Barry Rubin has a provocative piece on how hard it is to be an Arab these days, when not only do your elites victimize you and you can’t protest, but the West, in thinking they’re doing you a favor, praise your oppressors. In it he recounts an anecdote that illustrates a key element of our problem in the West.
Years ago, when Saddam Hussein was still in office, I was asked to address a visiting delegation of Arab journalists. The other American speakers gave the standard blah-blah. We felt their pain, we were working to resolve the Israel-Palestinian issue, we were sensitive to their Arab nationalist sentiments.
Having no ambition to hold high political office, I decided to introduce a dose of reality. Let’s face it, I explained, we know that your real enemy isn’t Israel or the United States but the regimes in Libya, Iraq, Syria, Iran, as well as Yasir Arafat and others. They are the ones who take away your rights, wreck your societies, destroy your dreams. Afterward I was mobbed–in the friendliest sense possible–by the audience who all wanted to thank me and say that they agreed.
Almost the same thing happened at Harvard Center for Far Eastern Studies a couple of years ago when my father, David S. Landes and a Western scholar specializing in China, Kenneth Pomeranz had a debate. Pomeranz argued the thesis of his book, The Great Divergeance: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy, in which the West and China were neck and neck in economic development really up to 1800, and then only the “luck” of the discovery of the “New World” and coal in Britain account for the West’s decisive advantage in modernizing. So, echoing Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, he placed the industrial revolution and modernity in the context of aleatory, evolutionary phenomena. Cudda happened in China just as easiy as the West if only…
Landes, whose book The Wealth and Poverty of Nations analyzes economic growth in terms of cultural variables like the amount of empowerment commoners are permitted, the attitudes towards manual labor, the intellectual capital and willingness of a culture to learn from others, and the constraints on the behavior of the power elites, argued the opposite. According to him, already, well before 1800, the Europeans were on a trajectory that was qualitatively different from that of China, which, with all the coal and New World contacts it wanted, would not have “modernized” without fundamental changes in its cultural attitudes both towards the outside world, and towards its own commoners.
After the talk, Pomeranz was “mobbed” by the Western graduate students eager to hear more about how great the Chinese were and how dumb lucky Westerners were. But the Chinese graduate students wanted to talk to my father. Why? Because they were far less interested in having their ego stroked by well meaning Westerners who were basically condescending to them with useless information (unless you consider that kind of misinformation “therapeutically” valuable), than in hearing some hard concrete criticisms that they could actually absorb and respond to.
In his essay on “The Politics of Rage: Why Do They Hate Us” in Newsweek right after 9-11, Fareed Zakaria wrote the following:
About a decade ago, in a casual conversation with an elderly Arab intellectual, I expressed my frustration that governments in the Middle East had been unable to liberalize their economies and societies in the way that the East Asians had done. “Look at Singapore, Hong Kong and Seoul,” I said, pointing to their extraordinary economic achievements. The man, a gentle, charming scholar, straightened up and replied sharply, “Look at them. They have simply aped the West. Their cities are cheap copies of Houston and Dallas. That may be all right for fishing villages. But we are heirs to one of the great civilizations of the world. We cannot become slums of the West.”
This disillusionment with the West is at the heart of the Arab problem. It makes economic advance impossible and political progress fraught with difficulty. Modernization is now taken to mean, inevitably, uncontrollably, Westernization and, even worse, Americanization. This fear has paralyzed Arab civilization. In some ways the Arab world seems less ready to confront the age of globalization than even Africa, despite the devastation that continent has suffered from AIDS and economic and political dysfunction. At least the Africans want to adapt to the new global economy. The Arab world has not yet taken that first step.
Misplaced pride, fear of the heavy hand of a power elite that — unlike the Chinese — enforces the ego-gratifying discourse of anti-Western self-assertion, and perhaps a pervasive sense that no matter what they do, they’ll always be behind tiny, humiliating Israel, has the Arab world in its grip. And well-meaning Westerners, eager to feed them the “therapeutic” discourse of our own anti-Western moral equivalence, condemn them further to the mind-forged prison they have constructed for themselves.
As Rubin concludes his essay:
It is heart-breaking. What do you say to a Syrian dissident who is facing prison and quite possibly torture? Can you tell him that the West will support him, that journalists will condemn the regime that beats him, Middle East experts will give papers at conferences praising his work, U.S. congressional delegations won’t visit unless he is freed, or European governments will demand his release?
How can one not feel the misery of the Arab peoples, intoxicated as many are by the opiate of Arab nationalism and Islamism, the false promises of impending triumphs and the horror stories of satanic foes?
How can one not sympathize with the frustration of real moderates who live in societies where they are treated as madmen and traitors?
And how can one not feel the utmost disgust at those living comfortably in the West who celebrate or advocate their own countries’ surrender to all the evil forces holding them down and back?
Barry Rubin is Director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary Center university. His latest book, The Truth about Syria was published by Palgrave-Macmillan in May 2007. Prof. Rubin’s columns can be read online at: http://gloria.idc.ac.il/articles/index.html.