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Culture of Death Continues to Haunt the Middle East

January 10, 2008 By:
Barry Rubin
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Much has been said about Benazir Bhutto's assassination; little will be understood about what it truly means. I'm not speaking about Pakistan, of course -- as important as that country is -- but rather the lesson for all of the Middle East.

Back in 1946, an American diplomat asked an Iranian editor why his newspaper angrily criticized the United States, but never the Soviet Union. The Iranian said the answer was obvious. "The Russians," he said, "they kill people."

A dozen years earlier, in 1933, Iraqi official Sami Shawkat gave a talk which became one of the most famous texts of Arab nationalism. "There is something more important than money and learning for preserving the honor of a nation and for keeping humiliation at bay," he stated. "That is strength ... strength, as I use the word here, means to excel in the Profession of Death."

Shawkat was the director general of Iraq's Ministry of Education. This was how young people were to be taught and directed. Seventy-five years later, the subsequent history of Iraq and the rest of the Arab world shows just how well Shawkat did his job.

Sept. 11 in the United States, the Bali bombing for Australia, the tube bombing for Britain, the commuter-train bombing for Spain -- these were merely byproducts of this pathology. The pathology in question is not Western policy toward the Middle East, but rather Middle Eastern policy toward the Middle East.

Like children playing with dynamite, Western intellectuals, journalists and diplomats fantasize that they are achieving results in the Middle East with their words, promises, apologies, money and concessions. Yet how can such innocents cope despite -- or perhaps because of -- all their good intentions with polities and societies whose basic ruling ethos is that of the serial killer?

And what can be achieved when those who want to break with the ideas and methods creating a disastrous mess which characterizes so much of the Middle East are systematically murdered?

Read the roll: King Abdullah of Jordan, President Anwar Sadat of Egypt, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri of Lebanon, bold author Farouk Fawda in Egypt, Iraqi Sunnis who dare seek compromise, Palestinian moderates, Algerian modernists and thousands of women who seek a moderate degree of freedom.

The radicals are right: Dying is a disincentive. And for every one killed or threatened, how many thousands give in?

Seventy-five years after Shawkat, Hamas television teaches Palestinian children in the Gaza Strip that their highest aspiration should be to become a suicide bomber, with success measured by how many Jews are killed. And, by the way, the Palestinian Authority's television in the West Bank sends a similar message, albeit not quite as often.

Will billions of dollars of aid to the P.A. change anything when the men with the guns take what they want? Are P.A. leaders Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad -- a timid bureaucrat and a well-meaning economist -- going to take a bullet for lifting one finger to get a compromise peace with Israel?

The radical forces in the region are not expecting to retain or gain power by negotiating, compromising or being better understood. They believe they are going to shoot their way into power or, just as good, accept the surrender of those they have intimidated.

That's why so much of the Western analysis and strategies for dealing with the region are a bad joke. Osama bin Laden understands that, as he once said: People are going to back the strongest horse in the race. Yet according to all too many people in the Western elites, the way to win is to be the nicest horse.

Radical Islamists like to proclaim that they'll triumph because they love death while their enemies -- that is, soon-to-be-victims -- love life. But for those who love death, the reward is death. For those who love life, the outcomes include decent educational systems, living standards, individual rights and strong economic systems. All these things -- and others that go along with them -- are what really produce strength.

The profession of death has wrecked most Middle Eastern societies. But it has never succeeded in defeating a free society. It is not an effective tactic for destroying others, only for devastating one's own people.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center.

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