Very interesting piece in the SF Chronicle on the discourse percolating up from below in the Arab world. (Hat tip: JJ)
Arab blogs that fight for reform
– Frida Ghitis
Sunday, July 9, 2006
When Israeli forces entered Gaza in late June, the news media in the Arab world spared no adjective to describe the “Zionist aggression,” as the Syrian News Agency labeled it, or the “crazed racist extermination war,” in the words of a writer in the Palestinian al-Ayyam paper. No observer of the Middle East would find that degree of invective and bitterness surprising.
However, buried below the furious, raging surface, a different sort of commentary flowed through the Internet.
In Arab blogs and deep inside the Web comment pages of some major news organizations, a few people dared to disagree. In fact, some Arab advocates of political and social reform saw recent events in the Palestinian territories as ammunition with which to criticize the dictatorial regimes they want to change in their own countries.
The Israeli incursion, with its controversial bombing of a Palestinian power plant, came less than three days after Palestinian militants dug a tunnel into Israel and captured 19-year-old Cpl. Gilad Shalit. About one year ago, Israel had completed a withdrawal from Gaza. This was the first major Israeli operation on that strip of land since the withdrawal and since the coming to power of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States and the European Union.
Many — though not all — in the Arab blogosphere sharply criticized Israeli actions as excessive, but they saw in the fury of the Israeli government something lacking in their own: concern for the life of a single citizen. “They will turn the world upside down to get that soldier back,” wrote Sandmonkey, who describes himself as 25-year-old Egyptian living in Cairo. “I kind of envy how much they care about their own.” The sentiment was echoed by Isis, at BigPharaoh.com, wishing that “our government had half the respect” for its citizens’ lives “that the Israelis have for
This touches on one of the most painful contrasts between not only the Arab and Israeli cultures, but between civil societies and prime divider societies. The Israelis care far more for the lives of their own citizens (including their Arab citizens) than the Arab regimes care for the lives of their own people (subjects). It is characteristic of elites in prime-divider societies to treat their commoners as so many beasts of burden (in the Middle Ages the comparison was between peasants and oxen), and, in time of war, cannon fodder. Look at the ways in which Iran and Iraq threw their own people into the killing fields for 8 years. This differential derives, among other things, from the high value that civil societies place on the voluntary adherence of its citizens to the social contract (from Sinai to the social contract theorists of modern democracies) and the way they empower individuals. Prime divider societies rule by fear and impostion, and not only do not value individuals, they fear them.
The ultimate and bitter irony of all this is that the Israelis, who so value the lives of their own soldiers, put them in danger to spare the lives of Palestinian civilians — as in Jenin 2002, where 23 soldiers died because the Israeli army would not assault the neighborhood in question from the air. When you get right down to it, the Israelis care more about civilian Arabs than do their own regimes in general, and Palestinian regimes who thrive on the sacrifice and misery of their civilians, in particular.
Lebanese bloggers found bitter irony in the failure of their leaders to accomplish very much and yet find the time to rhetorically blast Israel. Lebanonesque (lebanonesque.blogspot.com) printed a local news item about a meeting of the country’s National Dialogue, which “failed to solve any of their own country’s problems … but they did manage to agree that the international community should step in to halt Israel’s offensive in the Gaza Strip.” A contributor noted sadly that “Arab ‘leaders’ are following in the grand tradition of posturing and emitting hot air while unable/unwilling to deliver bread to their own people.”
Several progressive Arab blogs quoted approvingly from the comments page of the satellite news channel Al-Arabiya. An article titled “Where is the Arab Brain?” and signed by “A Wise Muslim” beseeched Arab leaders to stop supporting terrorism and start helping their own people. “The Arab leaders cheat and lie their people and make them holocaust fuel to their wars with Israel to divert their people from their national and democratic rights,” the writer argues, adding, “Continuing the war with Israel is an advantage for Arab rulers and not their people.”
Okay. When I say these things, I’m suspected of being a right-winger, blah blah. But at least, when Arabs say these things, can they be progressive? Or is the “leftist” dogma of Palestinian suffering caused by Israelis going to trump the progessive tradition of criticizing exploitative elites and their scagegoating narratives?
Syrian democrats also maintain that their government should stop supporting terrorism, particularly by playing host to Hamas leaders. After Israeli jets entered Syrian airspace and flew low over the home of Syrian President Bashar Assad, someone identified only as Fares wrote at amarji.blogspot.com, a Syrian reformer’s blog, “Now even myself for the first time ever I applaud an Israeli action. … Israel by this action has shown that it does not want to harm Syria. … (It is) time for Syrians to pick the message up and stop supporting radicals and terrorists.”
Now “for the first time” strikes me as a bit disingenuous, since Israel has repeatedly demonstrated that although it certainly can, it is not interested in harming Syria or Syrians. But we must be thankful for small things as well as large. It is interesting to wonder what made the shingles fall now from this Syrian’s eyes.
A recurring theme among many who want regime change in their own countries is a demand that their leaders stop supporting terrorists.
Hamas itself came under withering fire from several writers, including many who expressed impassioned support for Palestinians. In the Al-Arabiya page, someone asked, “What did Hamas expect” when it took the Israeli soldier? With concern for the Palestinians and little sympathy for Israel, he cries out, “the people in Gaza have enough troubles than to be occupied again due to the stupid, irresponsible actions of Hamas idiots.”
Hamas leaders fall into the same category as other regional governments that “enrich themselves and enlarge their external bank accounts” while speaking about the “glories of Jihad and martyrdom,” was the sentiment in an article quoted in the blog “Free Michel Kilo Now,” a site named after a Syrian writer taken prisoner by the authorities in a recent crackdown against the opposition.
The majority of the writing on Arab blogs and other Internet commentary was in support of the Palestinians and highly critical of Israel. Still, Arab democrats are increasingly noting that, however much anyone sympathizes with Palestinians, there is little doubt that Arab autocrats, dictators and assorted rulers-for-life have long used the Palestinian cause as a thick cloak to cover up the deficiencies of their rule.
The Internet, it seems, is slowly drawing the threads off that cloak, making it transparent enough to reveal the ugly truth. This time, even an Israeli crackdown in the Palestinian territories has provided an opportunity to bring more attacks against Arab regimes.
Frida Ghitis, who writes about world affairs, is a frequent contributor to Insight. Contact us at [email protected]
When Israel and Egypt signed the Camp David accords in 1979, I remember seeing a small news item about how the Syrian minister of Education declared darkly that it was only a matter of years now before the Israelis dominate the entire region culturally. At the time I smiled at the paranoia. Having better understood the Arab predicament and the cultural demands of economic development in the subsequent decades, I now realize that what he feared — and what these reformers no longer fear (or perhaps don’t fully understand) — is that in turning away from the prime divider politics of Arab political culture, they are indeed adopting the civic commitments that the Israelis have fostered from the earliest years of Zionism. In that sense, they are coming under Western, if not Zionist influence, a move that will necessarily rub the honor-driven among them the wrong way.
The real question is, when and how can the Arabs develop real self-respect, rather than the dysfunctional “honor” posturing that’s supposed to cover their own self-hatred? When they’re ready, I predict they will find many Israelis who not only would not dream of bombing them from their jets, but would love to extend a helping hand.
When the Jews first arrived in the land from Europe, they represented an incredibly valuable resource to the Arabs who were just awakening to the vast technological and cultural superiority of the West. These Jews were fully in command of the technological and cultural dimensions of modernity, and as much the victims of European imperialism and racism as the Arabs, with no particular loyalty to their European “homelands.” If the Arabs had used the incoming Jews as their way to learn about modernity, the history of the region might have been very different.
And it’s not too late.