The inability of Arab leaders and media generally even to identify properly the main issues they face makes it almost impossible to deal successfully with the Middle East’s many problems. Defining terrorism as a form of permissible self-defense and the crisis in Iraq as purely based on American conspiracies are two of the most damaging examples of that syndrome.
For instance, the typical view of terrorism comes from the head of Egypt’s al-Azhar mosque-university, Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi. He is a pillar of mainstream, establishment Islam. In general, Tantawi will say nothing Egypt’s government dislikes.
Tantawi is often called a moderate and, sad to say, in relative terms he is one. But he is also typical of a major trend in which radical Islamists increasingly influence mainstream clerics. A decade ago, Tantawi would probably have defined suicide bombing as heretical in Islamic terms.
In recent years, though, Tantawi gives a definition, by far the most popular one among Arabs that justifies the vast majority of terrorism originating from the Middle East. There is no excuse, he explains for any attack in Arab countries aiming to kill Muslims. But it is ok to blow oneself up among:
“An enemy who came to kill me, and I have no way of defending my-self except for blowing myself up amongst this enemy who came to kill me and my countrymen, or to attack what is sacred—in such a case, whoever blows himself up is a martyr.” (MEMRI translation)
In other words, anything is permitted in self-defense. At times, he im-plies this does not include deliberately killing civilians—that’s what makes him relatively more moderate—but this clause is played down. The three real keys to being a proper martyr are: being under attack, facing an evil enemy, and lacking any alternative.
One problem here is justifying anything that can be called self-defense. Some deeds are criminal no matter what the rationale. Equally, once the door is opened to terrorism in principle many excuses can be used to justify it. If al-Qaeda and other extremists define killing anyone they view to be opposing their rule (which they equate with God), the moderates can merely limit the appropriate victims to the majority of non-Muslims.
But these factors are not the biggest threats coming from the acceptance of this approach by the overwhelming majority of the Arab world. The most disturbing aspect is that it fits with the false characterization of Israel, the United States, and sometimes the entire West. In other words, it becomes necessary to justify these forces as innately, or at least profoundly, aggressive—attacking and trying to take over the Muslim or at least Arab world—leaving the “victims” no alternative to terrorism.
In contrast, of course, Israel has basically been eager to make a deal to get out of the “occupied” territories for at least twelve years and would have been willing to do so even earlier in exchange for a real peace agreement ending the conflict. The United States wants to get its forces out of Iraq as soon as the situation is stable enough there to do so. In short, the terrorists ensure the continuation of the very issues they claim as grievances, using them to block moderate solutions and to gain power. The charges of foreign aggression and ruthlessness, combined with a lack of alternatives to violence, are false.
Another issue that cuts to the core of the dominant discussion and politics of the Arab world today is Iraq. In an al-Ahram article entitled “The End of Arab Iraq,” Abdallah al-Ashaal, a former assistant to the Egyptian foreign minister, attributes the new Iraqi constitution to American machinations designed to destroy Iraq by stoking ethnic conflicts there. But again, critical facts are ignored. The Iraqi constitution is shaped by the demands for decentralization of Kurds and the Shia Arabs—who are, after all, about 80 percent of the population. And that determination is the product of their ill treatment by the Arab nationalist (and largely Sunni) dictatorships that ruled the country for 45 years.
Yet it is impossible for mainstream Arab nationalists (or Sunni Islamists) to admit that fact. They must blame this antagonism on American imperialist conspiracies. Just as in the failure to face terrorism or such problems as the Arab world’s relative political-economic backwardness, a refusal to face the real issue makes solving the real problem impossible. It is “ridding Iraq” of Arab identity which “really motivated the U.S. invasion,” he claims, inaccurately implying that Iraq might not even stay in the Arab League.
Well, what about the universal Arab state support for the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, the failure of anyone to lift a finger to help the Iraqi dissidents, the Arab world’s failure to help post-Saddam Iraq, and its continuing sponsorship and applause for terrorists murdering thousands of Iraqis? On this, not a word. Yet these are the kind of experiences that make Iraqis want to rid Iraq of the type of Arab nationalism which subjected them to almost a half-century of dictatorship, war, and suffering.
In contrast, visitors to the Kurdish north of Iraq describe a prosperous, stable area, with rising living standards. As Nimrod Raphaeli of MEMRI writes summarizing these reports, “An environment of democracy and freedom appears to prevail across Iraqi Kurdistan.” Are people there—or those in the Shia south which suffered so greatly under an Arab nationalist regime—so foolish to reject this disastrous system and philosophy?
As long as the current ideology of victimization and distortion dominates both Arab states and debate, these issues will not be honestly confronted and will remain as bad as they are today or become even worse.
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