How (not) to think about the Arab Spring
Both Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman made up their minds about the Arab world long ago, and no facts will confuse them.
The Arab Spring is far from over; it’s only picking up. The Syrian people’s heroic stance against Bashar Assad’s regime of terror is deeply impressive. Even though Assad’s military has probably killed more than two thousand so far, the people do not stop. Assad is now threatened by potential indictments for crimes against humanity, and the case for a military intervention against the slaughter he perpetuates is building, with Turkey threatening to join such an intervention.
In a few years, the Middle East is likely to be very different. Aluf Benn, in an analysis that was widely read around the globe, but largely disregarded in Israel, showed that there are good reasons to believe that the number of states in the area will increase drastically. After all, the current states are largely colonial inventions that disregarded social, religious and tribal composition. Benn points out that Israel can only gain by engaging with the new movements in the Arab world.
The question whether all this is good for Israel or not has no simple answer. As Dan Byman, a counterterrorism expert at the Saban Center, has pointed out, the Arab Spring certainly creates a problem for Israel’s traditional policy of relying on dictatorial regimes to keep down Islamic terrorism: This is no longer an option, certainly not in Egypt, and nobody knows what will happen in Jordan. But Byman’s conclusion is clear: Israel needs to move towards a paradigm change, and begin to engage with Arab peoples rather than just with their regimes.
In periods of change and uncertainty, the most important thing is to keep an open mind and to question old certainties and paradigms. Sure enough, Israel’s current political leadership has done nothing of the sort. Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu, and our Foreign Minister, Mr. Avigdor Lieberman “know” that the Arab Spring will turn sour, that it will turn into an Iranian Winter, and will be bad for Israel.
Both Netanyahu and Lieberman made up their minds about the Arab world long ago, and no facts will confuse them. Netanyahu’s views were shaped his father’s theory that Arabs are slightly subhuman and can only be kept at bay by force, if necessary by inflicting hunger an illness upon them (he thinks Operation Cast Lead was just a first step, and not enough). Bibi knows that he can neither say nor write this without making himself into a pariah internationally, so he just writes in his book “A Durable Peace” that Palestinians should get four disconnected cantons instead of a state - leaving open, of course, how he thinks Palestinians can be beaten into accepting these Bantustans.
Lieberman, in his book "My Truth" (in Hebrew) has made clear that Palestinians need first to be crushed down completely (he leaves it to our imagination what that would entail), and that this will allow to impose his solution on them, which is to give them limited autonomy in three small areas in the West Bank that will not be connected with each other.
Netanyahu and Lieberman (along with geniuses like Glenn Beck) “know” Arabs better than all specialists in the world. They are firmly set in the idea that Arabs can never be partners in dialogue: they must be dealt with by force only. Neither relies on any differentiated analyses of the Arab and Muslim world, and neither shows any in-depth knowledge of it.
They rely on glib generalizations and slogans like the “Clash of Civilizations,” originally coined by conservative Middle Eastern scholar Bernard Lewis and made popular by political scientist Samuel Huntington. (Incidentally: Huntington never intended his theory to be used to justify aggressive policy against Arabs; he was strongly opposed to the invasion of Iraq. But that doesn’t bother Netanyahu or Lieberman; intellectual honesty is not their business).
I am not an expert on the Arab world. As opposed to Netanyahu and Lieberman, I try to read a wide variety of scholars and journalists representing variety of views, ranging from the conservative Bernard Lewis to the strongly left-leaning Robert Fisk who has been living in and covering the area for three decades. Lewis, of course, is more congenial to Netanyahu’s view; he puts more emphasis on Jew-hatred in the Arab world. Fisk sees Arabs as the victims of Europe’s colonial past and the U.S.’s and Israel’s current power play. Both of them obviously, have strong ideological stakes, and therefore I take their views with more than a grain of salt.
Most interesting, to my mind, are scholars without too much of an ideological ax to grind. Foremost is French sociologist Olivier Roy, previously consultant to France’s Foreign Ministry, who has made a strong case that political Islam is running out of steam, because it has never created a viable political program. He is neither strongly optimistic nor dire on the Arab world, but makes a strong case for skeptical open-mindedness.
The most recent look at the Arab Spring is given by Robin Wright’s rivetingly written "Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion across the Islamic World". Wright is one of the most knowledgeable journalists about the Islamic world, which she has covered for more than thirty years.
Wright has been traveling the area extensively again in the last months. Her impressions are gathered on the ground. The picture she presents is multi-faceted and smashes a lot of preset opinions to pieces – for example that religious Muslims of necessity are fanatic jihadists. Among others she has interviewed a number of religious Muslim women who have become social and political activists with social justice and equality as their prime goal.
Wright also portrays interesting trends in the Islamic world, like growing number of Muslim TV preachers, modeled on American TV evangelists. The brand of Islam that they promote is moderate, devoid of any fanaticism, and easily compares to the more temperate versions of Judaism and Christianity to be found today. All this leads her to be rather upbeat about the Arab Spring: she expresses strong hope that current developments will ultimately lead to a more democratic Arab world, and certainly not towards jihadist fundamentalism that Netanyahu and Lieberman predict.
I don’t think that Wright provides an iron-clad argument for starry-eyed optimism about the Middle East. As New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani has pointed out, Wright’s material is slanted towards an optimistic view of the Arab Spring, and the evidence she provides is ultimately anecdotal.
Nevertheless I find much of her reporting highly instructive. She makes a strong case for the idea that the Arab world is changing dramatically, partially because of increasingly effective use of the social media. I found one anecdote particularly telling: she shows how low-tech, slow and ineffective al-Qaida’s communications are, and how little impact they have compared to the wildfires spurred by young Arab leaders with fresh messages.
She argues that al-Qaida is losing ground in the Arab world, and that 9/11 in the end backfired; because most Arabs now believe that al-Qaida and its brand of fanatic jihadism has done nothing but harm. Wright casts considerable doubt that slogans like the Clash of Civilization between the West and Islam are useful in trying to understand the current dynamics.
This, I believe, is the central lesson from Wright’s book and Olivier Roy’s research of two decades: it is of the essence to stop “knowing” what Arabs are really like (“I know Arabs” is one of the favorite locutions of Israel’s hawks), and to be open-minded. This doesn’t mean that one should fall into starry-eyed optimism that was dominant in Israel’s left in the 1990s.
There is only one worse option than starry-eyed optimism. Netanyahu and some of his revisionist supporters have turned the views Vladimir Zeev Jabotinsky, the ideologue of revisionist Zionism, formulated almost a century ago into infallible prophecy. This is about as rational as relying on medical research from the 1920s in treating cancer today.
But rationality is the one thing Netanyahu and Lieberman cannot deal with. They cling to their sinister worldviews not primarily out of intellectual conviction, but out of political expediency: their careers hinge on fear-mongering. Hence I don’t have the slightest hope that Lieberman and Netanyahu will change their minds or even listen to what the world’s leading experts on the Arab world have to say. Open-mindedness and clarity of thought is their greatest enemy.