ARAB WORLD: The Tension Between East and West
Shafeeq N. Ghabra
I find myself - an Arab citizen of the East who has lived for decades in the West - caught between two worlds. While I acquired my education in the United States and appreciate the western experience, some western approaches to Arab and Muslim issues trouble me. Something terribly wrong has led the East and the West down a road of mistrust and collision, pulling my soul in different directions. At this point, no region, nationality, or group of people has as problematic a relationship with the West as does the Arab Muslim world. The `eastern dilemma` is unique: while the peoples of the East hold great admiration for the West, they remain at the same time deeply suspicious and fearful of its intent. For a positive turn of events to take place, the West must reevaluate its assessment of the causes of eastern anger, protest, terrorism, and conflict with a goal of reformulating its policies. At the same time, easterners must confront the religious and political extremism within their societies. Without honest engagement on both sides, the current nightmare will continue for years to come.
The West`s view of Islam is overly simplistic, assuming a natural link between Islam and violence while discounting the consequences of its own involvement or interference in major eastern conflicts from Ottoman times to the present. One of our first steps must be to recognize our collective responsibility for terrorism, for it is the product of a vicious cycle in which no party is wholly innocent. There is a relationship between what the West perceives as blind Islamic violence and the legitimate concerns of Arab and Muslim peoples. When, for example, Israel occupies Arab lands and kills or imprisons Palestinians, Muslims and Arabs beyond those immediately affected experience defeat, insult, and injustice. This situation has persisted for decades and has created in the East the feeling that the score needs to be settled. Terrorism is an expression of this poisoned environment. The West`s misunderstanding of the Arab and Muslim worlds informs its policies and, coupled with past wars and western occupation, contribute to this desire for revenge, particularly against the United States.
Since 1967, the United States has played a major role in the Middle East. While aspects of its culture, values, and technology have been received positively there, U.S. political and military involvement in such major conflicts as those in Iraq and Palestine have undermined its credibility and negated the good it did in helping resolve the conflicts in Kuwait, Bosnia, and Kosovo. That the East and the West often define or interpret economics and politics differently exacerbates the divide between the two worlds. The Cold War also played a role in this relationship. During that period, the United States often aided and abetted countries or movements that it is now accusing of being `against freedom.` Were not the Americans and some Arabs on the same side as Osama bin Laden before he found his latest enemy? In the Bush administration`s war on terrorism, is the past repeating itself?
All these factors add fuel to the fires of anger and fanaticism and prevent political progress in those very countries where the United States would like to see democracy take hold. Although the Arab world desperately needs democratic political reform, as long as the United States refuses to see the situation as it truly is, the promotion of such an ideal will prove futile. Could the racial anger and strife that wracked the United States in the 1960s have ended without the promotion of civil rights? Could the violence in South Africa have ended without an egalitarian solution? Contemporary terrorism is rooted in injustice and it cannot be eliminated or lessened as long as the West views it merely as blind and vicious lawlessness that can be stopped with brute force.
The injustices perpetuated today do not in themselves justify militarization of the Intifada or the slaughter of innocent children in Russia or the kidnappings, bombings, and beheadings in Iraq. They do, however, offer only chaos and the continuation of the death, maiming, and destruction of the innocent. That such injustices are real does not mean that some supporters of bin Laden harbor a hatred of the West that is anything but blind. What is important is that these wrongs point to masses of people in the Arab and Islamic world who are struggling to be heard. Failing to listen as Arabs and Muslims suffer yet another defeat and as Palestinians are reduced to prisoners in their own towns and cities amid Israeli settlements prevents us from addressing the real issues and leads only to more victims of terrorism.
The War on Terrorism has eroded the openness and personal freedoms previously enjoyed in the West and has made worse the conflict between East and West. Immigrants and visitors have and continue to bear the brunt of restrictive measures related to fears of another attack. Everyone is a suspect. Meanwhile, dictatorial leaders in the Arab world and elsewhere use the War on Terrorism as an excuse to oppress their citizens even more.
Though tragic, the events of September 11 offer the opportunity to sort through the causes of violence in the Arab and Islamic worlds. These include injustice, ignorance, occupation, repression, and limited rights. In the three years since Al Qaeda`s attack on the United States, the West has espoused half-truths as analysis and responded with half-measures. Slogans about democracy ring hollow in the face of the ongoing strengthening of dictatorships in the region, anarchy in Iraq, and war and brutal repression in the Palestinian territories. Today antidemocratic forces in the East and the West have the momentum. The translation of anger into terrorism will not cease as long as the preaching of democracy is contradicted by the prevention of its practice for the majority of Arabs, sometimes with the complicity of the United States. Rather, continuing in the same vein will booster the attraction of bin Laden and delay the march of globalization and peace indefinitely. It is not inconceivable that the internal and external pressures on Arab states today will lead to their collapse and the creation of a vacuum or anarchy ripe for Al Qaeda to pick.
The East and the West seem almost to have accepted a future of endless conflict. Such a deterministic view makes it easy for people from both sides to put great faith in religious interpretations of Armageddon and nihilistic destruction. What is needed, however, is an East-West cultural exchange. The overlap between their respective ways of life would become more evident through cooperation in administration, science, and education. The East is not the only home of terrorism or religious fanaticism, just as the West is not the only place of sometimes-questionable morals and materialism. Extremism is not unique to Islam or to Christianity. Fanatical Christian beliefs are no different from fanatical Islamic beliefs.
Focusing on our common ground increases opportunities and possibilities for both worlds. It is important and necessary that the East and the West reevaluate their assumptions and opinions of each other. Neither western arrogance nor eastern righteousness is productive. Eastern religious values and western logic, economics, and science all have places in the world. It is in our common humanity that we must place our hopes.
Dr. Ghabra is a professor of political science and the founding president of the American University of Kuwait. This article is part of a series of views on the relationship between the Islamic/Arabic world and the West, published in Al Hayat (24/10/2004) in partnership with the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).