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The self image of the Middle East - Terrorists or just plain folks?

04/12/2008

Image disparity is one of the greatest barriers to communication between groups and individuals. What you think of me probably has no relation to what I think of myself, and what your country thinks of my country or my people may have little relation to how we view ourselves.

In particular, nobody ever thinks of themselves as "bad guys." An old Israeli joke points this out: "Baby snake asks mama snake, 'Am I venomous too?'" We can imagine kids in Tehran or Tapuach reading a Web site and asking, "Mommy, mommy, am I an evil religious fanatic too?"

An evil regime has to be composed of mostly "good" people who do their jobs as farmers and mechanics and technicians and engineers. They feed the troops and get the trains running on time and that is all they do.

Even active villains almost never see themselves as villains. They are always, on the contrary, working selflessly for the general good from their point of view, even if they bend a few rules from time to time. After all, "our way is the best" right? So if everyone can be made to follow it, we achieve the greatest good for the greatest number, right?

The citizens of the evilest regimes that ever existed, rarely thought of themselves as evil. Of course, they had heard rumors of Gulags, concentration camps and other aberrations, but for the most part, they were simply doing their job as clerks in the Gestapo or KGB or whatever, or even as cleaning ladies or plumbers or taxi drivers in those societies, just as anyone would do in a well ordered society, supporting their family and doing their bit for the common good. They could not understand why their country had developed so many enemies, and they attributed it to distorted propaganda.

Rami Khouri gives us a fascinating glimpse of the self image of much of the Middle East.Khouri complains:

Everywhere in the [United States] public sphere, discussions of foreign-policy issues inevitably touch on how to deal with "Islamic extremism," often revolving around the "terrorism" and "violence" of Hamas, Hizbullah, Iran, Muqtada al-Sadr and other parties that the US dislikes.

The debate on these issues in the US is disturbingly juvenile. I have rarely if ever heard discussions in the country about ordinary, nonviolent Arabs and Muslims who make up 99 percent of their societies.

Ah, but ordinary nonviolent people are not a foreign policy problem. Nobody in the United States or Lebanon or anywhere else holds any policy discussions about nonviolent French people or Greeks or Germans either. Imagine a U.S. National Security Council meeting organized around the topic, "Frau Schmidt bought three kilos of blutwurst today for her husband's surprise birthday party" or "Mrs al Kidwa in Beirut worked overtime this week." Germans were only a foreign policy issue in the last century, when they became violent.

Khouri protests that Americans have Middle East society all wrong:

"Radical Islam rejects claims to national sovereignty based on secular state models, and its reach extends to wherever significant populations profess the Muslim faith," Kissinger wrote. This is a classic example of the exaggerated and dangerous generalizations that now permeate American public discourse, starting with the flippant use of terms like "radical Islam" that conflate a handful of criminals with an entire benevolent religion. This in turn reflects severe misreadings of what Islamist movements really want, why and how they developed, and how they can be dealt with.

The reality that I witness every day throughout the Arab-Islamic world where I have spent my entire adult life is very different from this kind of pontification that strives for erudite analysis but sadly collapses into dangerous over-simplification. The overwhelming majority of Islamist activists are clearly anchored in their nation-states, and work for their rights as citizens of those states. A very small number of militants profess to pursue a global jihad. You have to be a fool, or a failed politician, to focus on the handful of cult-like Salafist fundamentalist criminals and ignore the billion-plus Muslim good citizens who aspire only to being treated like human beings and enjoying their civil and human rights as citizens of their countries.

The reality that others witness every day is somewhat different. In the country where Rami Khouri now lives, Lebanon, a radical, Jihadist, violent terror group has paralyzed the government after involving the country in a bloody, expensive and needless war. This movement is directed by two countries that are seeking to destroy the independent of Lebanon, and not to uphold it as a state. Does Rami Khourireally expect Dr. Kissinger to express satisfaction with the fact that most Lebanese politicians and journalists who oppose Hezbollah have not yet been killed? Why not? Violent acts are the exception right? They are only supported or justified by a small minority of people, aren't they?

Not all Lebanese are like Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, or the late terror mastermind Imad Mougnieh, but Nasrallah and Moughnieh and their followers are a problem and the others aren't. In the Middle East where Rami Khouri lives, there is a country that is ruled by Mullahs who have vowed to achieve a world without Zionism and without America. Not all Iranians believe that, perhaps not the majority, and most Iranians are probably not engaged in making bombs and cursing America and Zionism, just as most Germans were not engaged in conquering Poland and killing Jews. Even the Iranians who are building missiles and bombs and planning the next terror raid or assassination in Beirut, and even the Mullahs who are teaching that Jihad and martyrdom are fard (religious duties) for every Muslim don't do it all the time. Half the day at least, they go home to their wives and families. Hey, it's a job, right? But the ones who are engaged in violence are the problem, and their violent pursuits are the problem. Gaza has been taken over by the Hamas. Admittedly, not every Gazan is a Hamas or Islamic Jihad member. Not every one in Gaza engages in launching rockets, kidnapping journalists or persecuting women and Christians. Only the ones who do, a "tiny minority," are creating the problem. In Saudi Arabia, it is accepted that women cannot have drivers licenses and cannot vote. That is "normal" for Rami Khouri as an inhabitant of the Middle East, but others might see a problem with it. The polygamous sect in Texas mentioned by Khouri is an anomaly. Polygamy and repression of women in much of the Middle East is not an anomaly.

Khouri explains that Americans have had five traumatic encounters with Islamist violence from the US embassy takeover in Iran to the 9-11 attacks, and violence in Iraq and Afghanistan. Presumably, since the US embassy takeover in Tehran, relations have been patched up between the US and Iran, and there are no crowds yelling "Death to America" according to Rami Khoury. These encounters are the exception, writes Khoury. But Muslims and Arabs have only had a few encounters with the United States or Britain, yet Khoury and his fellows inveigh endlessly against US imperialism. Khouri, of course, is not the only one to advance the "us Middle Easterners are jes plain folks" view. The Avaaz group ran a similar campaign not long ago.

In the United States too, most people go about their business and are not involved in invading Iraq or torturing prisoners in Guantanamo. Why does Khoury write about the Iraq war so often and why does he write about Dr. Kissinger? Why doesn't he write about the nice guy he met at the rental car checkout in O'Hare airport, or the nice normal Americans he must've met in hotels and universities or at the super market or wherever he was in the United States? Surely, not all Americans are obsessed with Islamist terror all the time. Most of them are barely aware that the Middle East exists most of the time.

In Israel, most people are engaged in raising families, going to the beach, being bored at weddings and sad at funerals, going shopping, following television programs, looking for mates, earning a living or studying, and not in taking land from Palestinians. Most people are not fanatic settlers from Brooklyn - Baruch Goldstein clones. Most settlers are not like Baruch Goldstein either. And yet, for some strange reason, Rami Khouri and many of his fellow Middle East journalists and politicians almost never talk about these nonviolent Americans and Israelis. In Arab and Muslim world op-eds and political rhetoric, the United States and Israel are mostly peopled by greedy evil warmongering Americans and "Zionists" ( a word conjuring up people with horns and tails). Rami Khouri, why don't you, or most other journalists in the Middle East ever write about nice normal Israelis like myself or my next door neighbor or Mehreta Baruch or fashion model Bar Raphaeli?


Zionist Mehreta Baruch

Normal Israeli Mehreta Baruch



Bar Raphaeli - Zionist

Normal Israeli Bar Raphaeli

Bar Raphaeli and Mehreta Baruch don't look like evil Zionist imperialist agent neocon religious fanatics, do they?

Plainly, a healthy dose of self-knowledge is in order.

Ami Isseroff


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Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000687.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to mew-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.

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Replies: 8 comments

Obama says that small town America hates people who are different. They cling to their guns and religion.

Hmmmmm?

Bit of a generalization there. And even if it is true, was it a wise thing for a presidential candidate to say. I don't think so. I guess we'll see on April 22.

Also, Wikipedia describes Rashid Khalidi as Obama's friend. Obama may even have raised money for Khalidi's charity.

Wikipedia says Khalidi used to work for the Palestine National Authority. So Khalidi may actually have worked for Yassir Arafat.

Khalidi has said a few interesting things too. Like he implied that Ariel Sharon was a terrorist. Or he made both negative and positive comments about Arafat, his supposed former employer.

Khalidi explained that Israel didn't like to talk to Arafat because he was a terrorist.

"But I could say the same about Sharon," said Khalidi.

Indeed, I feel Khalidi is correct but I suspect most American voters would not feel that way, especially those "pro-Israel voters from New York and Florida."

"Pro-Israel voters from New York and Florida" is a quote from Tony McPeek, a foreign policy advisor for Obama. McPeek's statement was "we don't have peace in the Middle East because of those pro-Israel voters from New York and Florida."

I agree with McPeek too but as Mrs. Obama stated, America is basically "ignorant." So most voters would not agree with McPeek, especially those crucial pro-Israel voters.

I agree with McPeek, Mrs. Obama and Khalidi.

But I'm not running for president.

Posted by soperson @ 04/14/2008 05:58 AM CST

Ami, nice article. Though I could've done without the "babe" shot. LOL

And soperson, the hype about Obama's guns/religion comment is a much ado about less-than-nothing. And much of what passes for information about his advisors keeps turning out to be more of the same ... like the oh-no-he's-listening-to-Zbigniew panic (and officials in his campaign deny that ZB is an advisor in any way).

Advancing the hype does nothing to clear the smoke from the mirrors ...

Posted by Amy K. @ 04/15/2008 06:19 PM CST

How about the opinion of an antipodean reader? Ami Isseroff is one of the writers I most enjoy reading when it comes to the Middle East. He is invariable intelligent and incisive and, by and large fair-minded, if sometimes tending towards the pointed, with a healthy dose of the 'smart-alec'at times. This latest article certainly exhibits more of the latter qualities as he seems to take great relish in misrepresenting my other favourite writer about the Middle East, Rami Khouri. Ami, I think willfully, but lets allow disingenuously, skews Rami's main point and truly misses the wood for the trees. He goes off on a tangent about good people allowing evil and seems to imply that commentators should not address issues of violence and over-reaction; two virutes which the US and Israel lack not.
Rami makes the very valid point that our opionions in the West -( I'm including New ZEaland here, although geographically we're in the back of beyond)- are very much distorted by a very one-sided view of the Muslim world. You only have to watch the news to see this, but Ami really doesnt' come to grips with this point. Surveys of American opinion - captive as it is to its own inadequate media - constantly bear out the lack of knowledge of the Muslim world. Can we forget that a great majority believed Iraq was in cahoots with Bin Laden on the eve of the illegal invasion?
Rami Khouri states - America needs to "react more rationally to the real dimensions and nature of Islamist movements around the world. A good starting point would be for Americans to distinguish between tiny fringe cults and mainstream majorities, both in Arab societies and in America itself."
Ok, so its not original, but unfortunately, its something we do need to be reminded of constantly. Anyway, its hardly that controversial is it? Ami, old friend, you disappoint me here. You're better than this. Please don't join the ranks of all the other idiots out there who take such a biased and unintelligent view of your region. Apart from better media and a better informed public, the West needs intelligent ,deep-thinking, and fair-minded analysis of the Middle East, and people who know the difference, like Rami Khour and Ami Isseroff on a good day.

Posted by Bruce Clark @ 04/16/2008 12:26 AM CST

To Bruce -
Any American with more than a passing interest in "South-West Asia" comprehends that mainstream media representation in the U.S. is not just 'inadequate', so much as 'shoddy' and even 'false'. But that's where sites such as this prove their value.

As to the one-sided nature of U.S. coverage, that should hardly come as a surprise. Media outlets peddle their script, rather than actually trying to investigate or enlighten, often more concerned about the n00zbabe's cleavage than accuracy. But that hardly means that what is perceived as monstrous by America is not borderline banal in many countries. Don't blame the outlets for focusing what little attention they give the topic on what Americans would consider the most outlandish examples offered.

Oh, and as for the jibe about the bin Laden links, I trust you've reviewed the facts as gleaned from Iraqi documentation? Us dumb hicks may not be able to tell the difference between al Zawahiri and bin Laden, but the cahoots were known... :-)

http://www.jfcom.mil/newslink/storyarchive/2008/pa032008.html

Posted by jmervyn @ 04/22/2008 07:15 PM CST

http://scott-freedomanddemocracy.blogspot.com/

amy? you say it's just hype? obama lost by 10% in pennsylvania. that would seem to indicate that it's not hype.

has to do with the issue of judgment. obama says his judgment is a relevant issue in this election.

Posted by scottsoperson @ 04/25/2008 06:21 AM CST

i am very impressed that this blog has not deleted my comments. it is so refreshing to have a blog that believes in freedom and democracy.

Posted by scottsoperson @ 04/25/2008 06:22 AM CST

I still worry about muslins because in their Koran it states if someone does not believe as they do to kill them.

Posted by Frances Woodyard @ 06/17/2008 05:25 AM CST

Whatever Ami Isseroff says is true: every person in the world are egosentrists. Every villain thinks of themselves as good people, only "with different ways" than ordinary people. That is all because not everybody has a heart, that empathizes with another's sufferings, and not everybody has the balanced logics and justice, to himself just the same as to everybody else. Everybody thinks of himself as the center of the universe and of the rightfullness.

Posted by om santi @ 07/12/2008 04:14 PM CST


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