If the early 20th century was about the East trying to join what it couldn’t lick, the early 21st may be about the East trying to lick what it hasn’t been able to join.
By George Jonas
And how is the Arab Spring? Well, there’s bad news, and good news. The bad news is that since the beginning of the phenomenon that has been discussed more and understood less than any in recent years, hostility to Israel in the region has only increased. The good news is that while the appetite to harm the Jewish state and its inhabitants has grown in the Arab/Muslim world since the fall of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia launched what was supposed to be the region’s democratic renewal, the capacity to do so has diminished.
An increase in hostility was predictable. Hatred against Israel, kept on a low boil, is the organizing principle of the Middle East. It’s the region’s main fuel of governance; often its only fuel. Some ruling regimes — kings, dictators, whatever — may have oil wells and sandy beaches, but other than hating Israel (and looking after their families and tribes) they have few if any ideas. If they do, chances are it’s to hate some other group in addition to Israel.
In the Middle East a country’s national purpose often amounts to little more than a list of its enemies. A feeling of being ill-done by dominates the consciousness of groups and individuals. Since it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, it’s not necessarily baseless: The easiest way to have an enemy is to be one.
The centrality of hatred to the culture is remarkable. The Cartesian idea is “I hate, therefore I am.” Self-righteousness is overwhelming: each desire thwarted becomes an example of justice denied. It’s not a pretty place, but millions call it home.
In many ways, Israel is a godsend to the one-trick ponies who rule the region. Their culture defines “ruling” as inoculating your own sect or tribe against all others, including the ones that form your own country. Many Middle East nations — Iraq, Syria, Libya, to name three — are just temporarily halted civil wars. They’re truces rather than countries. Canada may be “two solitudes,” but it isn’t an uneasy truce between French and English Canadians. Iraq is, between Shia and Sunni Muslims.
In such an ambiance, nothing is handier than an all-purpose enemy, just out of reach, close enough to seem a realistic threat but too far to be one. Tyrants can govern by whipping up enough popular sentiment against the Jewish state to give their regimes an apparent national purpose and distract people’s attention from domestic woes, then relax and spend some money in the capitals of Europe.
The key is a low boil, though. If the anti-Israeli sentiment boils over, causing riots against the government for being too soft on the Zionists, or foolish attempts to attack Haifa with rockets, which in turn invites retaliation, the people’s hatred of Israel becomes a headache for the very rulers who instigated it.
“Yeah, well, it couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch,” somebody might say, “I’ll lose no sleep over it.” He should, though, because it’s like pulling a thread from a piece of fabric. Things can unravel in an instant.
Tyranny, Egyptian-style, under Hosni Mubarak or Libyan-style, under Muammar Gaddafi, often manifested itself in dictatorial governments balancing on a tightrope, trying to maintain a fragile peace with Israel against their own bellicose people, trying to counteract the effects of the sentiments they themselves instigated. When they couldn’t, the forces they helped conjure up turned against them. If lucky, they died in a hail of bullets on the reviewing stand like Anwar Sadat; if not, bludgeoned like a cornered rat in a culvert, in the manner of Gaddafi. It’s a fate Bashar al-Assad has been trying to avoid, which is hardly surprising.
Assad “has threatened to rain missiles down on Tel Aviv should NATO try to dislodge him,” as Michael Koplow put it in the National Interest, but in fact Syria’s tyrant has been raining missiles (and if not missiles, then shells and bullets) on his own towns and villages. No wonder, for that’s where his enemies live — his actual enemies, as opposed to his mythical ones. It’s his fellow Syrians who want to trap him in a culvert and drown him, preferably along with his entire tribe. Israel has no interest in touching him with a 10-foot pole, especially as long as he’s keeping Syria’s armed forces and rebels thinning each other’s ranks.
We won’t understand much about the Arab Spring as long as we persist in looking at it through Western eyes. We see popular uprisings against dictatorships as moves in the direction of Western-style democracy. If they happened here, they probably would be. Where they’re actually happening they’re taking their societies in the opposite direction.
The Arab Spring is an attempt to return the region to its roots. It’s not to Westernize the Middle East and make it more democratic; it’s to Easternize it and make it more Islamic. If the early 20th century was about the East trying to join what it couldn’t lick, the early 21st may be about the East trying to lick what it hasn’t been able to join.