Monday, January 31, 2011

Reflections on American Self-Deception

As an exercise in humility, we might ask how America has been so consistently gobsmacked by Islamists in the Middle East. Richard Bulliet's observation made in the early ‘90s puts the problem this way: “the reassertion of Islam in the social and political sphere came to world attention as one of the most unpredicted movements of modern times……eviscerat(ing) the models used by a confident America to predict the future in the aftermath of victory in Word War II… (This) is attested to by the fact that between the end of World War II and the onset of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1978-79, a bare handful of books about contemporary Islam were written by Americans….[here Bulliet cites Richard Mitchell and Morroe Berger as exceptions]…..Muslim assertiveness did not develop out of sight of non-Muslim observers; the observers simply failed to see.” Perhaps the problem stems from the passing of an era. After two hundred years of rationalist ideology where ideas held sway and its independence and constitution derived from high principles of government, America is suddenly discovering that the default mode for much of international and domestic politics is religion and ethnicity. “Tribes with flags” in the words of Egyptian diplomat Tahseen Bashir are the result of the failure of humanitarian ideals from 1789 through 1991 and the fall of the USSR. Gilles Kepel says much the same thing when he rejects the shallow politicized sociology of Marxism in its relegation of religion to a “banner” or a “mask,” a reductionist critical exercise of accenting the social dimensions of religion which he calls “dropping it through the trapdoor of ideology.” God may have died at the end of the nineteenth century by Nietzsche’s lights, but He’s resurrected Himself at the end of the twentieth!

Therefore, the overall problem of American accommodation with Islamists is far more complex than mere adjustments in American policy. A total adjustment of attitude and mindset in formulating that policy is also in order. And a willingness to admit that getting into the political ring with some very bad characters and getting American hands dirty in messy little sideshows might be part of the adjustment process, if only in a transition mode. Such as dealing with Hezbollah who killed the Marines in Beirut, for example. How will that go down in proverbial Peoria? Sadat’s assassination in 1981 was portrayed by its perpetrators as a being caused by Camp David, but probably had its proximate causes from Sadat’s unpopularity by putting on airs of a pharaoh as well as to a harsh crackdown on religious and political dissidents only months prior to his assassination. And in a parallel manner, perhaps, the murder of 241 Marines in Beirut by Hezbollah were manifestations of a Syrian/Hezbollah joint operation with control of Lebanon as its larger aim rather than related to Israel, at least as a primary goal. Ditto the assassinaton of President Hariri by Hezbollah terrorists.

Nowadays, the internet and more recently, the Palestinian staffers at Al Jazeera’s 24/7 TV coverage of news has projected a drumbeat of pounding the Israeli will-of-the-wisp into Arab consciousness daily, making what Egyptian columnist Mona Eltahawy call “the opium of the Arabs, an intoxicating way for them to forget their own failings, or at least blame them on someone else.” And Israel has long been the pretext used by Arab leaders for maintaining “states of emergency” at home and postponing reform.[Economist, July 23, 2009]. Just when everyone else is leaving the era of ideology, the Arabs in the short term remain mesmerized by past wrongs. India and China and the globalizing Tigers are bursting out of post-colonial cocoons while the Arabs remain in a permanent pity party of irredentist dreams and lost horizons, as Fouad Ajami notes in his book, Dream Palace of the Arabs.

Gaming this scenario forward in real time, American support of the MB would run into a proverbial brick wall over Camp David Accords, which even Al Azhar’s Ulema rubber stamped, but the MB remains against. With this iron bar in the House of Cards of MB/US rapprochement, is there any wormhole between their parallel universes? The US should remember Mubarak’s stubborn jailing of US citizen Sa’d Eddin Ibrahim, a noted Egyptian-born sociologist, against strong US official remonstrations. Perhaps the conundrum is a three-cornered rock, paper, scissors exercise where someone would inevitably get the short end of the stick among the US, MB, and Mubarak. Mubarak now looks to be sitting in an unenviable penalty box, bui In the unlikely event that all three actually did pull the rabbit out of a hat, then Israel would feel free to make mischief were its interests overlooked.

Indeed, the diplomatic dance this sort of triangular three-dimensional chess game among Mubarak, Obama, & the MB requires would see more than Israel just trying to call the tune for the US and Egypt. Hamas and Hezbollah and many other Arab and other Muslim players would be exerting public and perhaps even violent pressure on the MB not to surrender vis-à-vis Israel, that trusty shibboleth that keeps Islamists’ blood at a steady boil. Mubarak's hand might be forced, but he could only recognize MB as a legal player if there were offsetting immediate gains so humongous that he does an about face on MB legal status. Survival of his regime, or at least a follow-on caretaker until real elections might be a face-saving compromise. That would take lots of American military goodies and dollar-aid, but the US is now preoccupied with its own faltering domestic politics and my guess is that nothing imaginative or daring will happen in the near future.

The proverb of the Scorpion and the Frog remains operational in the Middle East. Sometimes the scorpion will sting the frog even thought it is being carried on its back in the middle of the river and both will die. In the Middle East, the depth of sectarian enmity and ethnic hatred is such that a truce is often broken even if it is to the trucebreaker’s disadvantage. Sometimes it seems they can’t help themselves. The kamikaze corps in the Muslim world flies on a daily basis.

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