Sunday, May 30, 2004

About an exhortation to reclaim souls!

An earthquake once again exacts a heavy toll on this ancient nation of ours. It affected a vast terrain violently shaking 10 states causing damages in about 4000 houses, killing 40, and injuring 270. The sudden, unexpected disasters and the prospect of violent death have a way of shaking (what little) confidence (there is) in the future. Most people have been edgy and fearful. Rumors are circulating in abundance. Some spent the night outside in the parks or in their cars.

Just as we have come to expect natural disasters and man made catastrophes to wreak havoc on our existence, so too have we come to count on the gloating of some in the English speaking world of the Americas. It doesn’t really matter what does the killing--tornado, flood, or a quake. Just so long as there is devastation and death, there are those ready to make ghoulish, callous, hurtful, bigoted remarks. To interpret the expressed emotions as schadenfreude is to assume a gravitas these morons sorely lack.

I was thinking about our future as I confronted the recently released Amnesty International Report 2004. The content could have been inferred on the basis of all that has transpired lately. The reaction of the much obsessed about nebulous “streets,” be they Arab, American, or Iranian is going to be predictable enough. These main streets normally articulate what we find aplenty on the information superhighway: hot air and venom.

An Abu Ghuraib, or lest we forget our very own Evin prison, might indeed at some point be demolished. I would prefer to see them preserved as reminders of our collective brutalities. Societies not vigilant in defense of Rights—their own or those of others—quickly degenerate into a fellowship of beings who live immured within an Abu Ghuraib of imagination. You only need a week or so living here to get a better sense for what I am talking about. But again, where you presently live might actually do the trick.

Read the segment of the report dealing with the Iranian abuses here. Expect the usual stuff: arbitrary detentions, harassments of dissenters’ families, executions, beatings, flogging, amputations, and yes, even 4 cases of stoning. Only tip of the iceberg.

Different modalities of power do what they must to preserve their hold on life absent our persistent, successful interventions. Unfortunately, I think, their best allies are normally those amongst us who insist on treating each instance of abuse as an occasion to revel in the perceived “hypocrisy” of their imagined interlocutors.

These shortsighted persons forget what the likes of La Rochefoucauld tried to teach us long ago: “L’hypocrisie est un hommage que le vice rend à la vertu.” Their enterprise, by undermining our confidence in virtues in toto, weakens our collective defenses against indecencies-- thus destroying our best hope for forging a better future. They play their part in ensuring that inertia and cynicism contribute to perpetuating our grief.

I have in mind the issues that arise from the rhetoric of those who choose to hide behind the babble of “moral equivalency.” The notion has always struck me as particularly noxious. I am concerned in particular with a recently published exhortation to “Arabs and Muslims” to “reclaim their souls.”

Meyrav Wurmser, a senior fellow and director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the Hudson Institute, writes with much intensity about our pathetic state of affairs around these parts. In one sense, it is hard to argue with her acute observations. At a more fundamental level and in the long run, however, I think the myopia evident in this particular piece published in National Review might do more damage to the prospect of a more civil future than what the murderous Usama and his thugs can accomplish through brutality and fanaticism.

Dr. Wurmser writes:

It now has become clear that we are confronted with a deep malady. So many years of corruption, despotism, and tyranny — not just a century of Arab ideologies, but also centuries of Ottoman imperial rule and centuries of Arab tyrannies before that — have distorted, even sickened, Arab societies.

By choosing to frame what is in actuality a multifaceted conflict of political nature in terms of “sickness” and “malady,” Wurmser is pathologizing political adversaries. This is no simple matter of demonizing an enemy which we may have come to expect in times of strife. This is far too pernicious. She should know better.

If the history of Ottoman imperialism and Arab tyrannies is a fair context for the discussion, then we should naturally remind ourselves as well of the history of the particularly odious rhetoric of sickness/health of the political body. Political conflicts have solutions. Sick bodies have treatments—occasionally of the type some have been dispassionately debating of late.

To pose the question in terms of the “sickness” of Arab and Muslim societies obviously brings to mind also those moments of “virile” responses in restoring “health” –you know, the one too many embarrassing moments western civilization has had to contend with. Need I remind anyone of the rough geography of say Mussolini’s movement, the Stalinist Gulags and Psychiatry wards, as well as Auschwitz and Dachau? The Armenian genocide would be, I suppose, what we should never lose sight of. Now that is more within our geography proper.
Dr. Wurmser of this peculiar piece is simply flabbergasting to me:

This is now more than a struggle for Arab and Muslim freedom; it is a struggle for Arabs and Muslims to reclaim their souls, and it can only be decided within their own societies. It is up to the Arabs and the Muslims of the Middle East to decide not whether they want to be a part of modern, Western society, but whether they want to be a part of the civilized world. Now is their moment of truth.

Wurmser’s “moment of truth” is an old, tired and painful one. Doesn’t Wurmser realize that—even with the occasional half hearted, unpersuasive qualification in form of a “Middle East” added here, or a “silent minority” inserted there—if one billion, some odd million “Arabs and Muslims” were to need to collectively reclaim their souls given their bewildering heterogeneity—cultural, ethnic, religious, and individual, what basis would there be for a critique of the position of those who peddle the notion of a conspiracy of 12 million? What hope is there of questioning the shameful views held in Iran, for instance, about our Afghan refugees of about one and a half million?

Frankly, I am not in the position to judge the needs of a Wurmser soul. All I can tell her is that her soul’s chariot isn’t exactly heading in the right direction.

Dr. Wurmser may find, I trust, the companions she is to encounter on this particular journey utterly loathsome.


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