I have long thought that we are experiencing what might be called the Middle Easternization of the West but never fully understood it until a friend asked me a question.
Why is it, he asked, that when moderates in the Arab world are attacked they always react defensively and apologetically, trying to prove that they also hold safely radical views?
The key, I realized, was the existence of basic principles that are beyond question and can be manipulated to ensure conformity. There are four main commandments of this type, along with several secondary ones. They can be expressed in the following terms:
Thou shalt hate Israel with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy might.
Thou shalt have no other ideological deities before the promotion and protection of Islam.
Remember the importance of Arabism and keep it holy.
Thou shalt not covet the values, acts, or ideas of Western states and societies.
To prove my point, if I had written the previous four lines in Arabic as a citizen of an Arab country I would be risking my life or more likely my career. There are individuals who have done so but their number is limited. They have almost all been either Western-educated or spent many years living in the West. And they often end up having to flee there. Individual rebels who disregard the consequences — I can give you a list if you like — they may be brave, but this is not the stuff of which whole movements are made.
The existence of these imperatives limits debate, not only because someone crosses the acceptable line but far more often because they can be accused of doing so. People lie, people misunderstand, people want to win arguments, and to win or hold onto power.
That’s why the authors of the American Constitution forbade limits on freedom of speech: because once you start creating off-limit areas the worst thing that happens is the empowerment of people who have a self-interest in setting and misusing these limits. They can administer these no-go zones by declaring anything they don’t like to be a hate crime.
Before explaining how this has been transferred to the West, let me give a random example of how this works in the Middle East.
A few year ago a group of courageous Lebanese and Syrian intellectuals produced a manifesto calling for Lebanon to be a truly sovereign country rather than a satellite of Syria. How did the Syrian regime and its stooges in Lebanon respond? By accusing them of being Zionist lackeys.
You see, there was no way out of the trap. The authors of the manifesto had left out the Israel issue. First, that wasn’t their subject. But also it was a no-win situation. If they had gotten into the issue they would have had to say that, of course, Israel was the main enemy of Lebanon and of the Arabs. Therefore, since Syria and Hizballah were fighting Israel they had every right to use Lebanon as a base for the battle. To interfere with those resisting Zionism and American imperialism was equal to siding with the enemy.
In short, they had no right to complain about Syrian domination in the first place. Now imagine that this is extended to every single issue in public life.
Women’s rights? Do you want to copy the Western enemy? What if this contradicts Islam?
Peace with Israel? You can imagine. And so on. The response to any statement or event is entirely predictable. I can tell you the text of the speeches and newspaper articles in advance. This system becomes a straitjacket.
Incidentally, the transition to electoral politics may well intensify this problem, since now instead of just the regimes and Islamists slinging mud at each other, there will be multiple parties competing to use these issues for their benefit against rivals. In the 1940s and 1950s, the radical nationalists and Islamists used this to destroy moderate parties in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and among the Palestinians. Already we see this system of competitive demagoguery being revived in Egypt.
An Arab proverb that applies here is that no voice can be allowed to rise above the din of battle. If the absolute evils of Zionism, imperialism, and the infidel West are fighting it out with the absolute goods of Arabism and Islam, how can there be any real open debate permitted?