Good and Bad Arabs


by Carlos Alberto Montaner

Hundreds of thousands of dead and injured is an excessive carnage. Obama has asked the Egyptian military junta to exercise two virtues outside their culture and tradition of their country: tolerance and moderation. Although, the U.S. president also said his country could not and would not tell the Egyptians how they should conduct their internal affairs, that is precisely what he did. He requested free elections and a power limited by law.

Frankly, I find it very difficult to accommodate.

The United States, without a doubt, has been the most successful nation in the world throughout the twentieth century, and thus far through the current century. The republican experiment of the thirteen colonies, which in the late eighteenth century seemed bound to fail, resulted in an amazingly rich and strong country which is now the only superpower on earth. However, this phenomenon, although it is voluntarily imitable, it cannot be induced from the outside.

Contrary to what was happening in the country of Washington and Jefferson, what prevails among the Arab Islamists is not to limit the authority of government, protect individual rights and create power relations based on meritocracy and equality before the law (which are essential for tolerance and moderation), as established by the United States when it separated from England.

The conflict in the Arab scene is of another nature: to settle forcibly the deadly confrontation between secular dictatorships, generally anti-Western, which are considered progressive but with little progress, and supporters of oppressive theocratic model advocating the creation of a State governed by Islamic Sharia or the law established by the Koran, whose main objective, unfortunately, is to destroy the State of Israel and fight the infidels, whether Christians Copts or Lebanese Maronite.

It is, in short, a knife fight between secular, broncos, fierce and authoritarian military, with nationalist political ideas tinted by socialist superstitions, against religious ones with fantastic beliefs committed to Allah in submitting mankind to the authority of the Koran.

Therefore, for the rest of the world, who do not generally have to choose between liberal democrats and religious fundamentalists (that would be too easy), but between despotic military, usually corrupt and murderers, and religious fundamentalists, often aggressive and dangerous which often leads them to a slaughterhouses in which they are victims or perpetrators on behalf of the ultimate truth revealed to Muhammad in the desert.

In Washington they do not understand this fatal dilemma. Many politicians and officials suffer from ethnocentrism. They think that all countries can and ought to create a model chaired by individual liberty, served by a government controlled by the constitution and limited by checks and balances.

Actually, that formula is extraordinary, but for it to work, previously there has to be a society (or at least a ruling elite) willing to practice tolerance, defined as the decision to live peacefully with all that we do not like, to accept the authority of the law, to admit that our truths and beliefs are not unique and infallible, and exercise civic cordiality with an adversary whom we do not have to love, but it deserves our respect.

In Arab societies, those factors are exceptional. There are individuals who have that profile, and even they group in small institutions proclaiming those rules. I've known liberal Moroccans, Syrians, Lebanese and Tunisians, which makes me think that it should also be individuals and groups like that in Egypt and in other Arab geographies, but they lack enough weight to turn their countries into the direction that Americans adopted on July 4, 1776 in Philadelphia.

Until a change in values occurs, it is naive to try to choose between "good" and "bad” Arab rulers. The alternative is much more agonizing.