Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Middle Eastern Man is a Rational(izing) Creature

Average citizens in the civilized West must be baffled by current and not so current political events in the Middle East.  These include Egypt’s election and post-election chaos, Syria’s non-election chaos, and Israeli’s confusing election results.  They must think that we are either crazy, masochistic, or both.

I have recently read two books, a biography of Nasser, the Egyptian leader, and an analysis of (Arab) Palestinian history in the 1920’s and 1930’s.  My conclusion from these books is that this apparent insanity is neither new nor accidental.  In the words, it is perfectly rational, if not rather tragic and destructive.

My view is as follows:  Towards the end of the 19th century, the spirit of nationalism created and sponsored by the French revolution and physically propagated by Napoleon reached the Jews and the Arabs.  This desire for independence, both political and cultural, was translated into an ideology, a somewhat far-fetched ideal.  In the case of the Jews, it was Herzel and dream of a national homeland in Israel while the Arabs aspired to the glory of the independence and dominance of Islam centuries before.  Each of these long term goals ignored several aspects of inconvenient reality, not the least of which were the European interest and the annoying existence of each other.  Nevertheless, the target populations were receptive to the idea and eventually bought it hook, line, and sinker.

It took a while, but the French and British eventually left the Middle East (tail between the legs and all), but the annoying fact that Jews and Arabs shared the same territory would not go away.  The options were simple: change the ideologies and preach tolerance and multiculturalism or maintain it and behave schizophrenically by alternating between denial (i.e. Arab distinction between “Jews” as compared to” Israelis” and Golda Meir's “there are no Palestinians”) and violence (let us count the wars).  For many reasons, changing an ideology is quite difficult (ask the U.S. Republican Party).  It is also dangerous to political and physical life, i.e. Rabin and Sadat.  So, the more convenient and popular option was to fight reality and each other. 

The results are quite tragic: death, poverty, anger, refugees, and misery.  Still, for most politicians of all stripes in the area, the greatest disaster would be peace.   It would render their ideology and raison d’être irrelevant.  As a final note, in England,  Cromwell was not despised because he was a dictator, but because he was tolerant.  The fact that, as Pascal said, man is thinking reed does not make leadership any easier.  Leaders cannot go too far from the conceptions of their people.

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