Heroically, the Arabs are freeing themselves from their authoritarian masters.
But can they liberate themselves from the fears, conspiracies and prejudices that also shape so much of their politics and identity? Their evolution to fully functioning democratic polities may depend on it.
Two principal bogeymen—Israel and the colonial power (AKA America)—continue to haunt the Arab world like ghosts in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.
Each of these spirits is grounded at least partly in historic and contemporary reality. But each has in turn been magnified and exaggerated into a system of logic that drives not just the lie but the big lie. And very often, these untruths are willfully conjured up by the Arabs themselves to mask their own deficiencies and to distract and rally public opinion.
Israel figures prominently and simultaneously in Arab hopes and fears. On one hand, the Jewish state can be a unifying force in rallying Arab pride and power. Consider the aftermath of Hezbollah’s successful use of high-trajectory weapons in the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war, when its chief Hassan Nasrallah for a time became almost a revered figure on the Arab street.
On the other hand, Israel is a source of dishonor and shame—and perhaps secretly a source of admiration too, which makes matters even more complex. How could a tiny country defy the will of the great Arab nation and make itself into the strongest military power and most technologically advanced country in the Middle East? For the Arabs, Israel is one tough and painful look in the mirror.
There's no doubt that Israel's own policies—from settlements to the occupation and treatment of Palestinians to its use of military power—feed Arab anger, rage and humiliation.
But let’s be clear. The Arabs themselves have turned David into an ugly and mythical Goliath. The anti-Israeli trope goes much deeper than mere criticism of a nation-state’s behavior. Israel has been elevated to a power (backed by America) that, along with international Jewry, has the capacity to shape the world arena, if not to control it.
The view among many Syrian oppositionists is that the United States hasn’t intervened against Assad because Israel prefers the status quo or, worse, an outcome in which the Syrians just bleed themselves through internecine conflict. Meanwhile, supporters of the Assad regime argue that the opposition is driven by pro-Israeli forces bent on eliminating the only Arab state that stands up to Israel and its American patron.
By implication, the view in much of the Arab world (and in Europe too) is that the pro-Israeli lobby holds America’s Middle East policy hostage and can dictate matters of war and peace at will. In effect, it has become and remains the default for any Arabs, no matter what their orientation, to simply blame whatever they don’t like—in the Syrian case, whether the survival or downfall of the regime—on imaginary omnipotent American policies serving exclusively the supposed interests of Israel.
Worse still are the anti-Semitic tropes that still compel and captivate the region. They’re not new. Go into any Arab bookstore in Cairo and Damascus and you’ll be presented with a smorgasbord of literary delights from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to pamphlets about contemporary Jewish control of the banks and the media. When the spokesman for the current president of Egypt talks about shaking the sleep from the eyes of the Jews and liberating Jerusalem, he’s speaking not just for himself but to a well-primed audience.
Indeed the Arab Spring—which in some countries is starting to look like an Islamist spring—brings with it a whole series of dangerous religious tropes that are likely to inflame, not calm, an already volatile situation, particularly over an issue like Jerusalem. That public opinion is now going to be more influential in shaping the foreign policy of a country like Egypt will only keep the pot boiling.
The second group of demons consists of the great Western powers that have been intervening in this region for centuries. The Arabs have legitimate grievances against them. The history of this region is a running commentary of outside forces trying to impose themselves on smaller tribes for economic, religious and strategic reasons.
But at what point do the Arabs stop blaming the West and their intelligence agencies for much of what ails them? Is there an expiration date on the evils of the colonial legacy? When will polls taken in the Arab world find that a majority believes that it was indeed Al Qaeda that attacked America on 9/11 and not Israel’s Mossad or even America’s CIA; or failing that, that Al Qaeda is a creation of the CIA? Will America always be a convenient excuse to shift responsibility from the Arabs’ own incompetence and inability to construct fully productive and functioning societies where human rights, rule of law, prosperity and security are available to the majority of their citizens?
Conspiracy theories infantilize and prevent individuals and nations from assuming responsibilities for dealing with their real problems. The Arab spring was a critical but excruciatingly painful beginning. For the Arabs, freeing themselves from their demons—both real and imagined—will be harder still.
Aaron David Miller is a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. He served as an adviser to Republican and Democratic secretaries of state on Arab-Israeli negotiations.