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Understanding Arabs

By Alan Caruba
web posted March 24, 2008

Seven years passed 9/11 and five years passed the invasion of Iraq, Americans are still trying to figure out what makes Arabs behave the way they do. There is a vast cultural difference between those in the West and those in an Arab world that fills the Middle East and stretches across the northern tier of Africa. Most Americans would be surprised to learn that, from its earliest history, America engaged in militarily conflict with Arabs.

In writing about Arabs, it must be acknowledged that one must use generalizations. No group is unanimous in all respects. All have their conservatives, their moderates, and starry-eyed liberals. Every group, however, has widely shared cultural and religious views, and as history teaches us, it is the silence of good people that permits the bad actors among them to dominate events.

In her new book, Sandra Mackey uses the calamity that is Lebanon to provide some useful insights to the Arab world she knows well. Mirror of the Arab World is well worth reading with the caveat that Mackey has bought into the view that Israel does not have any right to exist. For her it is always "Zionist" Israel in much the same way Arab media always refer to "occupied Jerusalem."

Even with her sympathy for Arabs, she does a pretty good job of showing them at their worst. Granted, this does not take a lot of effort. Is there a day that goes by when the civil war in Iraq does not produce more dead bodies as the Shias fight the Sunnis or vice versa? The Kurds, isolated and armed to the teeth, have managed to keep other Iraqis from destroying their hold on a significant portion of that nation's oil.

In fact, one eventually comes to see the problems of the Middle East as stemming from a seventh century schism that occurred shortly after the death of Mohammad. Fourteen centuries later, the Shias or Shiites, are still held in contempt by the majority Sunnis. You can find a majority population of Shias in just two nations, Iraq and in Iran.

The Iranians, descended from Persians, are not Arabs. While they may be linked by religion to the Shias, they tend to take a dim view of Arabs. You might feel the same way if Saddam Hussein had made war on your nation for eight years or if Pakistan and Afghanistan was a neighbor.

Lebanon's problems reflect the Arab world because its population has always been sharply divided between the Christian Maronites, the Muslims, who include both the Druze sect and the Shias whose population has been growing due to the influx of Palestinians. The latter is the result of failed wars against Israel as well as those driven out of Jordan after they attempted to overthrow the monarchy there.

The result has been the rise of Hezbollah, an armed militia of Palestinians who intend to rule Lebanon for the purpose of continuing their war against Israel. By destroying the delicate balance of power between Lebanon's confessional groups, the Palestinians precipitated a fifteen-year civil war in Lebanon. From 1975 to 1990, the war destroyed the nation and left what remained under the control of Syria.

The 2006 conflict with Israel precipitated by Hezbollah saw vast portions of Beirut leveled to rubble by the Israelis who do not take kindly to having their soldiers kidnapped and their cities rocketed.

If Arabs stopped making war on Israel the whole region could begin to modernize, make peace with the West, and begin to enjoy improved lives. The presence of Hezbollah in Lebanon and, in Gaza, Hamas, makes that impossible. Even the quiet diplomatic efforts of the Saudis have failed to bring about any reduction in bloodshed.

The problems of the Middle East, sitting atop one of the world's greatest concentration of oil, have required military intervention by the United States for the strategic reason that the West depends on the free flow of oil. It is the reason the United States has not only had to invest blood and treasure there, but the reason the cost of oil has increased.  Since the days of World War II, the United States has been the guarantor of the flow of oil from there to the rest of the world.

One might be tempted to blame Lebanon's problems on the existence of Israel since recognition of its right to exist, first by the British and later by U.S. support since 1948, but what it reveals is (1) the endemic hatred of Jews that reflects the Muslim Arab seventh century mindset, (2) the failure of Arabs to exist peacefully with one another due to theological schisms, (3) their family and tribal mentality, and (4) the anti-Western attitudes of Arabs that literally go back centuries to the Crusades.

As Mackey puts it, "Spasms of change grip every Arab society. Long-festering wounds on the inside and new influences invading from the outside are eating away at ageless certainties, time-honored traditions, and venerable relationships within families, clans, and tribes."

If there is one thing Arabs have fought against it has been change and, in the last century, they had a lot of change thrust upon them. At the end of World War I, the Ottomans who had ruled for centuries had their empire divided and colonized by the British and the French. They drew lines on the map of the Middle East to create what can only be called imaginary nations.

One of them was Lebanon that was ceded to the French. The other was Iraq that became the property of the British, along with a protectorate called Palestine. No "nation" of Palestine has ever existed. There were no "Palestinian" people until the late Yassir Arafat, the father of modern terrorism, invented them.

Syria, who had always regarded Lebanon as part of "Greater Syria", resented then and now having the Levant that bordered the Mediterranean taken from them. Finally, the British drew lines to create Jordan as a sop to the Arabs who had fought with them against the Turks. Jordan is now an American ally and, in some respects, an Israeli ally, too.

What few in the West have understood is that Islam is political entity. It may have the trappings of religion, but it existed from the beginning to assert control over territory and peoples as a form of government. This is most obvious in Iran where all decisions are made by a small band of ayatollahs, men learned in Sharia or Islamic law. It can be seen as well in Saudi Arabia where a pact between its founder and the Wahabi sect of Islam created that nation.

A massive poll of Muslims, not just in the Middle East, but worldwide where there are more than a billion reveals that about seven percent, some 100 million, have a hostile view of the West. Muslims in general see the West as a threatening and dominating force. Among those polled, however, the vast majority expressed a desire for real democratic reform. This is called progress, but it takes time. Lots of time.

This is why, five years after invading Iraq allegedly to bring democracy, its rival sects still do not appear to be able to fashion any kind of functioning government. The invasion, however, was about oil and the need to protect Saudi Arabia, in particular, against Saddam's ambitions.

Lebanon is the perfect example of a place where power was divided between clans based entirely on one's religious confession. Oddly, this jerry rigged system produced a highly successful nation that winked at the strictures of Islam to become the most Western of nations in the Middle East, a banking capitol, but also a place where any rupture in the system could lead to the slaughter of opposing groups.

As Mackey notes, "Those who identify themselves as Arab place themselves in a mystical whole composed of time, religion, language, culture and tradition."

"In this sense, the Arab world reflects a mighty nation aligned against all who would seek to humble it. But this same world resonates with its own rivalrous discord as Arab states duel with each other over national interests…Arabs are trapped between their intense sense of unity as a people and tangible conflicts arising from competing parochial and national interests. This duality has rendered the Arab world treacherous territory for outsiders."

For this new century, the confluence of oil and religion will make the Middle East and other Islamic nations a treacherous place, but one where the West has no choice but to intervene and even impose its will by force of arms. ESR

Alan Caruba writes a weekly column posted on the Internet site of The National Anxiety Center. He blogs at http://factsnotfantasy.blogspot.com. © Alan Caruba, March 2008


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