Thursday, March 03, 2005

Arabs Beat the Street

The Arab Street is one of those concepts that's quasi-racist -- visually communicated as young, swarthy, Arabs angrily chanting or reacting violently to some stimuli -- and used as a conversation ender on the matters of democracy and secularism throughout the Middle East.

Two editorials over the last few days dovetail nicely on this and refute it. From Monday, Christopher Hitchens boxed up the "Arab Street" and sent it six feet deep. Today, Thomas Friedman lends his dexterous fingers to those young Arab-Muslim voices prodding him to keep writing op-eds on the need for democratic reform throughout the Middle East.

Both Hitchens and Friedman concentrate on how the people of the Middle East are defying the odds and the repressive elements within -- whether dictatorships, oligarchies, and/or fanatical Islamists -- to voice their democratic aspirations.

But the subtext of each article flashes the reflection of our own preconceptions of the Middle East back at us. Friedman takes a broader look, commenting:

America has treated the Arab-Muslim states for 50 years as a collection of gas stations. All we cared about was that their pumps were open and their prices low, and that they be nice to the Israelis. As long as the regimes did that, we said, they could do whatever they wanted "out back." They could treat their women however they wanted, they could write about America in their newspapers however they wanted, and they could preach intolerance of other religions all they wanted - just keep their pumps open and prices low and be nice to the Israelis. On 9/11, we got hit with everything that was going on "out back."
But as Christopher Hitchens argues, that doesn't mean that the Islamists that hit us on 9/11 speak for the Arab-Muslim masses as some on the left believe, quite the opposite.

The Muslim population with the closest experience of Bin Laden was the Afghan one, and the Afghan street, to judge by all available evidence, rejected him and ignored his threats in crushing and overwhelming numbers.

In the Palestinian elections, boycotted by the Islamists, a fairly solid turnout split the votes between Mahmoud Abbas and Mustapha Barghouti, the latter of whom scored an impressive 20 percent or so for a secular program. Where Hamas has done well in local elections in Gaza, it has been due to grass-roots welfare and social policy as much as to intransigent anti-Zionism, and it's possible to imagine the organization evolving, as has Hezbollah in Lebanon, into a quasi-political party with seats in the assembly. The logic of this, all rhetoric to one side, points largely in one direction.

Other Muslim streets are even more problematic for those who lazily assume that the jihadists are the voice of the unheard. The populations of Bosnia and Kosovo—populations that actually did have to confront anti-Muslim violence on a large scale—are generally hostile to Bin-Ladenism. Nobody has ever used the term "Iranian street," at least in print or on broadcast news, if only because everyone knows that Iranian opinion, as registered during the mock elections or voiced to visiting hacks, is strongly against the reigning theocracy.

This has been hard for the left to understand to my dismay. And it is this misunderstanding or disregard for the facts that allows some leftists to argue, quite against New Left principles of democracy and equity, that Al-Qaeda is the voice of the voiceless. Nevermind that demographically the Al-Qaeda movement's recruits are largely affluent, highly educated men.

Now I agree with the logic that argues 9/11 was bound to happen as a reaction to violent and oppressive U.S. foreign policies. Those who practice terrorism will likely feel the horror of it themselves. But it's quite another thing to assume those that struck the Twin Towers or the Pentagon had laudable goals or motives behind it. That's absurd, lazy and unforgivably dualistic.

In the end, what's needed is a reinvigorated internationalist left that values the principles of democracy and equality more than a knee jerk reactionism that ascribes instant freedom fighter status to those whom resist the U.S. The people of the Middle East have suffered enough under U.S. policies for the last half-century, how tragic it would be for the left to give legitimacy to those ready to seize democracy away from the people, right as it's conceivably in their reach.

-- M. Wood