Monday, December 29, 2008

So What DOES the Arab World Think?

The Arab world is mostly not democratic. Iraq seems seriously to be trying to get there; Lebanon sometimes is and most-times isn't. The Jordanian non-democratic regime is benign - but not democratic. Actually, when it comes to democracy the Palestinians are closer than most Arabs, except when they aren't.

This means it's not easy to know what "the Arabs" think about issues. Not that it's easy to know what "the Americans" think, even less "the Europeans" and their interesting layers of doing business. It's not even clear if there's any particular significance to what "the Arab World" thinks about anything.

Though of course there is the rock-solid constant that representatives of Arab countries at the UN will always be against Israel, and that includes Egypt and Jordan who are officially at peace with Israel. Even regarding Israel, however, there are differences, tones, shadings, and complexities among the hundreds of millions of Arabs.

In order to really get an understanding of what's going on in the Arab world, you'd need first to have complete command of the Arab language, which itself is common as a literary language, but is extremely diverse in its local vernaculars to the extent of mutual incomprehensibility. Yet that's not enough. You also have to know a lot of facts. I speak English, but that doesn't mean I can tell you much about Australian society, nor about India. Just look at Juan Cole: he knows all sorts of languages but doesn't understand the countries he talks about.

So when Western journalists assure you that
the Arab "street" is unanimous in its support of the Palestinians as the demonstrations from Damascus to Baghdad showed.
(that's Anne Penketh in The Independent), it's either unnecessary, because of course the Arabs prefer the Palestinians over the Jews, or it's Ms. Penketh yearning for some confirmation of her own emotional needs: the Evil Israelis Armed by the Evil Americans are hated by the Noble Downtrodden. Or some such psychoanalytical mumbo-jumbo.

But it's not only The Independent. This morning, the rot is rather clearly on display even at the New York Times. Their top article at the moment is titled Israeli Troops Mass Along Border; Arab Anger Rises.

The continued strikes, which Israel said were in retaliation for sustained rocket fire from Gaza into its territory, unleashed a furious reaction across the Arab world, raising fears of greater instability in the region.

Remember, it was only two days ago the New York Times itself said the Israeli attacks were a response to Hamas rockets, but maybe a three-day memory is too much to ask from journalists. But let's stay on message. The NYT tells us about these furious reaction, and also adds that their danger is that they'll create greater instability. We're not told who is the person or people with the rising fear levels. It's general, generic, something like that. Until we read the very next paragraph of their own item:

Much of the anger was also directed at Egypt, seen by Hamas and some nearby governments as having acceded to Israel’s military action by sealing its border with Gaza and forcing back many Palestinians at gunpoint who were trying to escape the destruction.

Witnesses at the Rafah border crossing described a chaotic scene as young men tried to force their way across into Egypt, amid sporadic exchanges of gunfire between Hamas and Egyptian forces. Egyptian state television reported that one Egyptian border guard was killed by a Hamas gunman. A Palestinian man was killed by an Egyptian guard near Rafah, Reuters reported.

To the best of my knowledge, Egypt is the largest (though not richest) Arab country. It's decidedly not democratic, so who knows what The Egyptian Street thinks, but the Egyptian government is hardly pro-Hamas in this conflict, and Egyptian troops in Rafah seem to be killing and being killed in confrontations with - well, I'd say, other Arabs, for lack of better information.

Meanwhile, all according to the same single NYT news item, there may be other inter-Arab tensions:

In Lebanon, the leader of the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, put his fighters on alert, expressing strong support for Hamas and saying that he believed Israel might try to wage a two-front war, as it did in 2006. He called for a mass demonstration in Beirut on Monday. And he, too, denounced Egypt’s leaders. “If you don’t open the borders, you are accomplices in the killing,” he said in a televised speech.

Sounds brotherly, doesn't it. The article goes on to tell us about other folks who are angry about the lack of Arab solidarity:

Iran’s supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, condemned the silence of some Arab countries, which he said had prepared the grounds for the “catastrophe,” an Iranian news agency, ISNA, reported.

“The horrible crime of the Zionist regime in Gaza has once again revealed the bloodthirsty face of this regime from disguise,” he said in a statement. “But worse than this catastrophe is the encouraging silence of some Arab countries who claim to be Muslim,” he said, apparently in a reference to Egypt and Jordan.

Now as we all know (don't we?), Iran isn't part of the Arab World, so it's not clear what they're doing in this article, which certainly implies that they are. The article then continues in the same vein: Protesters in Beirut are furious at Israel - abut also at Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.

So what do we really learn from this? First, that the Arab world is complicated, even in the ways if faces the universally accepted enemy of Israel. Second, that even the journalism of the New York Times is probably not a very good way to learn about the world. In more ways than you'd like to think, even they are not that much better than bloggers, especially when the bloggers write about things they're really specialists at, in ways the journalists aren't.

Third, that even the NYT looks over its shoulder all the time and fits its message to some perceived "public sentiment" (Liberal Street?): else how to understand this paragraph from the same item:

News agencies reported that a rocket fired Monday from Gaza killed a man and wounded seven people in the southern Israeli town of Ashkelon. Three Israelis were also stabbed by a Palestinian in a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, the reports said, quoting the Israeli military.

News agencies said. The rising Arab Anger is so factual it goes into the title. The death of an Israeli, the wounding of ten others, not to mention that they're all civilians, this is unverified information that has come in to the notice of our reporters, but we can't vouch for its veracity at this stage.

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