March 27th, 2011 12:54 EST
How Many More Arab Countries Will We Interfere In?
What we don`t know is engulfing us
And now Syria. The Arab Spring has broken out bloodily in Syria, one of the few Muslim despotisms with which we`re not on good terms.
Syria, ruled by the Assad family for more than 40 years, is Israel`s most implacable enemy in the Arab world. The Assads are Alawites. They belong to a sect aligned to Shia Islam in its veneration of the martyred Ali, Islam`s third caliph and the Prophet Mohamed`s beloved and loyal son-in-law. But most Syrians are Sunnis, and it would not be surprising to find them resentful of brutal Alawite rule.
Significantly, demonstrations in Damascus, the Syrian capital and arguably the second most important city in the Arab world, began outside the Umayyad Mosque. The Umayyads were Islam`s first caliphs. Their first capital was Damascus. And Sunni Islam looks back on Umayyad caliphates in Damascus, Baghdad and Cordoba with reverence.
In February 1982 the father of the present Syrian president, Hafez al Assad, slaughtered more than 17,000 dissidents belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood. Today his son, Bashar al Assad, seems to be following in his footsteps. It`s unclear how many demonstrators his soldiers have killed, but the number seems to be growing.
In spite of our fabulously expensive intelligence apparatus, we don`t know what is going on in the Arab world. The Arabs may not know either. But they`re talking to each other on Facebook and through other digital means. We don`t know if the Libyan uprising, for example, is a tribal conflict or a widespread yearning for representative government, as it seems to be in Tunisia.
We don`t know if Islamists are hijacking the Egyptian revolution or whether they will hijack revolts in Yemen, Bahrein and Syria. We don`t seem to know much about the Muslim Brotherhood, except that we don`t like it, while we`re perfectly willing to tolerate and even indulge our own fanatics. Indeed we don`t even know the answer to the crucial question of whether the Muslim Brotherhood is fanatical. And while we don`t call our own fundamentalists fanatics, we`re perfectly willing to call Muslim fundamentalists fanatics. There ought to be congressional hearings about what we don`t know and why we don`t know. If our intelligence people can`t shed light here, where can they shed it? Where does their expertise lie? In Lesotho? If we`re willing to cut funds to education, why aren`t we willing to ask what our money is buying us in the way of intelligence?
But there is yet another way of looking at this and another conundrum we`re sweeping under the carpet. What if our intelligence people are telling us exactly what`s going on and we`re ignoring it, as we did when we so foolishly invaded Iraq?
We also don`t know to what extent these uprisings are being fed by hostility between the Shia and the much larger Sunni world. In Bahrein, for example, a Shia majority is ruled by a Sunni monarchy, and the Sunnis have recently warned Shia Iran to stop meddling. Almost none of our news reports reflect an understanding that Iran, an Aryan Shia nation, is playing a role in the Arab Spring, just as it stepped into Iraq when we barged in and changed the Sunni-Shia equation.
Iran has meddled in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, too. It`s the major financier of Hezbollah, the armed Syrian-Lebanese faction that has continually whipped up trouble with Israel and Lebanese coalition governments.
Moreover, Morocco, our staunch ally, is also ruled by Alawites, which explains some but not all its trouble with neighboring Algeria, an overwhelmingly Sunni nation.
And when all these gray areas and nuances are set out on the strategy table, a much larger question comes into play. Do we really want democracy to get a foothold in the Muslim world? What if democratic elections produce Islamist governments, as they did in Algeria (the military overrode that election) and might in Egypt? Do the Arabs want instead something like the caliphal governance under which they so often thrived, the memories of which linger in their collective unconscious? What if they democratically choose leaders who see us as a threat to their interests?
Have we been honest with ourselves? Or do we pay lip service to democratic movements while actually preferring despots like Syria`s Bashar al Assad and Egypt`s Hosni Mubarak because they keep the lid on things, and keeping the lid on things means business as usual for the corporate elite who really call the shots in America?
We had better start asking ourselves these questions before the Arab Spring moves into summer. We have intervened in Libya because Muammar al Qaddafi was bombing his own people. Now Bashar al Assad is shooting his own people. Will we intervene there, too? Libya has oil. Syria doesn`t. But Syria is Iran`s ally in fomenting trouble in Lebanon. So what do we do? And will we understand the situation on the ground when we do it, or will we follow the usual big mouths into another inextricable war?
Can we finally admit what the Arabs already know, that it`s not about what we want for them but what we want for ourselves? And is even that really true? Isn`t it really a question of what we want for our corporate elite who are always willing for more American youngsters to die for the big bucks?
The Arab Spring is like hellebore, the Lenten Rose; it blooms early "and it can be turned into poison. If we cultivate it, are we prepared for the consequences? Read the stories coming out of Syria and ask yourselves how many of the questions I have so inadequately raised here are even being considered.
Our foreign policy suffers from the same simplicitudes to which we reduce our domestic politics. We want good guys and bad guys, right and wrong, but the trouble with such a puritanical view is that it doesn`t allow for differences in the eyes that behold good and bad and right and wrong. Arab society is as complex as our own, and the more we deep-six the subtleties, the more absurd our policies become.
This is perhaps inevitable in a society that keeps on insisting it is what it isn`t. We`re a multi-ethnic, religiously and culturally diverse society that illogically insists it`s white, Anglo-Saxon and rooted in intolerant Plymouth and Jamestown rather than tolerant and diverse New Amsterdam. (I`m borrowing this comparison from Russell Shorto`s book, Island at the Center of the World, because it so memorably challenges our assumptions about ourselves.)
Our foreign policies have foreshadowed the Tea Party`s nostalgia for an America long since overtaken by events, among them successive waves of immigration and innovative responses to problems that couldn`t have been foreseen by our founders.
Democracy overseas will never mirror U.S. democracy. India is the world`s biggest democracy, but it has had to adapt democratic ideals to its own realities. When the Arabs do that they may produce governments we don`t want to pat on the back. But it will nonetheless have been our founders " Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and all the others "who inspired them. We spent a fortune and decimated a generation of Americans fighting a man, Ho Chi Minh, who idolized Jefferson. We should think about that as we decide how to respond to events in Syria.
Djelloul Marbrook is a retired newspaperman. His second book of poems, Brushstrokes and Glances, will be published by Deerbrook Editions on December 20, 2010. His first book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. It won the International Book Award in 2010. His novella, Artemisia`s Wolf, will be published by Prakash Books of India in December. His novella, Saraceno, was recently published as an e-book. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal LattÃ© first prize in fiction in 2008. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller`s Room, in 1999.
Del`s book, Far From Algiers: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm
New review of Far from Algiers: http://www.rattle.com/blog/2009/05/far-from-algiers-by-djelloul-marbrook/
Artists Hill, Literal LattÃ©`s fiction first prize: http://www.literal-latte.com/author/djelloulmarbrook/
His blog: http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com
His mother`s art: http://www.juanitaguccione.com
His aunt`s art: http://www.irenericepereira.com