During the last few months of fury in Iran, there were reports, during the earliest phase — when all kinds of people made confident predictions about the inevitable victory of those they deemed the Forces of Good — about Iranian protesters asking “armed men” if they could speak Farsi, or if they spoke it, but with an Arab accent. This was not an idle question. Every Iranian inside Iran, and every Iranian in exile from the Islamic Republic of Iran, knows that Yassir Arafat and the PLO gave indispensable help to the Ayatollah Khomeini and his supporters in Iran. They helped to train and arm Khomeini’s men, and Khomeini never forgot this aid. When he came to power, his first foreign visitor was Yassir Arafat. And the love affair between the “Palestinians” and the Islamic Republic of Iran has continued until today.
Nor was it surprising to read about “Arabs” — usually thought to be members of Hizballah — who collaborated with the indigenous Bassiji to attack protesters, including the several thousand who had gathered at Sadeghieh Square. There were also reports about Arabs from Hizballah attacking Iranian protesters in Tajrish Square.
We on the outside have no way of knowing if these reports are true. And in a sense, the very fact of such reports is what is telling, not their accuracy. For Iranian protesters, who essentially constitute the more enlightened half of Iranian society, are well aware of the role that Arabs have played in helping to bring the Ayatollah Khomeini, and his regime, and his hanging judge Khalkhali, and his mullahs, and his Ahmadinejads, and all the rest of them who have made Iran such a hell for those who can think and feel during the past 30 years.
For there is a natural and never-concealed antipathy by Iranians toward Arabs. And one cannot help noticing that this antipathy is both deep and wide, and that it surely has something to do with resentment over people seen as being more primitive attempting to impose their customs, their manners, to spread their cultural and linguistic imperialism, to an obviously (to Iranians) more civilized people. Much of Iranian identity centers on a prideful sense of Iran as quite different from, and superior to, the Arabs, and a keen awareness that it was Iranian poets who, through their verbal art, saved the Persian language from disappearing. Iranians resent being led to think of themselves, as so many other ancient peoples in the Middle East and North Africa were led to think of themselves, as Arabs.
During the last few years the natural antipathy of Iranians to Arabs — viewed as “primitive” desert people — has not gone away but has, in fact, grown. And even if Ahmadinejad and his collaborators wish, somehow, to become plus royalists que le roi, aiding Hizballah and even Sunni Hamas, and threatening to destroy Israel and working to acquire the nuclear weapons that might make such destruction possible, many Iranians have no desire to “lead the world of Arab Islam.” They resent, above all, the money lavished on what advanced Iranians see more as an Arab than as an Islamic cause.
And there are a series of competing claims that keep alive Arab resentment of the Iranians, and Iranian resentment of the Arabs. There has been, for example, fury in Iran over the attempt, not entirely unsuccessful, of the Gulf Arabs to have what was always known as the Sinus Persicus, the Persian Gulf, renamed as the “Arabian Gulf.” The Arabs, you see, do not limit their toponymic appropriations only to Jerusalem (“Al-Quds”) or Judea and Samaria (“the West Bank”). And the Iranians have laid claim not only to three islands — Lesser and Greater Tunb, and Musa — also claimed by the Arabs (in this case, the United Arab Emirates), but one high Iranian official indiscreetly declared that Bahrain was the fourteenth province, the once and future province, of Iran. Since 75% of the population of Bahrain consists of Shi”a, many of them Iranian in origin, and since Bahrain is ruled by a Sunni sheikh who is worried about a Shi”a takeover, most likely with Iranian help, this too has not helped Iranian-Arab relations.
And yet another source of friction and resentment has been the clear understanding, by Iranians, that despite their economic troubles, they have been paying and paying for Arabs — the Arabs of Hizballah and, in Gaza more recently, even for members of what is the all-Sunni Hamas. Both groups have provoked, in their own ways, Israel into war, wars during which billions of dollars worth of Iranian-supplied weaponry may have been destroyed, and now the re-equipping of both Hamas and Hizballah is costing Iran a great deal at a time when economic sanctions and the decline in the price of oil are making everyone in Iran more aware of this expense. When one hears Iranians opposed to this policy speak, they do not openly declare, especially to Westerners, their hostility to the Arabs or fury that Iranian money is sent to support the “Palestinian” cause. Instead, they say such things as “we have to take care of ourselves first.” The fact that the rich Arabs are not contributing to their fellow Arabs as much as Iran now does is not lost on the Iranians who are opposed to Ahmadinejad or, as now seems more likely, to the entire edifice of the Islamic Republic of Iran — with some even taking that moral and intellectual advance one step further, all the way to doubts about Islam itself.
When Iranians, like Turks, tell visiting Westerners most insistently that “we are not Arabs,” they are indicating that they do not wish to be taken for Arabs, that they are quite different from, more civilized then, altogether superior to, “the Arabs.” Few Iranians, even those most devoutly Muslim, would quarrel with that idea. And it is a source of pride, for all but the most fanatical Muslims among Iranians, that Iran has a much older civilization, which means a pre-Islamic civilization, and the monuments, and the history, to prove it. When Iranians speak about Persian poetry, about Sa”adi and Hafiz and Firdowsi and Omar Khayyam, they are not merely expressing an interest in prosody and literary criticism, but making a statement of civilisational pride. And the pride is that, alone among the peoples conquered by Islam in the Middle East and Central Asia, Iranians managed to withstand best what many Iranians in exile — for example, Azar Nafisi in her talks and readings in college towns — call, sarcastically, the “gift of the Arabs” that was brought, they hasten to add to make sure their audience takes their point, by “Arab conquerors.”
To Iranians, it appears that the Arabs “conquered” a more ancient and more advanced civilization. This happens to be not only true, but also salutary for Iranians trying to tame, or constrain, or even to throw off, Islam. That Firdowsi helped to preserve Farsi through his national epic, the Shahnameh, may or may not be true, but it is another widespread belief that is both telling, and useful. Sa”adi, Hafiz, and Omar Khayyam (the poet and mathematician whose fame in the West, because of Edward FitzGerald’s translation, surprises Iranians) are all poets whose wine, women, and song are antithetic to the spirit of, and often violate the letter of, Islam. And Persian miniatures — what are they if not a violation of both the spirit and letter of Islam, with its ban on artistic renderings of human forms? (Though it has been argued that for mythological figures, an exemption ought to be recognized.) Save for a dozen or so mosques, everything that makes Iranian civilization interesting and memorable has been created not because of Islam, but despite Islam.
The Shah was vainglorious. The Shah was corrupt. The Shah’s courtiers were often corrupt. But compared to what followed the Shah, he was akin to Winston Churchill. He gave non-Muslim minorities full legal equality. He did what he could to improve, within the Islamic context, the condition of women. He, who had been educated at Le Rosey, and spoke perfect French, and admired and looked to Europe, was in many ways about as ideal a despot — he was that, as well, a despot — as advanced Iranians could have hoped for. But they wanted more and, as they found to their own subsequent horror, they wanted too much, they expected too much. Just as advanced Russians who detested the decay of the Tsarist court came to rue their failure to allow a complete crushing of Bolshevism when there was still time, many Iranians in exile, who had opposed the Shah, must by now have had to admit, if only to themselves, that they misunderstood their own country, and what was possible, and did not sufficiently understand that, since always and everywhere the great masses are primitive, in a Muslim country the great masses are primitive and Muslim, and that is a dangerous mix.
Among those who protested the election, and who appeared to be endorsing the not-very-impressive Moussavi — whose record does not bear looking into if one wishes to continue to think of him, Moussavi, as a champion of freedom, when he has been, in the past, among the sinister participants in the regime established by the Ayatollah Khomeini, there must surely be those who have now moved on. They have moved on not merely to another champion — the more acceptable, less compromised Karroubi (remember, only four candidates, out of hundreds who presented themselves, were allowed to run for office) — but they have also moved on to a realization that the problem is not with this or that rigged election or this or that mullah or ayatollah, but rather with the Islamic Republic and Islam itself. In the freedom of the West, many Iranian exiles, especially if they were already secular in Iran, have become Muslims-for-identification-purposes-only Muslims. Some, such as Ali Sina and Amil Imani, are open apostates who work to de-Islamize their own benighted countries of origin.
Is there nothing the American and other Western governments can do to help demoralize those who adhere to Islam, and in so doing, to weaken the threat? Why should not Western peoples, and then those who claim to represent them, learn enough about Islam to be able, with confidence, to write and speak about the following proposition?
“The failures, political, economic, social, intellectual, and moral, of Muslim peoples and polities, are a direct result of Islam itself. The view of man as a mere “˜slave of Allah” who must obey unquestioningly what Allah set out in the Qur’an (as glossed, for many Muslims, by the Sunnah), and of the ideal state as expressing the will not of a collection of puny mortals, these “˜slaves of Allah,” but rather of the Will of Allah as expressed in the Qur’an, explains the great difficulty of bringing democratic or representative government to any country where Muslims live and Islam dominates.”
Similarly, Muslims — Iranians too — must again and again be informed that it is Islam itself that helps to explain the poor economic performance of Muslim states. That some of those states are fabulously rich has nothing to do with any conceivable entrepreneurial flair or hard work by its populace, but is a result merely of the oil revenues that have come to such states, the result of an accident of geology. In fact, the amazing thing about the oil money — more than twelve trillion dollars have gone to the Muslim members of OPEC since 1973 alone — is how very little real economic development has been the result. In the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, foreigners still do all the work. At the lowest level, of day laborers and workers on job sites, there are Pakistanis and Indians. The domestic help (and sex slaves) consist of Filipino, Thai, and other women. The contractors for buildings are South Korean. At the top are the Europeans and North Americans. There are also non-local Arabs, who can sometimes get a cut of the real wealth if they are well connected. In Saudi Arabia more than half the workforce is foreign, and the foreigners are mostly non-Muslims. Elsewhere the percentages are even higher. In the U.A.E., for example, 90% of the workforce consists of foreigners. But all attempts to diversity away from oil — such as those famous Saudi attempts to become self-sufficient in food — have failed. Why is it that despite this fabulous oil wealth, so few of the Muslim oil states have managed, during the past forty years or so, to create modern economies?
Much of the answer must surely be found in Islam. In Islam, the inshallah-fatalism that is reinforced in every conversation, the deep belief that everything has been decided, or can be decided, according to the whim of Allah, is unlikely to put people in the frame of mind that hard work will pay off. If Allah can whimsically decide to reward this person, and take away from that, then the kind of sustained effort that in the West, or in the Far East, can ordinarily be expected is achieved only rarely, and with great difficulty. And Islam abhors innovation, or “bida,” whereas modern economies rely on constant “creative destruction” (as the Schumpeterian phrase famously puts it), and a willingness to find new inventions, and new ways of manufacturing, and new ways to distribute goods or offer services. Muslim minds, having been inculcated against the dangers of “bida,” are unlikely to limit their ingrained distrust of “innovation” to religious matters.
Similar arguments can be made for the social failures of Islamic societies, where women are clearly treated as inferiors, and non-Muslims are, even in the absence of a formal system of dhimmitude, in many ways still subjected to all sorts of legal and extra-legal disabilities, following the spirit if not always the letter of the Shari”a. This does not make Muslim societies attractive to non-Muslims, who will endure them only if very well paid. In the case of indigenous non-Muslims, their numbers are constantly falling — see the population figures for Christians in the Arab countries of the Middle East. And it is they who in Iraq, in Egypt, in Lebanon, in Syria, constitute a much larger percentage of the educated classes, including doctors and engineers. Their abandonment of the Middle East causes economic harm to the Muslims who, through mistreatment of them, have made their flight humanly understandable. Women, meanwhile, are often denied even the most elementary schooling (see what the Taliban are doing in Afghanistan). Even where they have managed to obtain schooling, they labor under Islamic restrictions. Some Muslim women, in a renewed fanaticism, willingly embrace what an earlier and more enlightened generation rejected, and in the West, some Muslim women become fanatical defenders of Islam, even praising the clothing that they are forced to wear as a welcome “portable seclusion.”
The moral failures of Islam come from the belief-system itself, which rests on a division of all of humanity between Muslim and non-Muslim, and posits a state of permanent war or hostility, if not always open warfare, between the two, as long as non-Muslims insist on retaining some obstacles to the spread, and then the dominance, of Islam. And that moral failure, whereby loyalty toward fellow Muslims, members of the Umma, is encouraged or required, while hostility toward non-Muslims, no matter how kind or generous or welcoming or helpful they have been, is also inculcated, is compounded by the fact that there is no moral development among Believers. They are not encouraged to question. They are told that their duty is simply to obey the laws of Islam, not to question them in any way, and to remember that Allah Knows Best.
Finally, since Islam depends for its strength on a Total System, one in which a seventh-century Arab, Muhammad, is held up as the Model of Conduct (uswa hasana), the Perfect Man (al-insan al-kamil), for all time, and since everything pre-Islamic is dismissed as coming from a time of Jahiliyya, and everything that is outside Islam denounced as well as essentially without deep worth, intellectual development, and intellectual performance, is stunted. Islam stunts both moral and mental growth, and the past 1350 years provide evidence for that assertion.
Why should not the Americans, or Iranians in exile who have had it with Islam, and wish to shake its hold on the mind of Iranians, not adduce these facts and arguments, in the radio broadcasts beamed into Iran, in writing on the Internet, and in conversations with Iranians who might be willing to reconsider the supposed wonderfulness of Islam? After all, the resentment toward the Arabs, the description of their “gift of Islam” coming with the Arab conquerors and imposed on the superior but weakened Iranians, need not be created by the Americans or other Infidels. It already exists.
When the Arabs arrived in Iran, fully aware that the Qur’an says “much booty hath God promised you, and ye shall have it,” they laid waste as much as they could. An Arab historian, writing of the early conquests in the Middle East, described it thus: “The Believers smote and slaughtered until the going down of the sun”¦.And the fear of the Arabs fell upon all kings.”
And when the slaughter was done in Iran, in what had been the Sassanid Empire, Arab emissaries reported on the Arab victory over the Persians: “Good news — the Persians have given us the soil of their country.”
This is, for us, old news. But for history-haunted Middle Easterners as the Iranians are, it remains a constant source of fresh resentment. The American government should not deplore the Iranian resentment of Arabs, but see it as a point of purchase, and use also the argument that with islamization arabization will sooner or later almost inevitably follow. American officials should point out that even though the Iranians successfully fended off, a millennium ago, the first attempt at arabization, the men from the lower depths — intellectually speaking — of Iranian society (and what else is Ahmadinejad and his ilk?) are now trying yet again to arabize the country, and they are doing this because they are fanatical Muslims, and that is exactly what fanatical Muslims would naturally do.
In the Wall Street Journal, Fouad Ajami — the name “Ajami” may indicate a remote-in-time connection to “Ajam” or Persia — wrote about “Autocracy and the Arabs” (WSJ, August 5, 2009). Though he was good and truth-telling in his description, as always Ajami backed away from discussing Islam. He can’t bring himself to discuss Islam, to discuss what it does, has done, to the minds of its adherents. Fouad Ajami can never write directly about Islam in the way that the outspoken apostates, such as Wafa Sultan and Ibn Warraq, are able to do. Nor, of course, can he take advantage of the to-the-manner-born taken-for-granted mental freedom that you and I as advanced Western non-Muslims possess as our birthright, dear reader.
Here’s an example of what Ajami can and can not do:
We are now in the midst of one of those periodic autopsies of the Arab condition. The trigger is the publication last month of the Arab Human Development Report 2009, the fifth of a series of reports by the by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) on the state of the contemporary Arab world.
The first of these reports, published in 2002, was treated with deference. A group of Arab truth-tellers, it was believed, had broken with the evasions and the apologetics to tell of the sordid condition of Arab society””the autocratic political culture, the economic stagnation, the cultural decay. So all Arabs combined had a smaller manufacturing capacity than Finland with its five million people, and a vast Arabic-speaking world translated into Arabic a fifth of the foreign books that Greece with its 11 million people translates. With all the oil in the region, tens of millions of Arabs were living below the poverty line.
Little has altered in the years separating the first of these reports from the most recent. A huge oil windfall came into the region, and it was better handled, it has to be conceded, than earlier oil windfalls. But on balance the grief of the Arabs has deepened, and the autocracies are yet to be brought to account. They remain unloved, but they remain in the saddle.
He tells home truths. The “Arab condition” is that of death-in-life, and the Arab Development Report is properly described by him as an “autopsy.” He explains that the Arab condition remains largely what it had been reported as being seven years ago: “the autocratic political culture, the economic stagnation, the cultural decay.” He notes that all the Arabs combined manufacture less than Finland (“with its five million people”), that the Arabs, though there are 360 million of them, translate a fifth of the books that are translated in Greece, with its 11 million people.
But note what he does not do. He, Fouad Ajami, never offers an explanation for the continued autocracies, in the Arab countries, and in almost all of the non-Arab Muslim countries. He does not attempt to explain what it is about Islam, and what it teaches, and the kind of people it produces, that makes autocracy the natural condition of Arab and other Muslim societies. He notes the economic underdevelopment (cf. Finland) but offers no explanations as to why, with all the capital in the world, none of the Arab states has managed to create a modern economy, and why they all rely either on oil wealth or, in some cases, on either dollars from tourism (which only requires sun, sand, and the odd pyramid or Sphinx), or foreign aid from Infidels that is received, and now also given, in a spirit remarkably reminiscent of the classic Jizyah. And from Infidels.
He never gets to this. He never supplies anything like an explanation. He quotes Arab proverbs. He alludes to how the Arab “states have failed.” He writes such things as “[t]he simple truth is that the Arab world has terrible rulers and worse oppositionists. There are autocrats on one side and theocrats on the other. A timid and fragile middle class is caught in the middle between regimes it abhors and Islamists [the only time the word “Islam” appears in the whole article] it fears.
But Ajami never goes further. He never gives us what we are justified in asking of any commentator who wishes to be more than a mere reporter: why? Why has this happened? Is it accidental, or is it attributable to something to which the Arabs are inextricably bound, which influences them, which enslaves them even if they force themselves to believe it is their major glory, something that they cannot possibly modify, or jettison, or betray?
It was good, of course, to see that Ajami has Obama’s number. Obama, of course, is the man who has degrees, but is not well educated, especially about history. He is so full of his own story that he has spent the last 20 years preparing, and then describing, that he had no time to give himself a schooling, through reading, in the things we now see he desperately needed to learn, but never did. That is why he remains a dangerous naÃ¯f when it comes to the great world, a world where well-meaning community organizers have far less place than Barack Obama appears to believe. Ajami says:
In his fashion (and in the fashion of their [Arab] world and their leaders, it has to be said) President Obama gave the Arabs a speech in Cairo two months ago. It was a moment of theatre and therapy. The speech delivered, the foreign visitor was gone. He had put another marker on the globe, another place to which he had taken his astounding belief in his biography and his conviction that another foreign population had been wooed by his oratory and weaned away from anti-Americanism.
But let’s come back now, to the theme with which this article, and Ajami’s Wall Street Journal article, too, began: the enormous differences between the Arabs and the Iranians. Ajami focused on Arab amazement and envy:
“It made me feel so jealous,” said Abdulmonem Ibrahim, a young Egyptian political activist, of the recent upheaval in Iran. “We are amazed at the organization and speed with which the Iranian movement has been functioning. In Egypt you can count the number of activists on your hand.” This degree of “Iran envy” is a telling statement on the stagnation of Arab politics.
But why, Fouad Ajami, why? What is the conceivable reason for the very different behavior of Iranians and of Arabs? Why is there this political and economic and intellectual “stagnation” in the Arab world? Tell us what it is. Tell us what makes Arabs different from Iranians, and less likely to find their way out of their morass. Could it have something to do with the fact that the Arab ethnic identity, so strongly and pridefully held, reinforces Islamic identity, reinforces it so much that even many Christian Arabs identify with Islam and its causes? (The exceptions, of course, are those who, like the Maronites and Copts, are aware that they existed even before the real Arabs arrived bearing Islam, and do not consider themselves Arabs despite their Arab names, and their use of the Arabic language.) Such Christians share the Islamic desire to eliminate the nation-state of Israel. Such “Palestinian” “islamochristians” as Naim Ateek promote that desire.
What makes Arabs different from Iranians is the strength of their link to Islam. The Iranians have a secret mental weapon, one that right now, and in the future, will stand them in good stead. That weapon is their own past, their own pre-Islamic past, and the monuments, at Persepolis and elsewhere, that constantly remind them of that pre-Islamic past. And along with these imposing monuments, even those in ruin, there is the history of the Persians, and there is the history of Persian poetry, the poetry that helped Iranians, even after Islam was brought by the Arab conquerors, to resist that inevitable accompaniment of islamization, what may be called arabization.
It is hard to know how, from the outside, or even from the inside of Iran, how many in Iran are now fed up not only with the regime, but beginning to be fed up with Islam itself. Unlike the Arabs, the “first” among the Muslims and yet, in the end, the unluckiest of the Muslims because they are the “first” victims of Islam, who have no other identity to appeal to, the Iranians have that pre-Islamic or non-Islamic or anti-Arab identity to appeal to, and they are reminded of this, every time they visit a monument or a city identified with the Persian past, or read Firdowsi’s Shahnameh, or love-verses, with bulbuls and roses, in a mythical Gulistan, by Sa”adi or Hafiz or someone with a loaf of bread, and a jug of wine and, quite possibly, an imaginary thou with whom the reader can identify, far from the hanging gardens and present-day nightmare that Khomeini, and the truest Believers, brought to Iran more than thirty years ago.