Best Defense

What is holding back the Arab world, anyway?: A Best Defense mini-debate

Here is an interesting e-mail exchange between two people I know, arguing about the Arab world today. One is a retired Army officer who specialized in Middle Eastern affairs; the response is from a young author. I am of course using it with their permission. Note: DeAtkine had invoked Patai and Bernard Lewis in another ...

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Here is an interesting e-mail exchange between two people I know, arguing about the Arab world today. One is a retired Army officer who specialized in Middle Eastern affairs; the response is from a young author. I am of course using it with their permission. Note: DeAtkine had invoked Patai and Bernard Lewis in another part of his comment.

Norvell “Tex” DeAtkine‘s comment:

Over the decades I have been involved with the Arabs and their “world” I see their greatest problem as one of failure to recognize that their problems which are deeply rooted and internal… not a result of outside interference. People like Juan Cole only act as facilitators to the mythologies that inhibit the advance of Arab societies. While I have not lived in the Middle East recently I have been traveling in the Middle East up till 2006 and I have been working with Arabs for over 20 years here in the States… not that is the same as being there but not detached either. As I have mentioned before, I feel like I am a champion of the Arabs. The Arab people, their personalities and way of life appeal to me… many things about their culture attract me, as many in my culture disgust me, but I am not blinded to the destructive elements that keeps the Arab societies in virtual bondage. Like Tareq Heggy and a very few others I feel compelled to speak out and voice my belief that too many in the Western academia want to make the Arab elite feel comfortable in their shackles knowing it is simply a vestige of outside influence and that no real internal cultural or societal changes are required.

And Nir Rosen‘s response:

Tex, a lot has changed since you lived in the Middle East, and as an U.S. officer your relationship with the region was never a purely academic one. But even more time has gone by since Patai wrote his book (which was always garbage but is now totally obsolete). Bernard Lewis is respected for his work on the Ottoman Empire but he knows nothing about the modern Middle East but insists on blathering idiotically about it and unfortunately he is still allowed to. I’ve found over the years that people in the Middle East (and I hesitate to talk about ‘Arabs’ as if they were a group, an entity or an identity) are very aware that many of their problems have internal causes, bad governance, corruption, lack of education. You see them demonstrating on the streets about these issues, you see articles in their newspapers and you see debates on television — that is you see them if you are looking for these things and spending time with normal people, not just elites and officials.

But we can never forget the fact that the dictatorships that exist in the Middle East are often supported by foreign states, that the West and the U.S. in particular are very closely allied with some of the worst regimes in the region and that many of the upheavals are a result of Western wars. If ‘Arabs’ need to do more introspection than surely so do we. Americans act as if our relationship with the Middle East began on September 11. From the 1950s the United States in collaboration with the Saudis (and often with the Israelis) have opposed and suppressed any secular, leftist, liberal movements in the Middle East. They have also opposed democracy in the Middle East because that would lead to regimes that were more representative of what people really believe, which means they would be more hostile to U.S. hegemony and to accommodation or collaboration with Israel. The ramifications are everywhere. Saudi Arabia has long dominated the Arab cultural production and media, and it has made inroads in education in much of the Muslim world too. This is at the expense of progressive thought. And supporting stagnant dictatorships from Egypt, to Tunisia to Jordan has also contributed to the dismal state of affairs. The United States’ relationship with the Middle East is both colonial and post colonial, we are thoroughly implicated and rarely have we been a force for progress or freedom.

Okay, have a good day.  

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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