Friday, March 12, 2010

John Donne and Barry Rubin on the Middle East

(Via Phyllis Chesler)

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
[Europe...] is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manner of thine own
Or of thine friend's were.
Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the [finger calls],
It tolls for thee.

If you have an hour or two, you might be interested in this video of a lecture by Barry Rubin on the rational-seeming delusions Western elites and their audiences tell themselves. We pretend to be pursuing peace in the Middle East, by focussing on one little island - Israel/Palestine - that is in reality of limited importance to the region and its future, to the greater regional and global conflicts of which it is but a part. One way of understanding Rubin's argument is that as long as we are thinking of bells tolling the end of the media and global elite posturing classes' favorite conflict, we are not dealing with huge swathes of human reality. Much better to think of the world in terms of the much larger complex of interlocking interests, and resentments (given the pressures that modernity poses to Islamic societies), resentments we must hope to mediate and defer in various ways but not presume to abolish in some Utopian fantasy. "Peace" means no kind of final solution but rather suggests the basis for holding lines and stopping really bad things from happening so that events can evolve, through the hard lessons that only long experience with failure can bring. These lessons, in Rubin's view, can only be minimally taught by outside interventions. The lesson that democratic societies - with their capacity to recognize more honestly and transparently the inter-relationships among a society's internal disputes and its external interests and conflicts - are going to be in time the only way forward, must be learned through observing internal failures.

Those obsessed with the present rise of revolutionary Islamism - something Rubin distinguishes from the conservative Islam of the established Middle Eastern regimes - those who believe Middle Eastern countries will never want democracy, do not have a sufficient regard, in Rubin's view, for the historical forces teaching failure after failure to those who resist liberal modernity, whether they are Arab nationalists or Islamists. It seems to me that either Rubin is more or less right, or the Islamists must somehow win and destroy modernity and return the world to some much more primitive place that can be controlled by Sharia and Islamic economics. Those who hold to the idea that Islam is what the Islamists say it is, or that Islam can never change, imply that the West must just give up on a billion plus people, and isolate them by force. But no one i have ever read with such ideas has convinced me that quarantining and maintaining the boundaries of an Islamic island is a very plausible strategy, for reasons we could go into.

The West must re-awaken to a proper regard for its own interests; and this may well entail some kinds of insular policies, in matters, for example, like immigration and defense of Israel, though it is also our interest to defend liberal freedoms, like free speech, everywhere. But it is a fool who thinks we can ever just isolate any large part of humanity and think we can forever control their tyrannical societies from being an unacceptable threat to freer societies. In this light, what seems impossible today cannot be forever, and so Rubin professes optimism. I might say, in the end, there really are only two serious options, two ways to point that finger.

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