The West, the Arabs, and the Real Qaddafi

February 28, 2011 Topic: SecuritySociety Region: Northern AfricaLibyaMiddle East

The West, the Arabs, and the Real Qaddafi

At last, this tyrannical and downright mad leader is on the way out.

I have always believed that the Islamic Arab world was peculiarly resistant to Western ideas and the winds of change that blew in, over the centuries, from France, Britain and the United States. After World War II, Japan and Germany – admittedly conquered – changed; other countries – South Korea, Siam, much of Latin America – gradually bowed before what the West had to offer.

But not the Arab world. Building blocks, social, political, ideological and psychological, of that world – the grip of an absolutist Islam, the desert of vast, uneducated masses, the weight of unreformed tradition, tribal hierarchies and affiliations – all somehow conspired to bar the penetration of all those good ideas that the West has given the rest of the world since the Renaissance or, at least, since the French Revolution: democracy, liberalism, tolerance, individual worth, human rights, egalitarianism (including equality for women and homosexuals), etc.

But Western technological advances – expressed in the spread of television, internet, cheap travel – have at last succeeded, it seems, in carrying these ideas across seas and mountains and breaking down the opaque walls surrounding the Muslim Arab world. Maybe the biblical metaphor of Jericho is apt, of trumpets proclaiming ideas circumambulating the walls and gradually cracking them, until they have tumbled. At least some of the Arabs, the better educated, middle class youngsters, seem to have bought into the message from the West.

But there is a paradox embedded at the heart of the past months' revolutions around the Arab world. Until now, it has been exclusively pro-Western regimes being felled by these Western ideas and technologies. And this is both good and bad. Yes, the voice of the people should be heard and should carry the day; vox populi, vox dei. But one wonders what the masses in each of the affected countries are actually saying and what they will say afterwards, after the dust settles, and beyond the mere fact of the toppling of the dictators.

And as an Israeli, let me put the cards on the table, face up, this question mark deeply worries me. The early omens from Egypt, the flagship of the Arab world, have not been encouraging, with the interim military regime unwilling to commit itself explicitly to the 1979 peace treaty with Israel; with the continued severance of the gas pipeline from Egypt to Israel, which in recent years has supplied Israel with a substantial amount of its energy needs; and with loud voices, Islamist and secular, proclaiming in Egypt the need to review the relations with Israel. Not least among these voices is that of the Muslim preacher, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has just returned to Egypt. He is a traditional foe of Israel and the West, an anti-Semite and supporter of suicide bombings in the vast land mass between Iraq and Palestine.

Nonetheless, there are also one or two positive signs. At last, one thing unquestionably, unambivalently good is coming out of the Arab world, something praiseworthy and marvellous. At last, the Libyan people, after forty years of tyranny by their mad, bad leader, Muammar Qaddafi, he of Lockerbie fame and a dozen other acts of mass terrorism and belligerency, have risen and are busy ousting his regime. Needless to say, the Obama Administration has been hesitant in the extreme when it came to this particular dictatorship (in complete contrast with Obama's personal forwardness and forthrightness a few weeks earlier in demanding the removal of America's longtime ally, Mubarak of Egypt. It is unclear what motivated Washington's enduring passivity in face of the Libyan turmoil.)

And, of course, the US was not alone. The Arab world – as embodied in the Arab League – for decades, perhaps not happily, covered and apologised for this bizarre creature, pardoning his barbarism and ignoring his laughable, and sometimes deadly, quirks. Of course, his fellow Arab leaders, to a man, had all tortured and jailed and murdered their opponents. Still, in many ways Qaddafi outdid them. His Green Book was full of gibberish, rivalled in nonsense only by Mao's Red Book; he wore weird hats and large dark sunglasses and had a constant three-day bristle (in this he seems to have consciously aped Yasser Arafat). And, of course, Qaddafi – of beduin extraction - made a point of living (or at least appearing to live) in a tent in the backyard of one of his palaces (and in New York City and other places; tents have the virtue of travelling well).

Which reminds me of a story a fine, young journalist once told me about her experiences in Tripoli. It was in the 1980s, I think. She had come to interview Qaddafi. She was ushered into the famous tent. Qaddafi sent his aides away and the two of them shared lunch. And then Qaddafi tried to caress her. Flustered, she got up to leave. He then chased her around the table, bent on rape. She was brave and apparently fit; she outran him, at least long enough for his aides to rush in at the sound of her screams. Rape averted.

It is a shame journalists did not usually publish their impressions of and experiences with Qaddafi. This no doubt facilitated Western and Arab acceptance of cooperation with this almost unique, base specimen of humanity (perhaps Saddam Hussein came closest).