Unlike Madonna, the Middle East Is No 'Material Girl'

In my article “How to Understand Islamism: Read What Its Leaders Actually Say,” I wrote about Sunni Islamist leader Yusuf al-Qaradawi:

[He] does not talk about the need for urbanization, the equality of women, modern education, and greater freedom as the solution. Indeed, his view is totally contrary to a leftist or liberal or nationalist Muslim who would stress the need to borrow any ideas and methods other than purely technological ones, from the West in order to gain equality and even superiority. Think of how Asia has succeeded — Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and now even China — through eagerness to blend borrowings, adaptation, and its own historic culture. No, for al-Qaradawi the issue [of why the Muslim world hasn’t done better] is completely one of the abandonment of Islam.


A reader pointed out that in the West, it is assumed to be obvious that Arabs understand material advancement is necessary for progress and power. For example, Tom Friedman talked about the UN Arab Human Development Report written by Arab liberals. In other words: the Arabic-speaking world is shaped by the failure of leaders to understand that Western pundits know far more about their society than they do.

Understanding that Friedman doesn’t understand the Middle East — though he has persuaded a big audience otherwise — is the beginning of wisdom on the region.

Friedman insists:

Read the U.N.’s 2002 Arab Human Development Report about what deficits of freedom, women’s empowerment and knowledge did to Arab peoples over the last 50 years. Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Syria are not falling apart today because their leaders were toppled. Their leaders were toppled because for too many years they failed too many of their people. Half the women in Egypt still can’t read. That’s what the stability of the last 50 years bought.

But this is not the real issue. As happened in the USSR, Nazi Germany, and elsewhere in history, the real problem is radical ideology in command of both the leaders and the masses. As a result, the masses of the Middle East don’t care about deficits, but mainly about conformity, hatred of the “other,” killing, revenge, and — to borrow a term — what is politically correct, not factually correct. As for the rulers, they know how devastating in terms of stability the kinds of policies naive Westerners support would be.


Remember, the West saw the fall of communism as the blooming of democracy, whereas the Middle Eastern leaders saw it as the wilting of empires. The West remembers the passing of the Soviet bloc as the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Middle East leaders saw it as the fall of their counterparts, and the placing of Romania’s dictatorial Ceausescus in front of a firing squad. Now, 20 years later, Mubarak is in prison and Qadhafi is dead, murdered.

Is Syria in a state of civil war because the regime failed its people, or because it tried to ride the tiger by toying with the promotion of Sunni Islamism? Perhaps regimes inevitably must fail their people because of a lack of resources, the state of their societies, the nature of the dominant ideas, and the era of anarchy that would have to be unleashed by even the best attempt to address the “deficits.” And perhaps there is a Western”deficit” in understanding the Middle East: a failure to take religion, ideology, and radicalism seriously; the inability to grasp that one is dealing with a different history and culture.

Often in this case I think of an incident that happened shortly after the U.S. overthrow of the Taliban regime after September 11, 2001. Pro-Taliban and al-Qaeda prisoners rioted, and an incredibly brave CIA man went in to try to deal with the situation. He said to one of the Arab al-Qaeda volunteers: “Why did you come here [to Afghanistan]?” It was the typical Enlightenment question, an attempt to gain knowledge, the belief that dialogue leads to better understanding.


The al-Qaeda terrorist replied: “I came here to kill you.” He knew what he wanted, and would not be reasoned with or dissuaded by an explanation that his real enemy was a deficit of women’s inequality. The mob proceded to murder the American brutally.

Now, the United States is still trying to negotiate with the Taliban. To find its moderate wing. The Taliban and al-Qaeda still want to murder Americans, and they do.

Think of the perfect symbolism of what happened on February 18, 2011, in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, which shows where the locals think the West can physically insert its deficits. President Husni Mubarak had just been overthrown in the “Arab Spring.” There was a huge rally to greet al-Qaradawi with an estimated one million people, ten times what the “moderates” (many of whom were Muslim Brothers in disguise) had been able to muster.

Wael Ghonim — an executive of Google on leave who had been a leader of the revolt, a young man of about 30 and married to an American convert to Islam — tried to get on the platform. He was thrown off.

Since then, Ghonim has been a political zero. Of course, Ghonim, the 30-something hero in the West, got to be in Time’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people.

He was presented with the JFK Profile in Courage Award (whose name was based on a book that had Kennedy’s name on it, but was written by my Ph.D. adviser Professor Jules Davids) by Caroline Kennedy on behalf of “the people of Egypt.” He was listed as the second most powerful Arab in the world by Arabian Business magazine for leading Egyptian youth.


Perhaps it would have been more appropriate if the award had been given by a hijab-wearing Caroline Kennedy to the Muslim Brotherhood leadership, who really represented “the people of Egypt.”

What happened to the 80-something al-Qaradawi? He didn’t get any Western awards. He just got Egypt.

Perhaps you remember the old joke about two guys fishing. One says: “I know everything about fishing because I’ve read all the books about it.” To which his companion replies: “But have the fish read the books?”



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