A collection of the week's news from Israel
A service of the Bet El Twinning Committee of Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto
A collection of the week's news from Israel
January 25, 2002
Issue number 363
Sunday January 27 6:30 pm
BESA Center Conference "How Can We Be Secure from Terrorism?" with Professors Efraim Inbar, Gerald Steinberg and Irwin Cotler. Leah Posluns Theatre, Bathurst Jewish Community Centre.
Peace amid the Assault By John Podhoretz
When my niece Avital heard about the terrorist who shot up a bat mitzvah celebration last week in the town of Hadera, she groaned. "Great," she said. "Something else to be anxious about."
Avital was in the last-minute throes before her own bat mitzvah, which took place without a hitch here in Jerusalem on Sunday, and she was so nervous that she could hardly sleep.
All she needed was to have to consider the possibility that a terrorist was going to stage an assault at her own coming-out as an adult.
I woke up from a jet-lag-induced nap and turned on the TV to pictures of police cars on a darkening street in what was clearly Jerusalem, which then cut to a bloodstain on the floor of a shop.
I don't understand Hebrew, but my fiancé does. "It says 30 injured ... the gunman was killed ... "
"Do they say where it is?" I ask.
"It's near Ben Yehuda," she says, referring to the city's shopping mecca - the equivalent to 34th Street and Seventh Avenue - where three gruesome terrorist attacks have already taken place in the past year.
And the thought that runs through my head is the exact echo of Avital's words: "Great, something else to be anxious about."
The thing is, I don't feel at all anxious - even though the attack took place only 15 minutes by foot from my hotel.
I don't feel anxious even though my fiancéée had just said earlier in the day she wanted to go to a T-shirt store on Ben Yehuda at some point before we leave.
I don't feel anxious even though I don't yet know where Avital and her three brothers and their mother - my sister Ruthie - are.
I don't feel anxious even though this attack reveals unquestionably that Yasser Arafat is now dropping even the hint of a pretense to being a peacemaker. On Sunday, he declared his intention to be a "martyr" if necessary to establish a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.
By Jerusalem he means all of Jerusalem, every centimeter, including Ruthie's apartment and the party room where Avital had her bat mitzvah on Sunday, and the hotel where I am staying with my fiancéée.
Just like the bat mitzvah massacre last week, today's attack was staged by Arafat's personal faction, Fatah. It's part of an Arafat offensive that began with the effort to bring in 50 tons of Iranian-bought weapons via the Red Sea. The Israelis intercepted that illegal shipment, which would have given Arafat the ability to strike neighorhoods inside Israel with short-range missiles.
Zeev Schiff, the noted military columnist for the newspaper Ha'aretz and no right-winger, quotes a recent remark made by Arafat in the presence of a senior European official. "I am not under siege!" Arafat said. "I am in the middle of a campaign that I will continue until I have obtained victory - even if that means shedding the blood of every Palestinian."
So why am I not anxious?
I felt very much the same way in the aftermath of Sept. 11 - shocked and appalled but cool- headed. I think if I allowed myself to feel that kind of anxiety, I would never be able to get out of bed, never leave my room and live in a state of fear and despair.
Avital's bat mitzvah was a triumphant occasion, I'm proud to report. And it was very familiar. The music was the same sort of junky pop you'd hear if the event took place in the Five Towns. The 12-year-old girls were dressed to the nines, desperate to look older. The 12-year-old boys looked like they were desperately trying to stave off puberty.
They should. In six years these little boys and girls will be in the army, just as Avital's oldest brother Noam is, preventing Arafat and whoever comes after him from succeeding in their heinous aim of taking Jerusalem and rendering it Jew-free.
Maybe, in the final analysis, that's why I'm not anxious. I was sure that America would rise to Osama bin Laden's challenge. I am sure Israel will not commit suicide nor allow itself to be murdered. These shards of surety give me peace in a time of war. (New York Post Jan 23)
The PA Phase of War By Ami Horowitz
The Palestinian Authority begs to be a target in the war on terror.
Event one: In the dead of night, black helicopters drop naval commandos into the ocean 500 miles from home. They board and capture their target, a ship laden with deadly weapons destined for the Palestinian Authority, so quickly that they actually handcuff most of their opposition to their beds while they sleep. No one knows what flag the ship was sailing under, but by the time it steamed into the Israeli port of Eilat, it was sailing under the Magen David.
Event Two: An armed terrorist arrives at a banquet hall, where a party for a twelve-year-old girl is taking place. He is armed and packed with explosives. He nonchalantly enters the dance area and begins to empty his weapons at her friends and family.
These recent and interconnected events present the world with two ugly facts. First, Arafat and the Palestinians have only one goal, and that is the continuation of terror against Israel, and ultimately its destruction. Second, Iran is expanding, not contracting, its support of global terrorism in the face of the administration's war against terror.
The 50-ton cache of Palestinian weapons included Katyusha rockets (the type Hezbollah uses to attack northern Israeli cities), anti-aircraft missiles, mines, C-4 explosives (used for suicide bombings), and sniper and assault rifles, among other weapons of terror. Of course, all of these various arms are illegal under the now virtually worthless Oslo accords. In his usual fashion, Arafat has been pushing publicly for a cease-fire and then using the respite to acquire more weapons for a new terror offensive that this time will reach deeper into Israel, with deadlier results. This tactic is borne out by the latest Palestinian attack on the banquet hall. Arafat, apparently not satisfied with using his proxy, Hamas, to kill Israelis, had his own Fatah organization send the terrorist to kill at the party. One must understand that agreements made with the Palestinians are worthless and that the world is making a grave mistake in attempting to force Israel into signing a peace agreement with an entity that has no intention of making peace. After Israel offered the Palestinians 98% of the West Bank, 100% of the Gaza Strip, over 50% of Jerusalem and territory inside of Israel proper, the Palestinians responded with a year and a half of terror. What exactly does the world community want Israel to do?
The ship, called the Karine A, is a freighter owned by the Palestinian Authority and was under the command of an officer of the Palestinian Naval Police. The saga began when the PA's main weapons buyer, Adel Moghrabi, and several other senior PA figures began to cultivate relationships with Iranians, through Hezbollah, in order to acquire large amounts of weapons from them. The Palestinian Authority spent nearly $15 million in order to acquire these weapons, while their people live in abject poverty. The plight of the Palestinians was actually engineered by Arafat, who can simultaneously augment his weapons arsenal while ensuring an endless supply of willing, poor, and uneducated suicide bombers. Despite direct evidence of Arafat's personal corruption (his personal wealth is valued in the billions) and his displacement of funds from civil infrastructure to terrorist infrastructure, Europeans continue to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into the corrupt and deadly regime. They either ignore or are unmoved by daily evidence that Arafat is the prime mover in the terrorist offensive. Europe's support makes them accomplices to the terror.
Ever since Israel pulled out of Lebanon last year, Hezbollah has been touting it as the first Israeli military defeat in its history. The Palestinians have taken note of this and are attempting to emulate their tactics by procuring much of the same type of weaponry that Hezbollah used in their military and terror campaign against Israel and her northern cities. They have also cultivated a relationship with Hezbollah's main benefactor, Iran. The presence of a Hezbollah agent on the ship, as well as their new dealings with the Iranians, are very worrisome developments indeed. In the past, the Iranian regime has merely paid lip service to the Palestinian cause; these new developments are a major shift in policy for Iran. We do well to remember that Iran is still the single largest destabilizer in the region and daily increases its lead. The Palestinians showed at Camp David that they had no interest in peace with Israel; the banquet-hall attack and the Karine A simply provide further evidence for this conclusion. While Arafat continues to talk of peace in English and jihad in Arabic, he and the Palestinians seem to understand only one language: force.
The war against terrorism has been defined as targeting organizations with global reach. The PA's brazen attempt to smuggle weapons is a clear indication that Hezbollah and the Palestinian terrorist organizations are attempting to cooperate in creating a terrorist super-organization. Meanwhile, their dual patrons, Iran and Syria, continue to finance and facilitate their terror campaigns. The U.S. State Department has mirrored the European response to incidents such as the Karine A by attempting to ignore the reality and continue their blind pursuit of Middle East peace at a time when we are farther from peace than ever. What all of these countries need to realize is that they are dealing with a monster that is growing in size and sophistication on a daily basis. The triumvirate of terror — the Palestinians, Hezbollah, and Iran — feel that there are no real consequences to their terrorist actions despite the administration's war efforts. Hopefully, the next phase of the war against terror will disabuse them of that notion. (National Review Jan 22)
Hebron Surprise: The physical reality of a mythical city. By Barbara Lerner
Visit Hebron while you still can — not just because it's the birthplace of Western monotheism, but because it's the most surprising city between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean. The surprise isn't to do with the monster political battles for which Hebron is the symbol, or about the rights and wrongs of it all. It's about the place itself, the physical reality of Hebron and its surroundings. Before I went there last month, I thought standard press descriptions like "400 Jews," "mostly from New York," or "surrounded by 200,000 Arabs" had some literal, descriptive meaning, politics aside. So I went to the city of the patriarchs of Western civilization — Abraham's city — expecting to find a single cluster of foreign Jews, alone in a vast sand-sea of Arabs, with no other Israeli civilians for miles and miles. I thought I'd find only little bands of Israeli soldiers, there to protect an isolated Judean outpost. Secular Israelis in Jerusalem told me I was brave to go, and before I did, I believed them.
Afterwards, I realized what their problem was: They'd never been there either; they were relying on the same press reports as I had. As I waited for the Egged #160 bus that takes you from Jerusalem's Central Bus Station to the outskirts of Hebron, those reports seemed credible enough. Soldiers with machine guns outnumbered civilians in the upstairs waiting area, and a lot of them got on the bus with us. Our carry-ons were searched before we boarded, and afterwards, I sat back for what I thought would be a long ride, interrupted, if at all, by sniper fire. But five minutes in, the bus stopped on a Jerusalem street corner to pick up more passengers — Jews, Arabs, and indistinguishables — none of whom were searched. It kept making stops (I quit counting after the seventh), both inside Jerusalem and long past it — in a plethora of little towns on the hills above the road, some Jewish, some Arab — all the way to Kiryat Arba, a town of 7,000 Jews about a mile from Hebron. Altogether there are about 10,000 Jews in the South Hebron Hills, and fewer Arabs than the inflated numbers the press keeps citing. Hebron's mythic isolation is just that — mythic.
Hebron spokesman David Wilder met me at the last bus stop in Kiryat Arba, and drove me into Hebron in his car — a two-minute trip. David grew up in New Jersey, and I was glad of it: Most of the dozen or so other Hebron Jews I met spoke no English, and no wonder. The claim that Hebron is populated mainly by fanatics from Brooklyn is another myth. About 12 percent of Hebron's Jews come from America; 75 percent are native Israelis, some descended of the Jews who lived in Hebron for centuries before the 1929 massacre there. The other 13 percent are believers from all over the globe. The oft-repeated number 400 is a fiction too. There are 750 Jews in Hebron, and they are not all clustered together; they live in four separate little neighborhoods, starting with an old, handsome, comfortable one called Avraham Avinu (Abraham, Our Father) and ending with the newest, least comfortable one, Tel Rumeida. There, seven Jewish families have been living in cramped "caravans" — trailers, to American eyes — for 17 years, waiting for final permission to build actual houses, like the ones their Arab neighbors live in across the street.
It came, in November, but this, after all, is Abraham's city; remnants from his days here — his tomb, his spring — are all around you. So it was hardly surprising that when builders first dug into the earth, two and a half years ago, they uncovered another part of his world. Ancient Hebron, like ancient Jerusalem, was a walled city, and two of its walls still stand at the base of this hill. The oldest was built anywhere from 300 to 800 years before Abraham strode this ground; the newer one, built 3,700 years ago, is from his time. I wanted to see them, and the wine cisterns that still line them, so we got out of the car and walked down the neighborhood's one street, passing some of the Arabs who live on the other side of it. Then we clambered up the little hill at the end to gaze down at the excavation, and up at the pillars erected above it — the base for a new layer of civilization, now being built, to preserve and protect the biblical one below.
"Were we in danger of being shot by any of the Arabs we passed on the street?" I asked when we were out of Arab earshot. "Not likely," David said. "Many Arabs left the city when the troubles here were at their height, and the ones who stayed rarely shoot at us now. They know we'd recognize them and they'd pay a price. The shots mostly come from Abu Sneina," he said, pointing to an Arab town on another hill, high above the city. "Anonymous gunmen shoot down on us from up there pretty regularly, mostly at night. Walk over here and look at the backs of these trailer homes, and you'll see what I mean." I did and found ceiling-high piles of sandbags behind the trailers, oozing sand.
Back in Avraham Avinu again, I looked behind the buildings I'd admired from the front and found sandbags there too, piled high enough on each rear balcony to cover the bedroom windows above them. I decided that while it took no special courage to visit Hebron, it took a lot to sleep there night after night. But then, as I rested on a shady bench in a sunny inner courtyard, where laughing children clambered about on bright jungle gyms, a different calculus came to mind. There were four bombs in Jerusalem during my two weeks there, and one in Haifa; none here. And though shootings are more frequent in Hebron, there's a certain comfort in knowing who and where your enemies are, and which direction they are likely to attack from. It's a comfort not to be had in Jerusalem or Haifa, where danger has no settled address but can rise up suddenly, unpredictably, from anywhere at all — as it did on December 1, killing ten teens and wounding 235 in Jerusalem's main pedestrian mall, and again on December 2, killing 15 riders on an old folks' outing bus in downtown Haifa and wounding 38 more. And when you look at that reality with an unblinking eye — the blind secular faith of so many, in America and in Israel, that forcing "the settlers" to abandon the birthplace of Western monotheism will bring peace any closer — well, that looks like the biggest myth of all.
The reality behind the myths is stark and simple, and is not a matter of Left/Right, as the elite media in America and Israel keep insisting, but of East/West. If the West will not fight to maintain its hold on its two birthright cities — the Hebron of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the Jerusalem of Jesus — then, secular faith in diplo-speak aside, it will in the end cede the entire Middle East to an imperialist brand of Islam still seeking conquest, not coexistence, with the Judeo-Christian world and the Western civilization it gave rise to. If, on the other hand, Israel and America join together to insist, clearly and forcefully, that Jews and Christians will not be defeated and driven hence, then Islamist imperialism will suffer a major defeat, and peace and coexistence may yet have a chance. (National Review Jan 16)
The writer is a writer, psychologist, and attorney in Chicago.
An Ugly Resurgence By Naomi Blumenthal
In a recent piece in the London Daily Telegraph, veteran columnist Barbara Amiel described the re-emergence of anti-Semitism in European polite society. Amiel tells the story of a private gathering at her house, at which the ambassador to London of a prominent EU member state blamed the current world crisis on "that shitty little country, Israel." The ambassador, it is related, expressed his remarks in a humorous tone, evidently confident that his fellow guests would share in the joke.
In the same article, Amiel quoted a remark by the hostess of a prominent political salon in London, to the effect that she could not stand Jews, and that everything that happened to them was their own fault.
To Israelis, seen from the vantage point of the grim struggle of attrition in which we have been locked for the past year, such utterances may seem of little consequence. One of Zionism's raisons d'etre, after all, was to bring about a situation in which Jews would no longer need to worry and ponder over every bigoted remark made by every ignorant European official. Yet the recent re-emergence and proliferation of such sentiments is a matter of deep concern to Diaspora Jews, and deserves wider attention in Israel.
This is particularly the case because, as the remarks quoted by Amiel accurately convey, the newly vociferous hostility to Jews is entirely nourished by the tones of strident criticism of Israel to be found in foreign media outlets. Such utterances are reflective of deeper streams of opinion regarding Israel, especially in Europe. (The phenomenon exists only in far more muted and marginal form elsewhere in the democratic world.)
At a recent conference of Jewish parliamentarians, I was struck by stories from many of the European participants about interviewers and colleagues holding them responsible for Israeli actions widely condemned in their home countries. The prevailing tone of discussion in Europe affords an ever freer rein for the most scandalous and slanderous attacks on the Jewish people and their very right to sovereignty. Diaspora Jews, especially those prominent in public life, bear the brunt of these attacks.
This is a serious matter. It demonstrates the success of the Arab campaign of disinformation, waged with such consummate and enviable skill by the public relations mouthpieces of our opponents. Their campaign has apparently managed to link up with deeper and older attitudes toward Jews that remain present in European political culture. The success of this ugly alliance has been illustrated most graphically in recent days in the virtual news blackout in the foreign press regarding the interception of the Karine A arms ship.
Here was a most significant development. If it represents, as well it may, a Palestinian turn toward an alliance with Iran, then it is a matter of grave concern for the West as a whole. By contrast, Israel's destruction of Palestinian properties that had been used as bases for terror attacks was greeted with a deluge of coverage. Palestinian preparations for war are seemingly of less concern than Israeli acts of self defense.
A climate of delegitimization is being constructed.
The Jewish people as a whole, in Israel and in the Diaspora, need to be aware of the worrying long-term implications of this situation. It is imperative that our brethren in the Diaspora do not allow themselves to be cowed by the widely accepted lies and misrepresentations of our opponents. Rather, the debate must be engaged, and our enemies exposed.
It is simplistic to suppose that this trend can be neutralized merely by successful public relations. We are up against powerful and deep currents. But the truth is on our side, and must be plainly and boldly stated.
Throughout the 1990s, far-sighted Israelis and their allies sought to warn of the danger of radical Islamism. Again and again, we strove to turn the attention of the world toward the growth and proliferation of poisonous anti-Western and anti-Israel organizations and ideologies in the Middle East and in the wider Muslim world. Our opponents attempted to dismiss our concerns as scaremongering. We were even accused of anti-Muslim bigotry.
Since the terrible events of September 11, the reality has been exposed. Radical Islamism - not Islam as a whole, but a particular mutation of it - with its sworn allegiance to the methods of terror, and its tireless search for weapons of mass destruction, is the most dangerous enemy the West has faced since Soviet communism. Now, as then, Israel and the Jewish People are in the front line, alongside the whole democratic world.
And just as in those days, when the apologists and fellow travelers of Soviet communism made frequent use of deep-rooted anti-Semitic sentiments in their propaganda, so today the apologists for terrorism find easy and comfortable common cause with the enemies of the Jewish People, and in the language of anti-Semitism. We cannot afford to concede the battle for European public opinion in advance. We must work closely with Diaspora communities, to make sure that their representatives are sufficiently cognizant of the facts. Israel, the only democracy between Europe and the Indian sub-continent, is a natural and integral part of the free Western world in its war against terror. We must mobilize all resources to drive this point home and by so doing, we will silence the apologists for Islamist terror, together with the ugly shadows which they seek to revive.
The writer is a Likud MK and deputy minister of National Infrastructure.
What Went Wrong with Muslim Civilization? By Bernard Lewis
In the course of the twentieth century it became abundantly clear that things had gone badly in the Middle East — and, indeed, in all the lands of Islam. Compared with Christendom, its rival for more than a millennium, the world of Islam had become poor, weak, and ignorant. The primacy and therefore the dominance of the West was clear for all to see, invading every aspect of the Muslim’s public and even — more painfully — his private life.
Muslim modernizers — by reform or revolution — concentrated their efforts in three main results areas: military, economic, and political. The results achieved were, to say the least, disappointing. The quest for victory by updated armies brought a series of humiliating defeats. The quest for prosperity through development brought in some countries impoverished and corrupt economies in recurring need of external aid, in others an unhealthy dependence on a single resource — oil. And even this was discovered, extracted, and put to use by Western ingenuity and industry, and is doomed, sooner or later, to be exhausted, or, more probably, superseded, as the international community grows weary of a fuel that pollutes the land, the sea and the air wherever it is used or transported, and that puts the world economy at the mercy of a clique of capricious autocrats. Worst of all are the political results: the long quest for freedom has left a string of shabby tyrannies, ranging from traditional autocracies to dictatorships that are modern only in the apparatus of repression and indoctrination.
Many remedies were tried — weapons and factories, schools and parliaments — but none achieved the desired result. Here and there they brought some alleviation and, to limited elements of the population, some benefit. But they failed to remedy or even to halt the increasing imbalance between Islam and the Western world.
There was worse to come. It was bad enough for Muslims to feel poor and weak after centuries of being rich and strong, to lose the position of leadership that they had come to regard as their right, and to be reduced to the role of followers of the West. But the twentieth century, particularly the second half, brought further humiliation — the awareness that they were no longer even the first among followers but were falling back in a lengthening line of eager and more successful Westernizers, notably in East Asia. The rise of Japan had been an encouragement but also a reproach. The later rise of other Asian economic powers brought only reproach. The proud heirs of ancient civilizations had gotten used to hiring Western firms to carry out tasks of which their own contractors and technicians were apparently incapable. Now Middle Eastern rulers and businessmen found themselves inviting contractors and technicians from Korea — only recently emerged from Japanese colonial rule — to perform these tasks. Following is bad enough; limping in the rear is far worse. By all the standards that matter in the modern world — economic development and job creation, literacy, educational and scientific achievement, political freedom and respect for human rights — a mighty civilization has indeed fallen low.
“Who did this to us?” is of course a common human response when things are going badly, and many in the Middle East, past and present, have asked this question. They have found several different answers. It is usually easier and always more satisfying to blame others for one's misfortunes. For a long time the Mongols were the favorite villains. The Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century were blamed for the destruction of both Muslim power and Islamic civilization, and for what was seen as the ensuing weakness and stagnation. But after a while historians, Muslims and others, pointed to two flaws in this argument. The first was that some of the greatest cultural achievements of Islam, notably in Iran, came after, not before, the Mongol invasions. The second, more difficult to accept but nevertheless undeniable, was that the Mongols overthrew an empire that was already fatally weakened; indeed, it is hard to see how the once mighty empire of the caliphs would otherwise have succumbed to a horde of nomadic horsemen ridingf across the steppes from East Asia.
The rise of nationalism — itself an import from Europe — produced new perceptions. Arabs could lay the blame for their troubles on the Turks, who had ruled them for many centuries. Turks could lay the blame for the stagnation of their civilization on the dead weight of the Arab past, in which the creative energies of the Turkish people were caught and immobilized. Persians could lay the blame for the loss of their ancient glories on Arabs, Turks, and Mongols impartially.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries British and French paramountcy in much of the Arab world produced a new and more plausible scapegoat — Western imperialism. In the Middle East there have been good reasons for such blame. Western political domination, economic penetration, and — longest, deepest, and most insidious of all — cultural influence changed the face of the region and transformed the lives of its people, turning them in new directions, arousing new hopes and fears, creating new dangers and new expectations without precedent in their cultural past.
But the Anglo-French interlude was comparatively brief, and ended half a century ago; Islam’s change for the worse began long before and continued unabated afterward. Inevitably, the role of the British and the French as villains was taken over by the United States, along with other aspects of Western leadership. The attempt to transfer the guilt to America has won considerable support but, for similar reasons, remains unconvincing. Anglo-French rule and American influence, like the Mongol invasions, were a consequence, not a cause, of the inner weakness of Middle Eastern states and societies. Some observers, both inside and outside the region, have pointed to differences in the post-colonial development of former British possessions — for example, between Aden, in the Middle East, and Singapore or Hong Kong; or between the various lands that once made up the British Empire in India.
Another European contribution to this debate is anti-Semitism, and blaming “the Jews” for all that goes wrong. Jews in traditional Islamic societies experienced the normal constraints and occasional hazards of minority status. Until the rise and spread of Western tolerance in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they were better off under Muslim than under Christian rule in most significant respects. With rare exceptions, where hostile stereotypes of the Jew existed in the Islamic tradition, Islamic societies tended to be contemptuous and dismissive rather than suspicious and obsessive. This made the events of 1948 — the failure to prevent the establishment of the state of Israel — all the more of a shock. As some writers observed at the time, it was humiliating enough to be defeated by the great imperial powers of the West; to suffer the same fate at the hands of a contemptible gang of Jews was intolerable. Anti-Semitism and its image of the Jew as a scheming, evil monster provided a soothing antidote.
The earliest specifically anti-Semitic statements in the Middle East occurred among Christian minorities, and can usually be traced back to European originals. They had limited impact; during the Dreyfus trial in France, for example, when a Jewish officer was unjustly accused and condemned by a hostile court, Muslim comments usually favored the persecuted Jew against his Christian persecutors. But the poison continued to spread and, starting in 1933, Nazi Germany and its various agencies made a concerted and on the whole remarkably successful effort to promote European-style anti-Semitism in the Arab world. The struggle for Palestine greatly facilitated the acceptance of the anti-Semitic interpretation of history, and led some to attribute all evil in the Middle East — and, indeed, in the world — to secret Jewish plots. This interpretation has pervaded much of the public discourse in the region, including that seen in education, the media, and even entertainment.
An argument sometimes adduced is that the cause of the changed relationship between East and West is not a Middle Eastern decline but a Western upsurge — the discoveries and the scientific, technological, industrial, and political revolutions that transformed the West and vastly increased its wealth and power. But this is merely to restate the question: Why did the discoverers of America sail from Spain rather than from Muslim Atlantic port, out of which such voyages were indeed attempted in earlier times? Why did the great scientific breakthrough occur in Europe and not, as one might reasonably have expected, in the richer, more advanced, and in most respects more enlightened realm of Islam?
A more sophisticated form of the blame game finds its targets inside, rather than outside, Islamic society. One such target is religion — for some, specifically Islam. But to blame Islam as such is usually hazardous and not often attempted. Nor it is very plausible. For most of the Middle Ages it was neither the older cultures of the Orient nor the newer cultures of the West that were the major centers of civilization and progress but the world of Islam. There old sciences were recovered and developed and new sciences were created; there new industries were born and manufactures and commerce were expanded to a level without precedent. There, too, governments and societies achieved freedom of thought and expression that led persecuted Jews and even dissident Christians to flee Christendom for refuge in Islam. In comparison with modern ideals, and even with modern practice in more advanced democracies, the medieval Islamic world offered only limited freedom, but that was vastly more than was offered by any of its predecessors, its contemporaries, or most of its successors.
The point has often been made: If Islam is an obstacle to freedom, to science, to economic development, how is it that Muslim society in the past was a pioneer in all three — and this when Muslims were much closer in time to the sources and inspiration of their faith than they are now? Some have posed the question in a different form — not “What has Islam done to the Muslims?” but “What have the Muslims done to Islam?” and have answered by laying the blame on specific teachers and doctrines and groups.
For those known nowadays as Islamists or fundamentalists, the failures and shortcomings of modern Islamic lands afflict those lands because they adopted alien notions and practices. They fell away from authentic Islam and thus lost their former greatness. Those known as modernists or reformers take the opposite view, seeing the cause of this loss not in the abandonment but in the retention of old ways, and especially in the inflexibility and ubiquity of the Islamic clergy, who, they say, are responsible for the persistence of beliefs and practices that might have been creative and progressive a thousand years ago but are neither today. The modernists’ usual tactic is not to denounce religion as such, still less Islam in particular, but to level their criticism against fanaticism — more particularly to fanatical religious authorities — that they attribute the stifling of the once great Islamic scientific movement and, more generally, of the freedom of thought and expression.
A more common approach to this theme has been to discuss a specific problem: the place of religion and of its professional exponents in the political order. In this view a principal cause of Western progress is the separation of Church and State and the creation of a civil society governed by secular laws. Another approach has been to view the main culprit as the relegation of women to an inferior position in Muslim society, which deprives the Islamic world of the talents and energies of half its people and entrusts the other half’s crucial early years of upbringing to illiterate and downtrodden mothers. The products of such an education, it has been said, are likely to grow up either arrogant or submissive, and unfit for a free, open society. However one evaluates the views of secularists and feminists, their success or failure will be a major factor in shaping the Middle Eastern future.
Some solutions that once commanded passionate support have been discarded. The two dominant movements in the twentieth century were socialism and nationalism. Both have been discredited — the first by its failure, the second by its success and consequent exposure as ineffective. Freedom, interpreted to mean national independence, was seen as the great talisman that would bring all other benefits. The overwhelming majority of Muslims now live in independent states, but this has brought no solutions to their problems. National socialism, the bastard offspring of both ideologies, persists in a few states that have preserved the Nazi-Fascist style of dictatorial government and indoctrination through a vast security apparatus and a single all-powerful party. These regimes have failed every test except survival, and have brought none of the promised benefits. If anything, their infrastructures are even more antiquated than those of other Muslim states, their armed forces designed primarily for terror and repression.
At present two answers to the question of what went wrong command widespread support in the Middle East, each with its own diagnosis and corresponding prescription. One attributes all evil to the abandonment of the divine heritage of Islam and advocates return to a real or imagined past. That is the way of the Iranian revolution and of the so-called fundamentalist movements and regimes in various countries. The other condemns the past and advocates secular democracy, best embodied in the Turkish Republic, proclaimed in 1923 by Kemal Atatürk.
For the oppressive but ineffectual governments that rule much of the Middle East, finding targets to blame serves a useful, indeed an esential, purpose — to explain the poverty that they have failed to alleviate and to justify the tyranny that they have introduced. They seek to deflect the mounting anger of their unhappy subjects toward other, outside targets.
But growing numbers of Middle Easterners are adopting a more self-critical approach. The question “Who did this to us” has led only to neurotic fantasies and conspiracy theories. And the question “What did we do wrong?” has led naturally to a second question: “How do we put it right?” In that question, and in the various answers that are being found, lie the best hopes for the future.
During the past few weeks the worldwide exposure given to the views and actions of Osama bin Laden and his hosts the Taliban has provided a new and vivid insight into the eclipse of what was once the greatest, most advanced, and most open civilization in human history.
To a Western observer, schooled in the theory and practice of Western freedom, it is precisely the lack of freedom — freedom of the mind from constraint and indoctrination, to question and inquire and speak; freedom of the economy from corrupt and pervasive mismanagement; freedom of women from male oppression; freedom of citizens from tyranny — that underlies so many of the troubles of the Muslim world. But the road to democracy, as the Western experience amply demonstrates, is long and hard, full of pitfalls and obstacles.
If the peoples of the Middle East continue on their present path, the suicide bomber may become a metaphor for the whole region, and there will be no escape from a downward spiral of hate and spite, rage and self-pity, poverty and oppression, culminating sooner or later in yet another alien domination - perhaps from a new Europe reverting to old ways, perhaps from a resurgent Russia, perhaps from some expanding superpower in the East. But if they can abandon grievance and victimhood, settle their differences, and join their talents, energies, and resources in a common creative endeavor, they can once again make the Middle East, in modern times as it was in antiquity and in the Middle Ages, a major center of civilization. For the time being, the choice is theirs. (Atlantic Monthly January 2002)