26 February 2008

Time to listen to the Arab street

Doesn't this shout out that something is fundamentally amiss? Iran, a dictatorship, supports two of the most democratically successful organizations in the Arab world. We in the democratic West refuse to have anything to do with them. When one wins a remarkably fair election, we reject the government it forms and do everything we can to undermine it. And for supporting these two organizations, Iran is labelled "a state sponsor of terrorism."

The two organizations I refer to are, of course, Hezbollah and Hamas. Hezbollah has done well electorally in Lebanon and Hamas did well enough in Palestine to win the last general electon.

We dismiss them both as terrorist organizations. This is rubbish. Do they use terrorism as a weapon? Yes. And who doesn't when it suits their purpose? The two major Western players in the Middle East, Israel and the United States, certainly do. The United States committed the two most horrific terrorist attacks in history.

Both Hamas and Hezbollah have a military arm and those arms have used terrorism. When you lack a conventional military and your enemy has a modern army, navy and air force, and the support of the most powerful nation in the world, you have little recourse but to to fall back on the weapon of choice for the poor. But both organizations are much more than their military arms. Their social arms provide better social services than most Arab governments, and, what should be of particular importance to us, their political arms accept the democratic process and are rather good at it.

And why shouldn't Iran support them? Essentially they are engaged in war against Israel. And is this war justified? If challenging Israel's ethnic cleansing, oppression, collective punishment, and theft of land from the Palestinians is justified, then the answer is yes.

And herein lies our hypocrisy. The West, the United States staunchly in the lead, claims to want democracy in the Middle East, yet when democratic forces emerge, as with Hezbollah and Hamas, we whack-a-mole them. Our justification is their hostility toward Israel. But that is exactly what we should expect. Democratic parties represent the people and, by and large, the Arab people don't approve of Israel. They empathize with their Arab brothers in Palestine and oppose their oppressors. If democracy means representing the people, in the Arab world it means being anti-Israel.

Out of guilt or whatever, we in the West will not accept this antipathy of the Arab street toward Israel. We cannot, therefore, accept democracy in the Arab world. We have got ourselves in a box. While we ignore the Arab people, we dote on their oppressors, the dictators -- thugs like Egypt's Mubarek and of course our favourites, the misogynistic Sauds of Arabia. We have created an unholy alliance of anti-democratic forces. The dictators, too, fear democracy so they are quite happy to collaborate in suppressing it.

This rejection of the sensibilities of the Arab street not only makes democracy difficult to achieve in the Middle East, it makes peace in Palestine difficult, perhaps impossible. As long as the Palestinians must submit to the West's preconditions before serious negotiation can even start, and Israel holds all the cards including the unequivocal support of the United States, chances for a peaceful solution are slim indeed.

If we would simply listen to the Arab people and take their views and feelings seriously, whether we agree with them or not, we would at least stand a chance of settling the Palestine conflict, and yes, even extending democracy in that benighted part of the world. We might, in the bargain, make peace with Iran.

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