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Bad Habits in the Middle East By: Bruce S. Thornton
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, March 01, 2002


SOME AMERICANS AND EUROCRATS are all atwitter over Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah's proposal to offer the Israelis "recognition" and "normalization" if they withdraw to their pre-1967 borders.  Any chance of ending an increasingly surreal and bloody conflict obviously will be attractive.  But as W.C. Fields used to say, "Count your change before you leave the window."

A skeptic might wonder why this offer, which could have been made thousands of lives ago, is coming at this moment.  Could it be because the Saudis have a PR disaster on their hands, given that the majority of the Sept. 11 murderers were Saudi and some of their citizens have been financing Al Qaeda?  And that's just one of their problems.  A ruling elite of 6000 princely parasites sitting over a vast population of dispossessed fanatics and a middle class suddenly compelled actually to work for a living instead of getting money for nothing, can hardly afford alienating too much its prime Western sponsor.

So we get some flashy PR, since PR crises are usually solved not with substantive changes but with more PR.  Time will tell if that's the case here or whether the Prince really means it, or even if he does, he can deliver the rest of the Arab world.  Meanwhile more revealing is the reaction of the West and even some in Israel.

We Westerners have a bad habit of assuming the whole world shares our values.  We are secular materialists who assume that physical comfort and freedom are the prime motives of humans, or will be once they are educated out of their ancient superstitions.  Also, we are ethical pluralists: there is no single absolute good, but a multitude of goods, and these are primarily material and hence negotiable and reconcilable.  Finally, we are believers in rationalism: discussion and factual information applied to a problem will come up with an answer.

Armed with these assumptions, we believe that conflicts can be resolved through rational discussion, negotiation, give-and-take, and the timely wielding of the carrot of material goods or the stick of material deprivation.  The problem is simply one of removing or disarming the old-fashioned fanatics and other irrational throwbacks; patiently explaining to those involved how their material lives and freedom will improve; providing material carrots and sticks; and overseeing negotiations in which all parties sit down and dicker over what quid will be given up for what quo.

This has been the modus operandi of the West in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for decades.  And it's been a complete failure.  So perhaps it's time to reexamine our assumptions.  Perhaps we should recognize that there exist peoples for whom spiritual reality and imperatives trump material ones.  Such people are absolutists: there is one transcendent, immaterial God and his truth is one.  True reality is not this material world but that other world of reconciliation with God.  Our job in this world is to live in accordance with God's truth and to work to realize God's intention, which is to spread that truth to the whole world.

For people such as these, there is no negotiation, no give-and-take and no quid pro quo. What part of the truth, what part of God does one negotiate away?  What material carrot is big enough to compensate for the stick of God's eternal wrath?  Armed with the confidence that they are on the side of God, peoples of this sort will rely on force to work out God's will.  If weak, they will temporize by playing the other's game of discussion and negotiation, knowing that these agreements and concessions are merely temporary.  They can be patient, since God's time is not human time.

After all, Islam has been here before.  For roughly 200 years the Crusader Kingdoms were outposts of the West in the land of Allah.  During that time there were numerous contacts between Arabs and Franks, from trade to intermarriage to military alliances.  But the long-term goal was never lost sight of--driving the Franks out of Palestine.  One of the greatest of Islamic heroes is Saladin, whose capture of Jerusalem broke the back of Frankish rule.

Israel is like a Crusader Kingdom: an outpost of the West, a modern liberal democracy with individual freedoms, a market economy, sex equality, and a secular government that limits religious interference in politics.  And like the Frankish Kingdom of Jerusalem, Israel's existence is an abomination in the House of Allah.  Unfortunately, the Arab world is unlikely to find a Saladin who can militarily take on Israel, let alone the United States.  Four attempts to do so have ended in defeat and humiliation.

But Israel has existed for a mere fifty years.  Another bad habit we Westerners have is slighting the longer historical view and demanding immediate resolutions.  But the struggle between Islam and the West has been going on for almost fourteen centuries.  What's fifty years?  Or even a hundred?  Let the Western dogs snarl and bark, but Allah's caravan moves on to its historical fulfillment.

Until then, play the Westerners' game, flatter their pretensions, palaver with their diplomats, posture for their cameras, take advantage of their ethnocentric gullibility, and chip away at their resolve until time and circumstance work out the will of God, and like the Franks the Israelis--not the Jews, who have been tolerated in Islam for centuries--will be driven into the sea.

The big question obscured by talk of borders and "recognition" and holy sites is precisely whether Islam is ready to reconcile itself with the modern, that is the Western, world, or whether like their ancestors they are biding their time until the outpost of that world, Israel, can be destroyed.  So far nothing the Crown Prince or anybody else in the Middle East has done or said suggests that they haven't opted for the latter.


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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