Sunday, October 22, 2006

Seeing the World from the Arab Perspective.

It has always been fascinating to me how one can look at the same events and see it from opposite perspectives depending on one’s personal paradigm. This is particularly visible when you look at public opinions in the West and in the Middle-East.
The divide is based on a very different view of reality and strangely enough, they are not necessarily contradictory.

This week The Economist has an article called Coalitions of the Unwilling, which encapsulates quite well the other perspective that you find in the Arab street and that we in the West, find it so hard to understand with regard to the Middle-East.

What rally the masses in the Arab world can be summed coalitions of the Unwilling up in one concept: resistance. And let’s not kid ourselves, the West is the dominant part of the world today probably even more since the end of the Cold War.

The West is always more or less associated with European colonialism, Zionism, American hegemonism and corrupt local governments. And so the street in the Middle-East tends to read current events from a narrative of victimhood and this is particularly true when it comes to Israel. The Arab world may not care about the fate of the Palestinians except that they have become the epitome of the Arab victim of the Western world.

The Economist adds that the current Bush administration has only worsen the process by, for instance,

“lumping together groups such as Hizbullah and Hamas, whose chief agenda was local and nationalist and did not threaten America, with the global terrorist network of al-Qaeda, which had not only declared war on the superpower and on “Jews and Crusaders”, but had also launched hostilities in the most dramatic fashion conceivable.”.

Other factors have contributed to strengthening the idea of a malevolent west: America’s poor moral image in the world, or Bush’s dramatization of the stakes in the Middle-East or his religious references.

On top of things though, there is undeniably the war in Iraq and Bush’s unilateral decision to attack a country that had not struck the first blow:

Far more important, the invasion massively buttressed the old rejectionist thesis that America's aim was to divide and rule the Muslim world, to control its oil and to impose Western culture. Here, stirring faded memories, was a Christian army overrunning a Muslim land, in pursuit of what George Bush once carelessly called a “crusade” against terrorism. And here, on the ground, was “resistance” in action, visibly humiliating the intruding warriors.

Even moderate Arabs are weary:

A recent poll found that 84% of Lebanese believe the war was “a premeditated attempt by the United States and Israel to impose a new regional order in the Middle East”.

The Economist gives two reasons to be hopeful: first the money of the Gulf countries which could win goodwill by, for instance, rebuilding Lebanon and shoring up the Palestinian economy. Then, if a minority of Arabs who reject the West will not change their minds, the majority can still be swayed – even at the government level.

Syria's president has repeatedly signalled that he would shift his position if only some reward, such as a chance to recover the Golan Heights, were offered. Recent polling among Palestinians shows a similar openness to persuasion.

As they put it, what the West must do now is win the moderates to a more pragmatic approach, and as they conclude:

It [the West] could start by remembering that people choose to “resist” when they feel threatened.

Wise words indeed, and whether the threat is real does not matter. What matters, as we have said many times on this blog, is perception not reality. And it is the perceived threat that must be addressed, and the sooner, the better.

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