Commentary Magazine

Listening to Arabs

“Let him finish,” called out Ruthie. The bell had sounded, but the class, at a summer institute in Greece, sat and listened as Gevara poured out his tale of woe. His mother had died in childbirth when her urgent passage to a hospital had been impeded at one of the scores of Israeli checkpoints dotting the West Bank. Then, not one but two of his brothers had died at the hands of Israeli soldiers—apparently, as best one could make out through Gevara’s inexpert English, during the “Jenin massacre” in the spring of 2002. Nor was that all. His home had been demolished to make way for Israel’s new security fence. And, only a few days previously, Gevara himself had been arrested as he tried to enter Israel for the flight to attend this very institute. Held for two days, he had missed his plane and been forced to find another, leaving from Jordan. Although the Israeli authorities finally released him, they had also summarily sentenced him to six months in jail, to be served upon his return.

As he spoke, Gevara—a nickname perhaps intended in homage to Fidel Castro’s sidekick Che Guevara—began to cry. So did several of his listeners, including some Israelis. Afterward, one of them, the same Ruthie who had insisted that he be heard, contacted B’Tselem, an Israeli human-rights organization specializing in complaints about the treatment of Arabs, to see if she could secure help for him.

With this episode, the atmosphere at the institute lost some of its frivolity. Eighty-three students were participating in a three-week program in politics and economics on the island of Crete. Although some were Americans, most had been drawn from the Balkans and the Mediterranean basin, including, by design, members of several nations in conflict: Greeks and Turks, Serbs and Albanians, Arabs and Israelis. I taught there every day for a week in August, giving a series of lectures about democracy. It was one of several experiences in recent months that brought me into closer contact with Arabs than I had been before and left me with new impressions—new at least to me.



Until the Gevara incident, the mood had been about what one might expect in a gathering of college-age young people of both sexes on a Greek island far from home. Anticipation had built up weeks in advance through messages exchanged on an electronic bulletin board in the cyberslang that many of the youngsters seemed to know better than English (“congrats 2 u 2; c u soon”). An introductory posting from a Lebanese captured the high spirits: “Beirut isn’t that terrible. Screw politics. We party till the morning. . . . About the readings [which the institute had sent to students well ahead of time], let’s all agree on reading them after we get to Greece.”

Having made acquaintances online, groups of students planned to link up in budget accommodations for a few days of sunshine before the start of classes. One such group comprised a Turkish girl and four boys—two Lebanese, a Syrian, and an American. Whether or not their parents knew of the arrangement, other parents, especially of Arab girls, had been more cautious about their children’s itineraries. Once classes began, however, dorm life went on into the wee hours, and it did not center on assigned readings. Featured, rather, were such cultural exchanges as spin-the-bottle, a game the Americans obligingly taught the others to play.

But things had grown more serious after Gevara’s terrible revelation, which occurred just before my arrival for the second week of classes. I heard it recounted many times, including, with great earnestness, by one of the other American teachers, a strong if soft-spoken partisan of the Arab cause who had once taught at the American University of Beirut. The tensions it fed between the Arab and Israeli students broke forth in my own classroom on the day I lectured about the state of democracy in the contemporary world.

In the course of our discussion, a shy girl from Jordan expressed her dismay at my assertion that her country was not a democracy. “But our king does so much for the people, and for the Palestinians,” she protested. Hotter still were objections from numerous Arab students to my classification of Israel as a democracy. “How can you say that when they invaded us in 1967?” demanded one Syrian, revealing volumes about his education. What about Israeli “aggression,” or the treatment of Israel’s Arab citizens, or, especially, the occupation, asked others. My repeated explanation—that, the accuracy of their criticisms aside, a nation’s political system does not necessarily determine the wisdom or justice of its policies—seemed to fall mostly on ears deafened by reluctance to hear anything positive about Israel, especially in a sphere in which the Arab states scored poorly.

A Palestinian-American boy, passionately devoted to the Palestinian cause but with a puppyish softness that bespoke his American upbringing, wanted to know how I could characterize a “religious state” like Israel as a democracy. Later, in the cafeteria, I explained that unlike the case of Christianity or Islam, Jewishness entails both a religion and a nationality. “Does anybody know this?” he asked finally, when he got the point.

Nor was Israel the only country whose standing as a democracy was challenged. An Egyptian girl pointed out that America could not be considered a real democracy because “no leftists are allowed to teach in American universities.” I said that was mistaken, and after class informed her that so many American professors were leftists as to give rise to the complaint among conservatives that you could not teach if you were not one. Accepting the correction, she explained with a little embarrassment that she had only been repeating what she had heard from her professor—who was the daughter of former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser.

That evening, there was a dinner at which the students, grouped by country, exhibited or performed something of their native culture. When the Palestinians’ turn came, Gevara led off. After showing an artifact of some kind, he picked up a fist-sized stone he had brought and said, “These are the stones we throw at our oppressors.” Next came the Palestinian-American, who opened with the remark that “nothing is more important to us than family.” At this point, Ruthie called out: “Not even your stones?” Evidently she was growing impatient with her Palestinian peers, perhaps because she had already heard back from B’Tselem that it had no knowledge of Gevara’s family travails, even though it attempts to keep complete records of such things. For her outburst, she was forcefully shushed by the school’s Greek director, who had sat silently through Gevara’s presentation.

During the final days of the institute, after I was gone, a “peace lunch” was organized for the Arabs and Israelis, but several of the former, notably the Egyptians led by the girl who studied with Nasser’s daughter, refused to take part. Earlier, bidding farewell to Gevara, I had invited him to look me up whenever he might get to Washington. “I think I’ll be there in October,” he replied to my surprise, this being August and his six-month sentence presumably lying ahead. “I’m going to a young leaders’ conference that will be either in Washington or San Francisco.”



Wherever Gevara was heading, I was soon heading to Morocco to take part in a symposium on “Europe, America, and Islam.” This was part of an annual cultural festival held in Assilah, a picturesque ancient fishing village and bare-bones seaside resort where inland Moroccans without the wealth to vacation abroad find refuge from the summer heat.

The event provided the familiar pleasures and frustrations that Americans face in small, poorer countries. We were transported in style—business class—but it had taken two dozen phone calls to get my prepaid ticket issued, and when I finally picked it up in the Athens airport, I saw that it was one-way only. “You’ll get the rest when you get there,” I was assured. There were two other passengers on my flight headed to the same symposium, a Spanish academic and an Argentine newspaper editor. Met planeside in Tangier, we were whisked through passport control and customs. A waiting car then took us to a hotel in Tangier some 25 miles north of Assilah, our hosts deeming the accommodations in town to be unsuitable for the likes of us.

It was mid-afternoon, and the desk clerk told us that our rooms were ready but had not yet been cleaned. That was an understatement. Changing into my bathing suit, I took refuge by the pool; although the hotel abutted the beach, large signs warned that swimming was not advisable (apparently due to raw sewage). Many girls around the pool wore skimpy bathing suits, and I wondered how many of them were European, how many local.

Three hours later, when it was time to board the bus for the opening session, my room still lay in the filthy state in which I had found it. Our group of conferees was accompanied by motorcycle police, two of whom rode ahead, waving traffic off the two-lane highway so that our busload of deep thinkers could reach its destination unimpeded.

We were about 30 in number. As we seated ourselves around tables arranged in a large square, the chairman unexpectedly approached me and the other American present and asked if we would make opening statements. My compatriot’s remarks were not very controversial, but I decided to speak bluntly about the three decades of attacks visited on Americans by Middle Eastern terrorists. These were not an expression of Islam, I stipulated; some of the attackers had come from secular Marxist-Leninist or nationalist groups. Rather, they were an outgrowth of an unhealthy political culture of violence and extremism that held sway in the region and that the United States was bent on altering by spreading democracy.

Various Arab participants sought the floor to rebut me. They were spearheaded by a professor of political science from the American University of Cairo who, unable to control her rage, shrieked that my remarks were “unacceptable” and, because they were being heard by such a large audience, also “dangerous.” She pointed to the spectators, about 200 townspeople seated amphitheater-style around and behind us. Each of her denunciations brought resounding applause from this gallery.

I began to wonder what I was doing there. “Unacceptable” and “dangerous” comments should be stopped, one supposes. Even if the crowd did not pose a physical threat, it occurred to me that I might just pick up and leave the next morning (until I remembered that I was still without a return ticket). But soon our official host, Foreign Minister Mohamed Benaissa, arrived to take the chair and announce that demonstrations from onlookers were out of order. As a sense of decorum was restored, I took the floor to protest my treatment. When the session adjourned and we were heading back to our bus, several of the Arab participants came up to express their friendly feelings and to say that the Egyptian woman’s attack had been out of line.



Was it a coincidence, I began to speculate, that here, as at the summer institute, the shrillest voices were Egyptian? Nor had these been my only recent encounters with Egyptian intellectuals of extremist bent. On several occasions I had had the chance to appear on talk shows on al-Jazeera, and been given an interesting taste of this Qatar-based station whose broadcasts have revolutionized television in the Arab world. Once I was paired with an Egyptian professor who opened with the remark that the last 2,000 years were one long story of unprovoked mistreatment of the Arabs by Westerners. (I parried this lightly, pointing out that, since my country had only recently celebrated its bicentennial, we Americans could not be held responsible for the first 1,800 of those years.) In a subsequent appearance on the same show, which al-Jazeera calls its equivalent of Crossfire, I found myself up against an Egyptian newspaper editor who made the professor look mild by comparison.

The subject was, “Can we trust the Americans about weapons of mass destruction [in Muslim countries]?” The moderator introduced the subject by using the word “lie” eight times, as in “the Americans always lie” and “everything they say is a lie.” Then he turned the microphone over to the Egyptian, who spoke the word “lie” in a similar vein ten times in succession, for good measure throwing in two “Hitlers” as in “George Bush and the Americans are worse than Hitler.” Before giving me a chance to say anything, the moderator then announced the first results of the station’s call-in poll; lo and behold, on the question “can you believe the Americans?” fully 88 percent had responded in the negative.

Recent survey data suggest that my miscellaneous encounters may indeed be reflective of Egyptian public opinion. Zogby International asked people in a variety of countries whether they liked Americans. Usually, even in countries at odds with the U.S., the answer to this question is “yes”: for example, French respondents in Zogby’s poll affirmed their liking for Americans by more than 2 to 1. But more Egyptians responded negatively than positively, by a ratio of 47 percent to 35 percent. Asked their overall opinion of the United States, 86 percent of Egyptians registered themselves unfavorable and only 14 percent favorable.

Could it be that Egyptians feel so discomfited by their peace treaty with Israel that they strive to present themselves as the most militant of Arabs? At the Assilah symposium, one of the more conciliatory Arab participants told me that, although the Egyptian woman had called me anti-Muslim, she herself was not a Muslim but a Copt. If the Egyptians feel driven to be the most Arab of Arabs, might a Copt have felt compelled to appear the most Egyptian of Egyptians?

Whatever the cause, my attacker had clearly overplayed her hand, and she failed to appear for the next morning’s session. We Americans having already spoken, it was now the Arabs’ turn to tell us what they thought. An adviser to the Moroccan king complained that “the U.S. has accused the Muslims very unjustly of terrorism,” while several others, seconded by the Spaniard, offered excuses for terrorism on the grounds that all governments engage in it in some form and/or that it represents an understandable cry of despair. There was more, and worse. A jovial Sudanese listed in the program as a “penseur” explained that the United States had “fixed” the UN report on the Jenin battle of 2002 so as to deny that Israel had in fact committed a massacre. A famous Pakistani took a turn, prefacing his remarks with an apology for his inability to address the group in Arabic, a deficiency that he blamed not on his own lack of learning but on “the heritage of colonialism.” A Paris-based Algerian intellectual expatiated on the problem that “there are no words in Arabic for mytho-history and mytho-ideology,” leaving me to wonder what the English words for these terms might be. A bit later, my countryman, seeming to pander to the crowd, offered up the thought that we are all victims of distorted news media: “You have al-Jazeera and we have Fox.”



But this litany of victimhood, fantasy, moral equivocation, finger-pointing, and obscurantism was not the whole story, either. Despite administrative glitches, the Moroccans’ hospitality was warm and generous. A hosted lunch at a seaside restaurant, for example, consisted of a large tossed salad topped with cold fish, or so I thought until salad was followed by a hefty paella and then, for the main course, platters overflowing with four or five species of fried fish.

On a substantive level, both within the sessions and outside, several Arab participants gave an impression dramatically different from the prevailing whine. I was approached by a young man from the audience, none too well groomed and dressed in a white jalaba: “I listened to you yesterday,” he wanted me to know, “and what you said was painful to me, but I think we need to hear it.” A Lebanese editor of a journal of international affairs interviewed me at length, for publication; although he did not appear to be buying most of what I was selling, he was interested and believed his readers would be, too.

On the bus, I had a long chat with a UN official based in Paris whose nameplate listed his country as “Palestine.” It turned out he was an Israeli Arab. He shared with me his diagnosis of Arab ills, pointing to the lack of a work ethic and the preference for inherited over earned wealth. Emblematic of the problem, he said, was a poem still being taught in Arab schoolbooks in which the poet derides a rival because the man’s uncle had been a manual laborer. As for the conflict between the Arabs and Israel, he had a proposal: get the Egyptian and Jordanian armies to police Gaza and the West Bank. It was not the most realistic of solutions, but it was based on a certain sympathy for both sides. At the end of the symposium, one of the Moroccan organizers expressed a sentiment in poignant contrast to the anti-American rage I had heard from others. “Don’t think badly of us,” she said on parting.

The most remarkable person I met at the symposium was Ali, an Iraqi exile living in Morocco. In the formal session, while others deflected responsibility or made alibis, he asserted: “Our societies have failed to move into the modern world because we have accorded no importance to the acquisition of knowledge.” A writer, Ali let me see one of the few short stories of his to have been translated into English. Titled “Fear,” it depicts a man who has had his tongue cut out and seems about to be murdered by uniformed figures while the narrator, who loves him, is too frightened to intervene. It was, of course, a parable about Iraq or perhaps the whole Arab world.

As a sideline, Ali translates American fiction for publication, so that Arabs “can see the human face of America.” Soon after our meeting, he translated a newspaper essay of mine on the need for Arab democracy and got it placed prominently in Morocco’s leading paper. He planned, he told me, to return to Iraq, and to use some of the money he has earned, enough to make him comfortable by Iraqi standards, on creating a library in his native village in order to give its children a better opportunity to learn.

Ali had served as a critical reader of the draft of the second Arab Human Development Report, issued in October by the UN Human Development Program. The first such report, issued last year, was widely noted for its path-breaking criticism of the Arab status quo. Written by a team of a few dozen Arab intellectuals, it underscored three deficits in Arab life: freedom, knowledge, and women’s equality. The new report, “written for Arabs by Arabs,” elaborates on the knowledge deficit. Apart from its tediously familiar denunciations of Israeli “war crimes,” or the “erosion of civil liberties” in the United States, it has much of genuine value to say and the courage to say it. The report decries the lack of “social and individual freedoms” that fosters “social and moral corruption [and] the absence of honesty” in the Arab world, and calls for “freedom . . . of opinion, speech, and assembly.” Its indictment of Arab intellectual failure is capped by this damning datum: in the two decades ending in 2000, the Arab states together registered 370 U.S. patents, while Israel, with less than one fortieth the population, registered 7,662.1



Several members of the team that produced the Arab Human Development Report are Egyptian, which suggests that while that country produces an abundance of extremists, it also produces at least some liberals. This point was driven home to me at still another conference I attended recently, this one in Europe but attended mostly by Arabs. The Egyptians I met there—a newspaper editor, a leader of a human-rights group, a businesswoman, and others—could not have made a more vivid contrast with those I had encountered in Crete and Assilah and on al-Jazeera. They were democrats, pro-American, and believers in peace with Israel. The editor even informed me that he had appeared before a meeting of the Arab League to make the case for the war against Saddam Hussein.

At this conference I gave a talk similar to my opening remarks at Assilah but harder-hitting. Afterward many of the Arabs asked pointed but respectful questions; the only participants who clashed with me directly were an Iranian who accused me of attacking Islam and two Jewish Israelis. One of the latter, a prominent Labor-party leader, objected to my assertion that the roots of terrorism lay in a political culture of violence and fanaticism rather than in poverty.

If both this conference and the symposium at Assilah furnished some evidence of a liberal countercurrent in the Arab world, I even had similar hints in connection with my appearance on al-Jazeera. The day after the broadcast of the program featuring all the invective about American “lies,” I received four e-mails from viewers. I had gone into the show reminding myself to keep calm, but my prudent intentions had disappeared as I got down in the street, rhetorically, and slugged it out with the moderator and the Egyptian guest. I may not have sunk to their level of abusiveness, but I did lose my cool and afterward regretted it.

One of the e-mails was from a young man named Khoury. “Someone should have told you that al-Jazeera’s audience is not the notoriously ignorant American public you are so used to speaking to,” he wrote. “I was left wondering whether you are a liar (which I know you are) or whether you really are that stupid. I assure you the Arab public is not.” And he went on, in a threatening vein. (I wrote back telling Khoury he was choking on his own hatred of America. He replied, to my surprise, “I am also an American,” adding the boast, apropos of who-knows-what, “Less than thirty years old, I am independently wealthy and don’t have to work a day of my life.”)

But the other three messages were of a contrary tenor. One was from Ali, who said that “you handled the debate very well . . . spectators were impressed by your dignity.” Another, from a young Kuwaiti, assured me that my opponent was an extremist not typical of Egypt. The third was from an Arab Israeli journalist who wrote: “[The] style of answering and commenting you presented is the best way of attacking the bigotry we Arabs are suffering from. Those TV stations and their guests are reflections of the intellectual misery of the Arab world.” Of course, a sample of four is of no statistical significance, but as anyone who speaks or writes on controversial topics can testify, a ratio of three-to-one friendly responses is very unusual.

As summer gave way to fall, my students from Crete were still bombarding each other with messages on the Internet bulletin board, many of them about the Arabs’ relations with Israel and the U.S. One Lebanese staked out a staunchly pro-American position, including on the war in Iraq. Another strove to address Arab-Israel issues with steadfast fairness and balance. But a third vituperated against Israel and added: “If only the Americans would leave us alone, what a euphoria.” More extreme were the Egyptians, especially the girl who had studied with Nasser’s daughter. In one message, she made a point of sending personalized greetings to the other students, country by country, conspicuously omitting the Israelis. In other dispatches, the vitriol was more direct still.

One began: “Hi all, I would like you to read these two articles by an American writer.” The articles, nearly 20,000 words in all, were by David Duke, former head of the Ku Klux Klan, and they gave a Nazi-like version of the role of Jews in American life, including the claim that it was really the Jews who bombed the World Trade Center. The Lebanese boy who strove for fairness reacted strongly: “I am ashamed of being associated with such an argument and wanted to assure everyone that no one in his right mind would advocate this bastard’s ideas, nor would they listen to others who do.” Once again the Egyptian girl was embarrassed. She had not known who Duke was, only that she liked what he said; in a private letter to me, she explained that she had been given the articles by “Dr. Asmat Abdel Magid, the former head of the Arab League and the former-foreign affairs minister of Egypt, the head of the negotiating mission in our peace agreement with Israel.”

Other student postings presented more ambivalent sentiments. A Palestinian (not Gevara) wrote poignantly of his people’s sufferings, then later spoke of having toured in Israel, commenting that “for a fifty-five-year-old country they didn’t only make a great job, they made a miracle.” In another message, after criticizing Israel and the U.S., he wrote:

I want also to say sorry for all the victims of the last attack in a restaurant in Haifa . . . this is real terror and I am not afraid to say it as a Palestinian this is against Palestinians against every human being the stupid attack that also caused more than five Arabs killed and destroying property and also killing the peace process and innocent civilians I want to point out that also Palestinian are killed in every attack not only Israelis sorry I am so nervous I cant express myself . . . things will never be good again I am so desperate.

Then there was the Syrian who justified terrorism against Israel and even the September 11 attacks on America before sending warm personal greetings to Israeli students. As he put it, guilelessly: “Imagine [me] who has been overwhelmed by the idea of ‘how to kill a Jew?’ for eight years, now he has some Jews friend. This is something incredible.” In another posting the same young Syrian dwelt on the source of his confusion:

I really have a problem which makes me suffer. I feel that Ruthie, Yael (my dear friends) are very good people and I am proud of them and proud of th[e] great times at the [institute], but . . . I have been taught that those people do not say what really [is] inside them. . . . I have known this for 25 years and it is very difficult to erase it within three weeks.



No doubt it is. What this young man has been taught for 25 years, the Arab world as a whole has been taught for a good deal longer, and few have had his opportunity, however brief, to get a different picture.

In the end, I take away two contrary impressions from this congeries of experiences. On the one hand, the dominant discourse in the Arab world continues to be even more fraught with hate and fantasy than we Americans consider it polite or politic to acknowledge, especially in light of our present need to stress that the war against terror is not a war against Arabs or Islam. On the other hand, a contrary current is beginning to make an appearance, exemplified by Ali, by the Egyptians I met in Europe, by some of my students in Crete, and at least in part by the scholars who have produced the Arab Human Development Reports.

That such an element exists gives cause for hope, although perhaps not for optimism. In the 1920’s, liberal movements flourished in Germany and Japan and came close to remaking those two societies, only to be vanquished by the superior power of authoritarians and militarists who set the stage for World War II.

The liberal movement in the Arab world today is weaker than its predecessor in Japan, and much weaker than its predecessor in Germany. Even so, the prospects for war and peace in the coming decades depend, critically, on whether it can somehow achieve a better fate.



1 For more on this report, see Robert Satloff’s article, “What Do Arab Reformers Want?” starting on page 34 of this issue—Ed.


About the Author

Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is working on a book about Arab and Muslim democrats.

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