Let us confess it: Many of the things that are bothersome in the world today originate in the Middle East. Billions of air passengers each year take off their belts and shoes at the airport, not because of fears of terrorism from the slums of Johannesburg or because the grandsons of displaced East Prussians are blowing up Polish diplomats. We put up with such burdens because a Saudi multimillionaire, Osama bin Laden, and his unhinged band of Arab religious extremists began ramming airliners into buildings and murdering thousands.
The Olympics have become an armed camp, not because the Cold War Soviets once stormed Montreal or the Chinese have threatened Australia, but largely because Palestinian terrorists butchered Israelis in Munich 40 years ago and established the precedent that international arenas were ideal occasions for political mass murder.
There is no corn or wheat cartel. There are no cell-phone monopolies. Coal prices are not controlled by global price-fixers. Yet OPEC adjusts the supply of oil in the Middle East to ensure high prices, mostly for the benefit of Gulf sheikhdoms and assorted other authoritarian governments.
Catholics don’t assassinate movie directors or artists who treat Jesus Christ with contempt. Jewish mobs will not murder cartoonists should they ridicule the Torah. Buddhists are not calling for global blasphemy laws. But radical Muslims, mostly in the Middle East, have warned the world that Islam alone is not to be caricatured — or else. Right-wing fascists and red Communists have not done as much damage to the First Amendment as have the threats from the Arab Street.
The world obsesses over Israel and the Palestinians because of the neurotic Middle East. The issue is not really the principle of a divided capital — or Nicosia would be daily news. Nor is the concern over refugees per se, since well over 500,000 Jews were religiously cleansed from the major Arab capitals following the 1948 and 1967 wars. No one cares where they went or how they have fared in the decades since. Is the global worry really over occupied territories? Hardly. Lately it seems that every desolate island between China and Japan is equally contested. Are there special envoys to the Falklands, and do the islanders receive international aid? Will there be a U.N. session devoted to the Kuril Islands? Does Gdansk/Danzig merit summits? We are told ad nauseam that the Arab minority in Israel suffers — would that the ignored Coptic minority in Egypt had similar protections and freedoms.
The oil-rich Middle East is just different from other regions. We don’t expect another Cal Tech to sprout in Cairo in the way it might in either Bombay or Beijing. Nor do we assume that a cure for prostate cancer could ever emerge from Tripoli as it might from Tel Aviv. The world will not be flooded by Syrian-made low-cost, durable products that make our lives better — comparable to what comes from South Korea. There will be not a Saudi or Algerian version of a Kia. High-speed machine lathes will not be exported from Pakistan as they are from Germany. I doubt that engineers in Afghanistan or Yemen will replace our iPads. The Middle East’s efforts in the production of biofuels will not rival Brazil’s. Libya will not send archaeologists to the American Southwest to help investigate Native American sites.
In other words, in politically incorrect terms, the world tacitly gives exemptions to the Middle East — and expects very little in return. It assumes that the rules that apply elsewhere of civility, tolerance, and nonviolence are inoperative there — and perhaps have reason to so be. Money is made in the Middle East either by pumping out oil that others have found and developed or, less frequently these days, by catering to tourists who wish to see the remains of what others built centuries earlier. Few foreigners decide to spend a relaxing week in Egypt, or to sunbathe on the beaches of Gaza, or to enjoy the wine and cheese of Libya, or to snorkel in the waters off Syria, or to study engineering in Algiers. How many tourists choose to mountaineer in Afghanistan or visit Persepolis or unwind in Pakistan?
The world also assumes a sort of Middle Eastern parasitism: Daily its millions use mobile phones, take antibiotics, hit the Internet, fire RPGs, and play video games, and yet they not only do not create these products that they rely upon, but largely have antipathy for those who do.
Asymmetry is, of course, assumed. One expects to be detained for having a Bible in one’s baggage at Riyadh, whereas a Koran in a tote bag is of no importance at the Toronto airport. The Egyptian immigrant in San Francisco, or the Pakistani who moves to London, expects to be allowed to demonstrate against the freewheeling protocols of his hosts, while a Westerner protesting against life under sharia in the streets of Karachi or Gaza would earn a death sentence. What is nauseating about this is not the hypocrisy per se, but the Middle Eastern insistence that there is no such hypocrisy. We expect the immigrant from Egypt to deface public posters and call it freedom of expression; we expect Mr. Morsi, who enjoyed American freedom while he studied for his Ph.D. and then taught for three years in California, to deny it to others and trash his former host.
So how do we make sense out of this abject nonsense? Superficially, it occurs because the world is cowardly, and we accept that terrorism is far more likely to emanate from the Middle East than elsewhere. Principles or tastes do not explain why movies mock Christ and not Mohammed. Fear does, and all sorts of empty pontifications must dress up the necessary compensatory selectivity.
Self-interest explains a lot too. It is not just that nearly half the world’s oil comes from the Middle East. The money paid for it means enormous opportunity for recycling profits. An American university that would oust a student for uncivil speech at home has no problem with rampant anti-Semitism and religious intolerance in its Middle Eastern affiliate — as long as the students pony up $60,000 in annual petrodollar-fed tuition and expenses.
The present low-down age counts as well. The West is not as it was right after World War II, when it was not shy about defending its values and believed that the future of democracy and free markets it offered would mean liberty and security for hundreds of millions. Today, utopian pacifism, multiculturalism, and moral relativism arise out of self-doubt and fears of decline — at precisely the time when radical Islam is more confident than ever before that its own less liberal future is assured.
The paradox is not just that the well-off in London, Paris, and Washington are diffident, while the impoverished in Cairo and Tehran are fanatic, but that there comes also a certain sick awe in the self-loathing West for those who can at least be zealous in their self-righteousness, however repellent in the abstract that may be. One could see all this in Piers Morgan’s CNN interview with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: The more the latter spouted his anti-Semitic and anti-Western hatred and homophobia, the more the liberal former seemed mesmerized by such surety — in a way he most surely is not by Sarah Palin’s mild conservatism.
Finally, what accounts for Middle Eastern neuroticism? A sense of collective inferiority, a feeling that life is pretty miserable, when it need not be — and that the causes are foreign rather than homegrown. Exasperated Arab secular intellectuals sometimes confess that tribalism in place of meritocracy, statism in place of free markets, authoritarianism in place of consensuality, religious fundamentalism in place of tolerance, censorship in place of transparency, and gender apartheid in place of sexual equality combine in the Middle East to ensure poverty and violence.
The latest round of radical Islam arose — in the manner of Nazism in the 1930s, Communism in the 1940s, and Baathism and pan-Arabism in the 1960s — not to address the self-inflicted causes of such failure, but to indict others: Jews, Western democracies and Western capitalists, non-Arabs and heretics, and, above all, powerful Americans. The whines and lamentations gain credence when the Arab Street watches NBC and CNN, when the engineering student attends an American social-science class, when Hollywood endlessly shows the world the evil CIA agent behind the latest Middle Eastern scandal or the white male CEO whose company’s pollution causes cancer. Western self-loathing is offered as proof of Western culpability. Radical Islam then steps in, assuring the Middle Eastern Street that an absence of piety explains why a once-great civilization now bows to decadent Western infidels: The more a believer memorizes the Koran, supposedly the less power the Westerner has over him, and thus the less the beloved iPhone he uses each day can corrupt him.
What can be done? A psychiatrist treating a delusional neurotic attempts to bring him slowly back to reality. In the case of the Middle East, that would mean in the long term defending vigorously the values of free speech, tolerance, and constitutional government — and not giving exemptions on the basis of fear or multicultural relativism. More practically, the U.S. must develop fully all its energy supplies — coal, nuclear, natural gas, oil, and alternative fuels — to reduce the strategic importance of the Middle East in U.S foreign policy. At some point we must be honest: The American self-righteous green zealot who opposes almost all production of new finds of natural gas is not just the fanatical bookend of the Middle Eastern Islamist, but also the means by which the latter gains money and clout.
In the short term, reciprocity would be wise. If violence should continue against American personnel and facilities, we can gradually trim foreign aid, advise Americans not to visit Egypt or Libya, put holds on visas for students from Middle Eastern countries that do not protect Americans or that contribute to terrorism, recall our ambassadors and expel theirs. Reopening our embassy in Damascus and dubbing Bashar Assad a “reformer” did not improve relations with Syria or temper Syrian extremism. A reduced security profile in Libya did not create good will for our ambassador. Two billion dollars in aid to Egypt did not win hearts and minds. The Palestinians are not fond of us, despite millions of dollars in annual aid.
Having Mr. Morsi on the USC campus did not bank good will for the future, any more than, long ago, Sayyid Qutb’s subsidized travel throughout America earned us a soft spot in the heart of the Muslim Brotherhood. I don’t see how welcoming in Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy and giving her airtime on CNN and MSNBC has enriched the United States by providing us a keener understanding of Egypt — not when she uses spray paint to deface public posters that she personally finds objectionable.
To sum up, the West should just say, “No.”