The full horror of contemporary Middle East politics and debate is comprehended by few in the West, largely because people aren't informed by their political leaders, intellectuals and media.
Occasionally, the truth emerges, as on September 11, 2001, but soon is reburied under mountains of obfuscation. After all, Iran's president called for Israel to be wiped off the map, according to the official Iranian translation, and The New York Times publishes an article analyzing whether this ever happened.
I imagine exchanges like this: Middle Easterner (in Arabic): "We'll wipe you out, kill your children and trample your cities into dust!" Translator (in English): "He says that justified grievances about American aggression are creating hurt feelings which can only be resolved by Western policy changes."
These thoughts are inspired by at least four examples this week.
First, an Arabic-speaker writes me, "Right now I'm watching Himam as-Sa'id, leader of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, on al-Aksa TV giving a speech (or rather a rant). He's screaming about how the Islamic armies will turn Palestine into a graveyard for the Jews." This is followed by threatening the Jordan government as traitorous for making peace with Israel and "the usual cliches." But then my friend concludes: "As we all know, this isn't the sort of language the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood uses when speaking English." For good measure, he inserts some links to Western newspaper articles that claim the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood is really a moderate organization with which Western governments should dialogue.
Then there are two recent interviews given by Palestinian Authority Ambassador to Lebanon Abbas Zaki, who explains that the PA considers the US an enemy. Of course, the Americans have been paying Zaki's salary for 14 years through direct aid and by persuading allies to donate money, backed a Palestinian state and pressed Israel into many concession for the PA. But none of this matters to Zaki and other senior Fatah leaders. In Arabic, they are still hard-liners and anti-Americans.
In early November, Zaki gave a lecture explaining that moderation was just a pretense and the goal was still Israel's destruction. In his words, given the Arab nation's weakness and US power, "the PLO proceeds through phases, without changing its strategy." Soon it would be in a position to bring about Israel's collapse and drive "them out of all of Palestine."
One of the main examples of nonsense substituting for serious analysis is the fantasy of splitting Syria away from Iran. This notion is encouraged by Syria's effective propaganda network and lots of Western helpers. A Lebanese friend sends me a boatload of citations from Syrian officials promising eternal loyalty to Iran. I believe them.
For example, Syria's ambassador to the United States explained on al-Jazeera television in May, "Syria will not distance itself from Iran because our ties with Iran are... [linked] to deep historic, cultural, social and religious ties, common interests." An article by regime fan Rime Allaf in the Novosti press agency on November 25 notes: "For three decades, the Syrian-Iranian relationship has survived a sustained Western effort to break the alliance... and to shift the politics of both regimes." But nothing will weaken this partnership unless the regime in one of these countries falls. Agreed.
The Washington Post's David Ottoway writes of how Syria needs and benefits from the alliance with Iran. But he continues, "Western and Arab sources... feel, nonetheless, that the Syrian-Iranian friendship is unnatural [and] short-term." Syria's regime is thought too secular to stick with Teheran very long. He also, however, provides extensive quotes from Syrian officials who insist with detailed arguments that the alliance is here to stay.
Oh, by the way, the article is dated September 29, 1983.
Finally, if you want to understand the current spectrum of public debate in the Arab world, consider a television debate between Kamal al-Hilbawi, director of the London Center for the Study of Terrorism, and political analyst Nabil Yassin. The former is supposed to be the radical, the latter the moderate.
Hilbawi endorses killing Israeli civilians, including children, because, he says they're all potential soldiers. He claims, "In elementary school, they pose the following math problem: 'In your village, there are 100 Arabs. If you killed 40, how many Arabs would be left for you to kill?' This is taught in the Israeli curriculum."
Yassin responds by saying he is against murdering civilians: "I condemn the Israeli governments for teaching children such things, but I do not condemn the child, who still doesn't know how he will kill the Arabs in 20 years' time, when he becomes a soldier."
I read that just after helping my two kids with their math homework and I guess I must have missed those equations. Actually, in my daughter's school they're now studying Islam and Christianity, learning a fair, factual picture of both religions.
There are, however, schools that teach that way. What Hilbawi described is an almost precise rendition of Syrian second-grade textbooks, for example, which contain math problems about killing Israelis.
At any rate, their debate shows us the permissible margin of discussion: The Arab radical lies that Israel is a nation of genocidal killers; the moderate retorts that of course it's true but the children aren't responsible for being brainwashed by those evil monsters.
Certainly, the best Western strategy in today's Middle East is to cooperate with relatively moderate states and groups opposed to the spread of radical Islamism and Iranian-Syrian influence.
The first problem is that many in the West are more interested in courting the extremists in the mistaken belief they'll change.
The second problem is that even those whose objective interests are relatively moderate and parallel those of the West and Israel even those acknowledging this fact in private aren't willing to speak and act along these lines.
The third problem is that there are few moderates and that the spectrum of debate is dominated by extremists and those who pretend to be radical for safety's sake or to exploit militancy for their own advantage.
Oh, by the way, the program in which Arab viewers were told that Israeli schools teach children to murder Arabs wasn't aired on the Hizbullah channel but on the BBC's Arabic service. That's quite a service. Incitement to terrorism thanks to British taxpayer money. Political insanity denied can be contagious.