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Middle East Magic By: Bruce S. Thornton
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, March 08, 2002

NEW YORK TIMES COLUMNIST THOMAS FRIEDMAN must be suffering from Stockholm Syndrome after his six-week sojourn in the Middle East.  His recent column calling for Bush and Egyptian president Mubarak to "tear down the wall" dividing the West and Islam tries to argue that both sides are equally responsible for the barriers to coexistence, barriers whose real foundation is the unwillingness or inability of Islamic civilization to reconcile itself with modernity.

A false analogy is a sure sign of an incoherent argument, and Friedman's analogy with the Berlin wall is absurdly off the mark.  The Soviets dropped the Iron Curtain to entrap a people whose cultural and political and religious roots historically lay in the free West, which is why the wall had to be erected: to prevent by force these people from returning to their roots.  When the wall disappeared those oppressed people were then free to return to their true cultural and political identities.  So of course they were "receptive to American ideals and perceptions"--these were the product of a Western civilization common as well to Poles and Hungarians and East Germans.

In the Middle East, on the other hand, the barrier has not been imposed from without.  Rather, it is part and parcel of the Islamic civilization that the majority of Muslims willingly endorse and believe to be superior to any other.  The wall is there because they want it to be, because it is an expression of their spiritual identities and world-view, a world-view threatened by a secular Western civilization whose attractions and power they simultaneously loathe and desire.  In other words, this "wall" was built by history and culture, and its maintenance is the work of Islam itself.  Perhaps some of the elites, familiar with the West through travel and education, are receptive to American culture, but they are a distinct minority.  For the majority, the "wall" is an organic, non-negotiable part of what they are.

Friedman, though, claims that the West helped build that fourteen-centuries-old barrier.  How?  Well, we've been "pathetic at telling" Muslims "who we are."  This is astonishing, and reminds me of those saps who think teenage girls get pregnant because they don't know how conception works.  Islam knows exactly who we are--that's why they don't like us.  We are secular, materialist, sex-egalitarian, democratic, and free--precisely the qualities that threaten Islam and the rule of their elites.

Of course the Islamic regimes manipulate the rhetoric of freedom and human rights and democracy, because they have to in order to deal with a militarily and economically more powerful West, and these all comprise the West's currency of ideas.  But where is the concrete evidence in the Middle East of these ideals existing as more than mere window-dressing or the privileges of an elite?  The state-sponsored media that repeat anti-Semitic drivel and outright lies?  Does Friedman really think that merely hectoring the Arabs more about human rights would make them see the light?

So too with Friedman's assertion that we have been remiss in not explaining to the Arab world our good deeds on their behalf, like saving the Bosnian Muslims or rescuing Kuwait.  Again, the Arabs know what we did.  They just don't give a damn.  In fact, evidence suggests that they view our interventions, as well as our billions in annual foreign aid, as signs of weakness rather than strength, as indications that we can be played for suckers.  How else will Friedman explain Kuwait's monstrous ingratitude, the same nation we kept from being violently transformed into a satrapy of Iraq?  Have the Kuwaitis already forgotten the rape and plunder and murder of their citizens a mere ten years ago?

The worst illusion Friedman endorses, though, is the popular idea that the whole Israeli-Palestinian problem will magically go away if Israel dismantles the settlements and retreats to the pre-1967 borders.  What concrete evidence exists that this is so, that an independent Palestinian state would be content to coexist with Israel?  If that were the case, Arafat would've accepted Clinton's peace plan, which gave the Palestinians 95% of what they claim they want.

It's amazing how blithely some Americans and Europeans want Israel to wager its citizens' lives and its very existence on this flimsy promise of peaceful coexistence and "normalization" on the part of nations that have four times invaded its borders.  Imagine a Palestinian state a mere nine miles from the Mediterranean, with an army equipped with Iranian-supplied missiles that could reach Tel Aviv.  Are we to believe that the Arabs' decades-long rants about "driving Israel into the sea" were just rhetoric?  That the hatred of Israel daily fed to their peoples, an anti-Semitism of an intensity that would have made Goebbels blush, will just disappear because the Palestinians--a people to whom the Arabs have shown a marked indifference apart from their use as a stick to beat Israel--have a homeland?  Israel would be insane to take that bet.

Some Westerners, schooled in cultural relativism and embracing the contradictory illusion that everybody is "just like us," just don't get it.  They don't want to accept that some cultures, whatever their brilliance in some areas, in others are dysfunctional.  For all his knowledge of the Middle Eastern twigs and leaves, it is that forest of irreconcilable cultural difference between Islam and the West that Friedman can't see.

Bruce Thornton is the author of Greek Ways and Decline and Fall: Europe’s Slow-Motion Suicide (Encounter Book}. He is 2009-2010 National Fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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