
Claiming this about anyone who doesn’t want to go to war with America or Israel, or opposes radical forces, or who doesn’t want a radical Arab nationalist or Islamist state is a common weapon used to weaken non-extremist forces. While in the West, the label “moderate” is a compliment (the “moderate” Palestinian Authority; “moderate” states); in the Arab world it is an insult, an imputation of treason.
Angered at being accused of being a Western spy (a claim often made by Hizballah toward its opponents), Hamada replied that if anyone was a spy it was Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah who is “a spy for Iran. I am not a spy for anybody.”
The interviewer responded sarcastically and Hamada continued:
“I defend my country. I defend my independence, I defend my democracy, I defend my integrity, and I will not accept anybody impeding on it--even if he believes he's a saint.”
What Hamada is saying is that he is a Lebanese patriot. And he does what a patriot does: fights so that Lebanon is independent of Iranian-Syrian control; so that Hizballah does not impose an Islamist state on Lebanon; so that Lebanon’s interests don’t suffer by being dragged into an unnecessary, damaging, unwinnable war with Israel.
Anywhere else in the world this would be a winning argument. A man who strives for his country’s interests is a patriot; one who, like Nasrallah, is in fact funded by one state seeking to take over his country (Iran) and who champions the interests of a country which did run and looted his country for decades (Syria) is a hero. Nasrallah, after all, is the official representative in Lebanon of Iran’s supreme guide; Hamada represents a coalition of Lebanon’s majority, Christians, Sunni Muslims, and Druze. When tens of thousands of Lebanese demonstrated in favor of Syria’s withdrawing its army from Lebanon, Nasrallah led a large demonstration demanding that Syria’s soldiers stay in the country.
But this is not how the system works in the Middle East as a whole. Thus, to act as a Lebanese patriot is perceived as being a traitor, to Arabism, Islam, and ultimately to Lebanon itself. Like any Iraqi who rejoices in Saddam Hussein’s downfall or any Palestinian really ready to make permanent peace in order to get a state, in the kingdom of the ideologically blinded, the one-eyed man is king. It is the upside-down world of the poet John Milton’s Satan who said, “Evil be my good.”
Thus, in Hamada’s case, the interviewer retorted (or should I say “snorted”):
“A spy for Iran does not offer his son to sacrifice and spill his blood on the soil of Lebanon, for the sake of Lebanon. If he was a spy for Iran, he wouldn't go and fight the Israelis since 1982.”
Well, wait a minute. Nasrallah has fought since 1982 to take over Lebanon. And even if he fought Israel, that is completely in line with Iran’s policies and interests. The interviewer, and most Arab intellectuals, journalists, and the other people who have a public voice, however, don’t buy that argument. To fight Israel is to be a saint, to show true love for one’s country, to be above criticism. You can lose the war (like Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser), wreck your own country (like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein), be a dictator (like Syria’s Hafiz and Bashar al-Asad), lead your people into catastrophe (like Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat), and be extraordinarily corrupt (like…everybody) but it doesn’t matter as long as you fight Israel and the West.
Hamada and others are trying to overcome that knee-jerk reaction. It is an uphill struggle. Hamade concludes:
“Who has given [Nasrallah]--except what he supposes is God--this authority to engage Lebanon alone in this battle…? I accuse him of sacrificing his son.” And, in order to play the game, Hamada has to give his own call to fight Israel, but just not from Lebanese soil: “Why doesn't he go and fight from the…real occupied Arab territories…Palestine and the Golan Heights?”
Of course, Hamada is right. But that doesn’t mean he can win the argument. If the central issue is pride, not material benefit, and if battling the West and Israel are the prime directives, whether this policy leads to defeat, bankruptcy, tyranny, and general disaster is irrelevant. And despite the existence of courageous dissenters from this doctrine, it still rules the Arab world, something every Arab but few in the West understands. This is why peace, moderation, and pragmatism still cannot win there.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal His latest books are The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan) and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).

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