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Monday, March 1, 2004


This, the 2nd installment of a 3-article series on murderous Islamist fundamentalism --- the argument in both prompted by the kill-crazy rant of the Mufti of Australia, the spiritual head of that country's 300,000 Muslim citizens, who recently dubbed 9/11's massacres "God's work" and called on all Arabs to emulate the 9/11 terrorists' wondrous sacrifice --- should be read only after you've at least run your eye over the first installment.

At one point, recall, the Mufti bemoaned 'the lack of "real men" in the Arab world.' He urged them all to harden, adopt murderous jihad terrorism as their chief weapon in the war against the diabolical infidels and enemies of Islam --- almost everybody in the world, other than true-believing Islamist fundamentalists it appears --- and emulate the "true boy" in Arab life who urged his mother not to cry if he went sky-kabooming to Paradise in a suicidal assault. "Oh mother," the boy in a Mufti parable is led to say, "jihad has been imposed on me and I want to become a martyr . . . ."

If you've read the argument in the first installment here more thoroughly, not just run your eye over its argument, all the better.


The Argument Summarized, With Lots Of Foreshadowing

That argument, recall, documented 1) the Sheik's homicidal lunacy; 2) noted that it isn't out of line with most extremist Islamist fundamentalisms, full of rippling hatred and urges for revenge against fantasized enemies --- the paranoid projections of dislocated minds; and 3) then --- more ambitiously, a major point of the two-article series --- sought to gauge how extensive the support for such Islamist movements seems to be, especially in the Arab world. No less ambitiously, the other major point of this series that is fleshed out here, the argument also 4) tried to make sense and document the various causes of the surging appeal of radical Islam in the Arab world.

That spread and appeal exploit an age-old cultural style in Arab life. No, not new; anything but that, and for reasons set out in a few moments.

A set of emotionally charged beliefs about politics and power, plus a related intellectual manner for using them in interpretive manner, this age-old paranoid style in Arab life --- conspiratorial to the core --- has been widely tapped by both fundamentalist spokesmen and members of the so-called Arab street to make sense of a world gone badly askew and full of setbacks and disasters in Arab life, power, and prestige.


That Paranoid Style Can Be Easily Explained

In brisk shorthand --- a more elaborate explanation follows in Part VI later on here --- the style and a set of related beliefs and symbols about power and political life are partly a reaction to 14 centuries of unbroken despotic rule . . . with power in the Arab world, at any rate above the tribal level, involving a non-stop form of winner-take-all politics. Near and far, throughout those centuries, the rule of the autocratic despots --- most of them not even Arabs after the Ottoman conquests in the 16th century, followed by European imperialism after the 1830s almost everywhere in the Arab world --- was neither transparent nor accountable to anyone. In the upshot, almost all key decisions that influenced the lives of ordinary people seemed arbitrary and unchallengeable . . . something imposed strictly top-down by superior power, with no participation by average people or for that matter any one, rich or poor, not part of the ruling family clan. Political succession, when it occurred, seemed no less accountable; often it was opaque and inscrutable. Either the despot monopolizing power died peacefully and passed on all power to one of his sons --- frequently after palace intrigues and murders among them --- or he was killed off in a coup or intrigue by a challenger group. If that happened, then the leader of the victorious group grabbed all power for himself.

Nothing else really changed when new despots emerged, except now and then, especially after the Ottoman and European conquests, their nationality.

The outcome?

In such circumstances, conspiratorial interpretations to make sense of power and political life that seems remote and arbitrary, shrouded in palace secrecy and often ruthlessness --- with swords and bullets the ultimate arbiter --- are probably inevitable . . . not that this is the only cause of the paranoid style rife in the Arab world these days.


Another Key Cause: The Role of Double-Dealing Demagogues

As we'll soon see, the bursting spread of the paranoid conspiratorial style in recent Arab life since the 1970s has been encouraged, with vigor, and for their own self-serving demagogic aims, by double-dealing Arab dictators everywhere. In particular, the dictators have let crackpot fundamentalist spokesmen and clerics --- many as loony as the Mufti of Australia, others even more screw-loose and homicidal --- enjoy lavish access to their secret-police controlled media, on a condition carefully adhered to. Any deviation will lead to instant retaliation by the dictators and their security forces, including a bullet-in-the-head . . . possibly after torture.

That condition? Tersely put, the anger, rankling resentments, and rife sense of victimization in Arab life have to be vigilantly reoriented away from a horde of home-grown failures and fiascoes and vented no less vigilantly, with manic glee, strictly outward . . . toward fantasized cabals of powerful foreign devils, the usual suspects in Islamist circles: Jews, Israel, the US, the West, and now and then Hindus and other malice-driven heathens.


Both Home-Grown Troubles and Internationally Generated Defeats and Failures

Note quickly. The recent spread of the paranoid style and the closely related Islamist appeal don't spring from just domestic fiascoes, whether reoriented outward by radical Islamist mouthpieces for their own security or otherwise. The appeal and conspiratorial scapegoating to make sense of things are also a psychic reaction to a host of other failures and crackling challenges in Arab life, this time genuinely international in nature, that the Arab people have had to grapple with for decades now, or longer . . . almost all of these set-backs or defeats a source of hurt pride and tightly coiled resentments.

The main ones are easy to set out.

Start with the recent war on terrorism; then recall the continued strength of tiny Israel and its victories over the Arab states and Palestinian terrorists; next, related to both of these, focus briefly on the endless collapse of Arab strongmen challengers to the West from Nasser through Saddam . . . great heroes, one and all: celebrated jubilantly by the Arab-Street, only to be shown up in the end as vicious bully-boy swaggerers, little more. Add to the list one more set-back here: the new power and influence of the US in the Middle East and North Africa, along with the subsequent scramble of the remaining tin-horn strongmen who remain in power --- the lunatic Khadaffi in dictatorial Libya, Assad-Jr. in the bankrupt dictatorship in Syria, and the Iranian clerical-fascists in Teheran --- either to own up to WMD programs, improve relations with Washington, or do both.

Even the Saudi gangster regime of 4000 wastrel Mafiosos, who have used their huge oil revenue to export Wahhabi extremism and racist ideology around the world, have been put on notice since 9/11, and especially since the defeat of Saddamite Iraq last spring . . . the entire Middle East now caught up in externally precipitated turmoil and change. From most outward signs, amid these pressures, the royalist gangster regime seems at long last to be cooperating fairly effectively with Washington and London in the war on terrorism.


What Follows?

Together, it's both the domestic and internationally driven failures and fiascoes that help account for the widespread sense of psychic dislocations, resentments, and urges for revenge in Arab life . . . along with the paranoid conspiratorial style that marks the fundamentalist understanding of the world. That, and of course the sense of self-pity and rankling victimization that invariably follow. Add in something else here: mass illiteracy and poor education, both illuminated in the two impressive studies put out by small teams of talented Arab scholars under UN auspices: The UN Arab Human Development Reports for 2002 and 2003.

Ponder briefly this background --- rife illiteracy, psychic dislocations and a rampant sense of anger, humiliation, and resentments --- and it's easy to grasp why, each for their own purposes, fundamentalist bigots on one side and dictatorial regimes on the other have had a largely unopposed impact of letting simpleminded, paranoid beliefs and symbolism spread so rapidly around the Arab world. In this hate-drenched Newspeak and Indoctrination, scapegoating fantasized fiendish aliens is all-pervasive; these diabolical culprits, interpreted in racist Jew-hating ways, are diabolical and secretive; part of a world-wide conspiracy, they are out to harm, humiliate, or even destroy Islam; and there's little that the Arab despots and their rentier-elite followers in the winner-take-all-politics that prevail in all 22 Arab countries --- except now in post-Saddamite Iraq --- can do on their own to reverse state-failure, dictatorship, economic backwardness, illiteracy, and rampant corruption and nepotism.


And Not Just in the Arab World Either

The crackling conspiratorial message, paranoia and all, isn't confined to the Arab people now. It appears to have made big headway elsewhere in the Islamic world, even in traditionally more tolerant Islamic countries in tropical Africa or Asia.

A piece of startling hard evidence? The elated reception given to that parnoid message, full of conspiratorial views about Jews who dominate the world, that was voiced at the last Islamic Summit Conference last October, 2003, by Mahathir Mohamad, the Prime Minister of Malaysia. An old Jew-baiter, Mahathir at least added a twist to the Jew-blaming conspiracy; he also singled out the economic, technological, and scientific backwardness of the Islamic countries --- there are hardly exceptions --- on the institutional, education, and policy failures of the Islamic governments. Needless to say, a sharing of responsibility for Arab backwardness, illiteracy, and dictatorship isn't in the interest of the 21 Arab despots now in power, just the opposite; and no surprise, then, Mahathir's criticisms of home-grown failures and causes haven't been resonantly conveyed to the masses by the secret-police controlled media in the Arab world.

[Sidebar Note: For an earlier buggy analysis of Mahathir's speech and its reception at the Islamic, see this link Right at the outset of his speech to the representatives of the 57 Islamic countries present at the summit meeting, Mahathir struck the familiar themes of victimization and the related sense of humiliation and self-pity that mark the paranoid conspiratorial style now tapped way beyond its radical Islamist base:

I will not enumerate the instances of our humiliation,' Mr. Mahathir said. 'We are all Muslims. We are all oppressed. We are all being humiliated. . . . Today we, the whole Muslim [community], are treated with contempt and dishonor. . . . There is a feeling of hopelessness among the Muslim countries and their people. They feel that they can do nothing right.' He added: "Our only reaction is to become more and more angry. Angry people cannot think properly. "

The culprits here? No less familiar in the paranoid style: cabals of Jews, the all-powerful string-pullers around the world, secretive and full of fiendish chicaneries, according to Mahahtir. But how do Jews, a tiny people 12 million in number world-wide, manipulate the 6 billion people of the world, including those in the 57 Islamic countries, and rule over their fate? Well, here's another Mathathir twist:

"We are up against a people who think. They survived 2,000 years of pogroms not by hitting back but by thinking. They invented socialism, communism, human rights and democracy so that persecuting them would appear to be wrong so that they can enjoy equal rights with others." ]

The first article in this series, recall, unfolded its argument in five separate parts. What follows resumes that organizational device, starting with Part VI.


Part VI: The Argument Deepened

Both Home-Grown Troubles and Internationally Generated Defeats and Failures

As you might recall, the substantive argument unfolded up to now in this two-article series probed the origins of the recent upsurge of radical Islamism around the Middle East Arab world and, no less important, its appeal among the Arab masses to a set of four or five related causes. If you don't remember it, no matter. We can summarize those causes here and flesh out the analysis with fresh information while pushing ahead across new intellectual terrain:

The First Cause: Psychic Upheavals

The political and economic failures of the 22 Arab countries, all of them --- some worse than others, but failures even when there are vast oil resources at their disposal --- are instrumental here. Until the recent destruction of the mass-murdering Saddamite regime in Iraq, all the Arab states are governed by dictatorships run ultimately by a small rentier elite --- usually tribal-clan at its core, plus a few powerful economic groups who might belong to other clans --- and dependent for their power and survival on secret police rule. It's a winner-take-all form of politics. No legitimate opposition exists, and no power-sharing either beyond the core elite and its clientele networks. The media are everywhere heavily censored, with some variation here recently in the small Gulf states. A rule of law in the Western sense exists nowhere. The ruler --- a King or a Sheik or a President-Elect-for-Life --- hogs power until either he dies and a son takes over, or he's killed in a coup and another power-hogging group takes over.

The economic and social failures are no less graphic. The cumulative GDP of the 300 million Arab people, including several oil-rich countries, totals less than the that of Spain . . .one of the poorer EU countries, with 40 million people. Illiteracy is the worst in the world --- worse even than in poorer Tropical Africa; unemployment among men averages 25-30% in most Arab countries; and the demographic explosion --- half of the 300 million Arabs under the age of 15 --- will increase mass misery, unemployment, and backwardness without much let-up unless, provoked from the outside, major institutional and policy changes of a sweeping sort are initiated in the Middle East.

The upshot on Arab mentality? Psychic dislocations full of bewilderment, anger, and resentment. On which culprits will the rage and high-coiled frustrations fixate? The answer requires a look at a second, related cause of the fundamentalist spread . . .


. . . The Second Cause: A Sense of Humiliation and Rife Resentment: The Decline, Even Collapse, of Arab Power and Prestige

These widespread mental dislocations in Arab life that derive from internal failures have been added to and hardened by a growing dismay at the loss of Arab and wider Muslim power and prestige since the 15th and 16th centuries, a steady decline almost everywhere that was occasionally concealed by a military victory here or there in the Balkans or India or tropical Africa. In particular,

The decline was foreshadowed initially by the defeat in Iberia and earlier Italy by Christians, the Ottoman conquest and rule over the Arab world from 1500 or so until 1918 --- with a dwindling of such influence in North Africa in the 19th century quickly replaced by European imperialisms --- and then the collapse of the Ottoman Caliphate and the spread of European imperialism after 1918 everywhere in North Africa and the Middle East and Persian Gulf.

A similar retreat occurred in the Indian sub-continent and Russia. In the latter, Turkish-Mongol peoples --- called Tatars --- established an empire over all of Russian territory in the 13th century and converted to Islam in the 14th century; by the middle of the 16th century, Russian rulers had reconquered all their territory and then began expanding into Siberia and the Muslim areas of Central Asia. In India, where Turkish peoples called Moguls conquered most of the sub-continent in the 16th and early 17th century, the intrusion of the British later in that century led to a steep and steady decline.

Back in the Arab world, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 --- owing to its having sided with the Germans and Austro-Hungarian empire --- was initially interpreted as a great victory for Arab nationalism, only to be reinterpreted by Baathists, other pan-Arabs, and the Muslim Brotherhood --- a forerunner of today's radical Islamists, as strongly inclined toward terrorism --- as a mixed outcome . . . what with the dominant role of the French and British in the Middle East and the continued rule of the French, Spanish, and Italians in North Africa until after WWII.

The decline of Islamic influence everywhere, even in independent India and Pakistan after 1947, was increasingly graphic to all: within 25 years, Pakistan broke up in a war to India, India itself was a stable democracy, and soon was vying with China for economic dynamism and technological advance.

The worst blow to Islamic pride, especially in the Middle East, was the creation of the tiny state of Israel in 1948, then the repeated defeat in several wars with it by shifting coalitions of Arab states.

[Second Sidebar Note: On shame-honor cultural influences in the Arab world, and the related sense of rage and humiliation that has ensued from repeated defeats in war with tiny Israel --- whose 5 million Jews were traditionally regarded as members of a puny subject people, Dhimmi, who should know their place in dealing with triumphant, powerful Muslim peoples and rulers --- see David Gutmann, a social-psychologist. For a wider interpretation, see this review of David Pryce-Jones' impressive book, Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs, which was published in the late 1980s and then in 2001 in a new edition. On the more specific ways that cultural influences impede the modernization of Arab militaries, making them vulnerable to defeat by even a tiny state like Israel with a highly professional, technologically advanced military, see the first-hand observations of an American Colonel who has trained Arab officers for decades: Colonel De Atkine]

What follows?


The Third Cause: Enter the Paranoid Conspiratorial Style To Make Sense of Psychic Upheavals Caused by Internal and External Failures and Retreat

(i.) Simply said, all these blows to Arab pride and the festering sense of humiliation and resentment --- the roots of Arab rage as Bernard Lewis described them well over a decade ago, much to the dismay of the apologetic, none-too-astute Middle East Studies Association establishment scholars ---are then re-interpreted and made sense of by fundamentalist demagogues and others in a paranoid conspiratorial manner . . . a style that itself is rooted in 1400 years of Arab politics. In particular, that paranoid style and understanding of politics and power are a response to the ubiquitous, non-stop nature of despotism in Arab politics and rule ever since the great Arab empire swept over Persia in the East and over the Middle East, North Africa, Southern Italy, Spain, and Portugal in the 7th and 8th centuries. No democracy or power-sharing with large numbers of people ever existed beyond the tribal level. The same is true of a lack of transparency and accountability of political power. For that matter, save in certain Shiite legal traditions that are supposed to apply in principle to rulers who abuse their power, no rule of law in a modern sense has existed in Arab life either.

The replacement of Arab dictators by the Ottomans in the 16th century or later by the Spanish, British, French, and Italian empires --- or their puppet-client rulers placed on the thrones or ruling, say, in Ottoman name --- further accentuated the cultural tendencies, rife in Arab life, to make sense of the political world by reference to distant, non-transparent cabals of a conspiratorial sort. What alternative ways were there? Essentially none.

"Absolute rule," writes a perceptive author with first-hand knowledge of Arab life, "engenders conspiracy, which alone can overthrow it. Yet absolute rule is also the final fulfillment of conspiracy, a gigantic plot of one man against everyone else. That is what keeps the power-challenge dialectic in perpetual motion." (David Pryce-Jones, The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs 2nd ed, 2002, p. 102)


(ii.) What followed?

Easy enough to infer. For nearly 14 centuries, politics in Arab life above the tribal level has revolved around the enshrouded decisions and machinations of a small combine of all-powerful potentates on one side --- distant, haughty, and secretive; always secretive --- and conspiratorial groups struggling in murky secrecy and with cunning to kill off the local autocrat and seize absolute power for themselves. "That is what keeps the power-challenge dialectic in perpetual motion." It was usually a life-long struggle to see who would stay on top or get there, a constant battle among existing power-holders and actual or suspected rivals. Double-crossings were frequent. So too was a constant scrutiny over every friend or ally, lest he be a potential assassin or schemer or a double-agent working with the plotters. Cynicism marked all political life. Mistrust was omni-present. Whenever the existing autocrats and their tribal clan families were successfully overthrown by coups, assassination, or some form of conspiratorial intrigue, then the new Sheiks, Princes, Kings, Caliphates, Emperors, or what have you ruled in the same manner . . . a monopoly of power, in the typical winner-take-all political style.

Of course the rival schemers usually failed. Small wonder.

The autocratic rulers had agents and secret police everywhere --- and tremendous sums of money, one of the reasons for grabbing and holding on to all power. The money would be used, among other purposes, to dangle bribes before the eyes of potential defectors from plotting rival groups; if that failed, exquisite forms of torture on suspects who wouldn't easily confess were a time-honored form of persuasion. As for the potential rivals, there was never any shortage of lists that catalogued them in palace and police circles; those near the top were murdered whenever it proved convenient or necessary. Still, the secretive power challenges went on. The perpetual motion dialectic of shrouded, arbitrary and absolutist rule on one side and conspiratorial plots and uprisings on the other --- a non-stop whirligig of scheming, intrigues, dangled bribes, torture, midnight murders, attempted or successful assassinations or coups, and endless secrecy and mistrust everywhere in ways that rival the Mafioso gangs out of Sicily and their spread elsewhere --- is the one constant that has marked Arab politics for 1400 years, whether the ultimate ruler was Arab or Ottoman or in the 19th and early 20th centuries European.


(iii.) Have there been any noticeable changes in the despotic style since Arab independence, starting after WWI in North Africa and then after WWII in North Africa?

No, not really . . . except that in some countries single-party dictatorships --- modeled after European fascism and Nazism: the Baathists in Syria and Iraq above all --- have cropped up and proved especially ruthless. Elsewhere, Presidents-elect-for-life have emerged and groomed their sons to follow in their footsteps or, alternatively, have been killed off in a coup or by terrorist assassins. Once in a while, a brutal civil war flares up and is waged over who's to rule: witness the Sudan since the late 1980s or Algeria throughout the 1990s and on into this decade. Otherwise, as we'll see, no fundamental change in the despotic style or the winner-take-all form political power has occurred in the 22 Arab countries . . . at any rate, until last year in Iraq.

"Today as a thousand years ago," Pryce-Jones observes, "from high office to prison or the gallows is only a question of minutes. Knives and bullets remain the final arbiters between one line of action or policy and another."

Add in one very recent change --- terrorist bombings, whether suicidal or not --- and plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.


The Fourth Cause: More Recent Arab Decline: A Sense of Humiliation and Resentment Connected with Israeli Power

The decline of Arab power, prestige, and influence --- symbolized by several centuries of falling behind the Europeans and later the US, but above all since WWII by Israel's ability to survive and prevail in several wars against overwhelmingly large coalitions of Arab states --- has been a further source of shock and dismay, adding to the pervasive psychic dislocations and sense of humiliation. Every so often, a strongman dictator would arise after 1945 promising salvation, a defiant and militarized short-cut to salvation by rallying the Arab masses with hyperkinetic rhetoric: the dictator Nasser in Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s, or the dictator Saddam Hussein and his Baathist Party totalitarian state in Iraq, or the dictator al-Assad and his blood-soaked Baathist Party in Syria (especially, it was hoped, in the 1967 and 1973 wars with Israel, both badly lost), or the terrorist Hezbollas in Lebanon --- alleged to have driven out Israeli power and influence in the south there, even though Prime Minister Barak withdrew in 2000 as part of what he hoped would be a final treaty with the Palestinian Authority in the Oslo Process --- or Palestinian terrorists of this or that frantic suicidal sort, not to forget of course the latest hero of the Arab street: bin Laden and al Qaeda.


The Final Cause: Double-Dealing Arab States and the Demagogic Transformation of Arab Media
Into Fundamentalist Hate-Machines

All of which leads us to the last cause of the fundamentalist upsurge in the Arab world: the double-dealing nature of the Arab dictatorial regimes. In those regimes, political opposition isn't directly permitted. Any direct opposition is immediately crushed. Fundamentalist Islam has become, accordingly, the only form of permitted opposition, with the twist --- stressed carefully in the previous article --- that all the rage and resentments of the Arab street that fundamentalist extremists mobilize be directed outward, in diversionary ways, toward foreign devils . . . the real causes, it's said, of the masses' problems and their countries' failures, along with Islam's declining power and prestige.

This latter cause is crucial. Without the double-dealing game of the Arab rulers, fundamentalism would not likely have had the impact and appeal that it has enjoyed around the Arab world . . . even in countries like Tunisia of late, where a large cosmopolitan middle class existed and property ownership, by Arab standards, was impressively spread throughout the small population of 10 million. The same, it should be added, is true of literacy. In Tunisia, it is much higher than elsewhere in the 22 Arab countries, around 73%. If fundamentalism can gain more and more adherents in that country, it isn't a phenomenon that will fade quickly even if, for whatever reason, literacy recedes elsewhere in the Arab world.


Agreed: A Pivotal Point.

It deserves to be examined more closely in the third and final installment in this 3-part mini-series on the simultaneous spread in Arab life of both radical Islamist extremism and the paranoid-conspiratorial style to make sense of a swarm of home-grown failures and external defeats and the related decline in Arab minds of Islamic prestige and influence and power in the world.


Replies: 1 Comment

It might be interesting to examine why Moslem Turkey - non-Arab but previously wrapped up in the same political cycles - broke out of it (to the extent they have) while the Arabs have not.

Was it all just one man's vision (Mustafa Kemal "Ataturk")? If so, why didn't that one guy just do the usual, and why has the system - flawed though it may be but manifestly designed in those flaws (military intervention in politics) to *prevent* winner-take-all politics?

It would also be interesting to explore why the Turkish model of Ataturk has managed to not require periodic bouts of direct military dictatorship, which has been Pakistan's experience. It might help us roadmap something that will endure in Iraq and beyond.

Posted by Porphyrogenitus @ 03/12/2004 05:41 PM PST