Los Angeles Times
November 25, 2001
Hussein Ibish is communications director of the American-Arab,
A growing chorus of American and Israeli voices is demanding that the Arab
world engage in some serious introspection. Such self-criticism is clearly
warranted. However, those handing down this prescription may not care for
the results, and they are badly in need of a dose of the same medicine
There is no doubt that the state of political, social and economic
malaise and stagnation in the Arab world generally demands
self-examination. For decades, the Arab world has been dominated by
repressive and parochial regimes that have failed to mine the
region's only great resource, its people. Public discourse all too
often is stultified. Dissent is regarded as treason. Education is
reduced to a third-rate patronage racket. And religious bullying is
tolerated, even encouraged. Under such circumstances, social and
national consciousness withers. Politics becomes the art of
back-room manipulation, and political discourse becomes paranoid and
given to the most absurd conspiracy theories. Worst of all, absent a
functional political process, people seeking change are easily
driven to various forms of extremism.
Westerners demanding Arab introspection seem to expect that this
will mean the adoption of their perspectives. However, a truly
empowered and dynamic Arab public would surely demand not only
stronger and more direct support for the Palestinians but also would
raise serious questions about the level and role of American
military and corporate presence.
It would insist on using the region's natural resources in a very
different manner. It would mean the assertion of Arab national
interests in a manner not seen in many decades and which has been
regarded as threatening in the past. It would not, and could not,
mean greater subordination to the interests of others.
Israelis and their supporters, who lead the calls for Arab
introspection, are in no position to do so. Israeli society is
engaged in an extended exercise in neurotic denial about the basic
facts of its own brief history, which remain a largely repressed
scene of national trauma.
Israel proceeds as if it had not violently wrested control and
ownership of all its territory from the Palestinians. Worse, it is
utterly blind to the nature of its relationship with the
Palestinians living under Israeli military rule and the effects its
actions have on the people it is abusing and killing.
In truth, Israel acts as a predatory, 19th century-style colonial
power toward the Palestinians, and yet it insists on seeing itself
as democratic and equitable.
Never, for the sake of its own future, was a society more
desperately in need of introspection, not to mention a simple
Which brings us to the United States.
The whole world has a stake in American introspection, but we seem
to be perfect postmodern subjects, incapable of even the most basic
kind of historical memory.
Each international crisis is treated as if it had no context
whatever, at least no context involving ourselves, which prevents us
from learning any lessons from the past. Our current bout of willful
amnesia involves forgetting the role we played in promoting
right-wing Muslim extremism in Afghanistan and throughout the
Islamic world over many decades.
Americans denounce the "foreign invaders" in Afghanistan, but who
sent them there? Who launched the first great global jihad? Whose
massive covert war resulted in the collapse of all forms of civil
society in Afghanistan, which led to the rise of the Taliban?
The most dreaded word in Washington is "blowback."
What we in the U.S. are forgetting is the long history of American
and British promotion of the most right-wing Muslim politics as a
counter to socialism and nationalism in the Arab world. We call for
democracy and openness in the Arab world, but our government
steadfastly opposes everything that tends in that direction. We seem
unaware that the contemporary Middle East is as much the product of
our own meddling, and that of France and Britain, as it is of any
"I'm amazed that people would hate us," remarked President Bush,
"because I know how good we are." A discourse that casts the
American role in the world as simply "good" and acknowledges none of
our own self-interested brutalities and exploitations is profoundly
dangerous to the entire planet.
Arab introspection is urgently required, but given the current state
of affairs, everybody needs a hard look in the mirror.