Sometime soon, the United States may kill President Assad. Because of the delay in taking this action, an estimated hundred thousand are dead and two million Syrians have been turned into refugees. Their only “crime” is to be part of the Arab world in which as yet there are no established, legitimate ways to change power or any institutions that allow ordinary people to have a say in running their own lives.
Assassinating a foreign leader is justifiable for only two reasons: if the interests of one’s own country are threatened or to prevent genocide (Rwanda) or use of chemical or nuclear weapons. Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad gets a two out of two. He is the West’s avowed enemy through the conduit of Iranian funds to Hezbollah. Apart from murdering his own people, he has created havoc in the Middle East, including the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. During a Damascus meeting between Assad and Hariri in August 2004, Assad told Hariri that if he did not follow orders he would pay “a high price.” To be more specific, Assad said, “I will break Lebanon on your head.” Assad being a man of his word, Hariri was blown up in downtown Beirut a few months later.
America is going into isolationist mode, which may not be all bad. But fleeing the playground in the face of bullies is not smart. After little Assad’s father, big bad Hafez al-Assad, was caught red-handed organizing the placement of a bomb on an El Al plane at Heathrow (in the luggage of a pregnant Irish woman by her Arab fiancé who took refuge in the Syrian Embassy after the failed attempt), prime minister Margaret Thatcher threw out the Syrian ambassador. Israel’s president Ariel Sharon gave the go-ahead for a series of targeted assassinations of Hamas leaders when they were sending their suicide terrorists into the coffee shops of Tel Aviv. The leadership of Hamas was not as keen to enjoy 72 virgins and the suicide bombings stopped. In the event a post-Assad pro-al-Qaeda leader starts up trouble for America, he should be bumped off. After a few assassinations, the message does get through.
In debates over Middle East violence and terrorism, a lot has been said about the need to reform Islam. It seems to me that the nature of Islam depends largely on the society in which it is practised. Indonesia has the largest population of Muslims in the world and like Turkey tolerates a degree of religious pluralism unknown in the Arab world. I can’t immediately see how one can “reform” Islam where there is a substantial adherence to a fundamentalist strain of the religion that sees the world through 12th-century eyes. The reform of Christianity was a gradual process over hundreds of years. Just how you now take groups of Muslims who truly believe in death to apostates into the modern world is baffling.
Most Arab countries have had independence from colonialism since around the end of the Second World War, they’ve had billions of dollars of aid, some sit on huge pools of oil and yet they still have no civil rights, little if any tolerance for religious minorities and have gone from one sort of dictatorship to another with extremes of wealth and poverty. Jordan is something of an exception but Jordan is essentially British: Winston Churchill drolly remarked that he invented it one sunny Sunday afternoon. Certainly the Arab Legion created there after the First World War to support the new monarchy was Sandhurst-trained. And when the monarchy was threatened by Palestinians, PLO supporters were expelled from the country in short order.
So long as Arab leaders blame other people—Great Satan America or Little Satan Israel—for their own inability to create a successful modern society, there will be a sense of deprivation and the mobs will rally to the side of demagogues telling them all their woes are caused by the West. “In those days,” said a Moroccan street trader after his country gained its independence in 1956, “we thought we Muslims would live the way Christians live, with villas, cars and servants but now we are no better off . . . now the Fassis [leaders of the nationalist movement] rule as the Christians used to . . . those of us who toil for a mouthful of bread have gained nothing.”
I am writing nothing that many courageous Arabs do not say: Saudi-born author Hani Nakshabandi speaking on Emirates TV last June said, “Everything written in our history books should be re-examined. We resent Europe as if it had been immersed in darkness and ignorance until we came along and ushered in an era of light . . . Wherever you go in the Arab world—in Egypt, Morocco—you see people that still live like cavemen.” This week, Egyptian political journalist Ibrahim Essa wrote in the New York Times: “Under Mubarak I was threatened only with prison; under Mr. Morsi my life was in danger.” Many of the demonstrators against Mubarak did not anticipate the election of the Muslim Brotherhood and the consequent dilemma of electing a political party that was swiftly putting into place the machinery for an Islamist state. Ideally, Egyptians would have thrown out the Brotherhood next election but what if the new constitution with its ambiguities removed the possibility of a next election? In poetry the lamb and lion lie down together but, practically speaking, any lamb trying that probably won’t ever get up again.
Profoundly non-Western concepts such as tribal shame and honour influence the Arab mind (analyzed brilliantly in David Pryce-Jones’s book The Closed Circle) to be manipulated by political tyrants, religious zealots and anti-democratic ideologies. We can only wait until Arabs themselves produce good leaders and pray they do not suffer the fate of Anwar Sadat who died under a lethal combination of 20th-century ammunition and 10th-century wisdom as exemplified by Iraqi poet al-Muttanabi: “High honour,” he wrote around 960, “is not safe from injury until blood is spilt over its flanks.”
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