At Large

The Not-So-New Middle East

Throwing some cold water on all the fun.

By 3.29.05

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JERUSALEM -- Reports from Iraq last week said a senior anticorruption police official was killed by a suicide bomber in Mosul who used a fake identification card to enter his office. Later that day insurgents fired on his funeral procession, killing two more people and wounding ten.

Firing on the mourners of a murder victim is a particularly cruel, barbaric act. No doubt, horrific crimes are committed in all societies. But in the Middle East, they're part of the ambience -- as further witnessed in Sunday's bombing of an industrial zone in Beirut, the third such attack on a Christian civilian area in that city in a week and a half.

An air of unreality attends the proclamations about an "Arab spring" and the "spread of democracy" in the region. If it were only a matter of a terrorist backlash in Iraq and Lebanon, one might dismiss it as the last gasps of retrograde forces. But in Egypt, President Mubarak's call for multicandidate elections has already sparked demonstrations by the most popular opposition party -- the Muslim Brotherhood, a terroristic movement advocating Islamic law. In the Palestinian Authority, the genocidal Hamas won handily in the recent municipal elections and is seen as the frontrunner for the parliamentary elections in July, and in Saudi Arabia's first-ever municipal balloting, Islamic-backed candidates easily took the spoils.

If "democracy is in the air," if all peoples have a "natural desire" for Western freedoms, why the continued popularity of movements that push Shari'a law, the oppression of women, and anti-Semitic and anti-American hatred?

Notions that the Middle East's problems are basically political, stemming from dictatorial regimes that stir hatred among the masses to distract from their own shortcomings, seriously underestimate the degree of social pathology in the region. Democracy is not just a set of practices that can be transplanted anywhere; it is also an ethos bound up with principles of tolerance, pluralism, and individualism. Can such an ethos take root -- quickly, for that matter -- in societies where cousin marriage, female genital mutilation, "honor killings," and the corporal punishment of children are widespread?

Has the Arab terrorist who beheads a hostage, blows up a discotheque, or fires into a funeral merely been poisoned with hatred by his government? He is more likely to be the product of a harshly authoritarian upbringing that may well have included physical or sexual abuse, not to mention generations of consanguinity. Add to this the traditionally xenophobic teachings of Islam, which are not merely a "political" problem but a cultural one dating back almost fourteen centuries to the inception of the religion, and the region's endemic violence begins to make sense.

THERE ARE, INDEED, RELATIVELY moderate forces in the Middle East who want a better future for their countries. But when Iraqis go to the polls despite terrorist threats, or Lebanese demonstrate against the Syrian occupation, it is easy to cheer them from afar without looking too deeply into the motives and the dangers. Just as those Iraqi Shiites and Kurds were not so much democracy enthusiasts as eager to throw off decades of Sunni Arab oppression, and those Lebanese were not so much Jeffersonians as seeking to eject a foreign tyranny, in both cases the defiance has been met with further horrific violence for which an overstretched U.S. military may well have no solution.

In the Middle East's island of democracy, Israel, the talk of spring and progress evokes little enthusiasm. Clearly, it would be a great development for Israel if the region were genuinely to move toward liberalism and tolerance. It is hard, though, to find Israelis who see it happening. The result of four years of terrorist onslaught is that even Israel's once-strident peace movements have turned docile and peripheral. The resonance of the disengagement idea stems not from an Oslo-style optimism but from a desire -- probably unrealistic in security terms -- to be done with the Palestinians and have them on the other side of a fence.

This is not meant to be a prophecy of doom. There are gradations in the region, and relatively mild dictatorships with pro-Western regimes like Jordan and Kuwait are clearly preferable to the likes of Sudan or Syria. The new Iraq could turn out to be one of those moderate cases -- and some still believe, a considerably greater success; a Lebanon without Syria would be an improvement if Hezbollah were kept in check, as would a weakened Syria. Time will tell whether the U.S. involvement in Iraq turns out to be a catalyst for such changes or a debilitating trap. Meanwhile, many of the voices from across the Atlantic sound a bit inebriated when sobriety is called for.

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About the Author

P. David Hornik is a writer and translator in Beersheva, Israel, blogging at PDavidHornik.typepad.com.