David Remnick's Arab world
[ politics - november 04 ]
David Remnick's "Letter from Cairo" (The New Yorker, July 12 & 19, is well-polished but not memorable. It's one of many recent articles offering their readers the lowdown on Egypt, more moderate and noncommittal than some of its counterparts. This very moderation and the quality of its author's work make its flaws - so typical of Western writing on the Middle East - all the more telling. His piece is a perfect example of how well-intentioned, reasonably unbiassed, normally conscientious observers can get the Middle East badly wrong. The reason is not that they are prejudiced. The reason is that they misunderstand or delude themselves about their own societies.
Remnick started out as a sports writer and has written a terrific, carefully researched book on Mohammed Ali. Lenin's Tomb, an earlier book on the fall of the Soviet Union, won a Pulitzer Prize. Remnick was living there at the time, his parents were Russian, and he speaks the language. He shows no sign of speaking Arabic or having lived in Egypt, much less of having relatives who come from there.
Remnick seems to feel he consulted a wide range of sources: "I had dozens of meetings in Cairo - with government officials, religious leaders, opposition figures, intellectuals, students, working people - and nearly every session began with a speech on the perfidy of the Bush Administration." If Remnick talked to any 'working people' other than writers and politicians - if he talked to farmers, street sweepers, shopkeepers, small businessmen, secretaries, policemen - we don't hear about it. These sorts of people, as you would expect, often do not speak English. They certainly don't speak English as well as Tariq, who writes "articles - fairly incendiary articles - for an Islamic Web site." Tariq's English is so good that Remnick at first "was sure that he was American". They talked at the Café Cilantro.
Remnick did some homework, especially on the history of the Muslim Brotherhood. But what possessed him to think he could give us the low-down on Egypt? Yet he does think this. He piece is subtitled 'GOING NOWHERE', followed by a summary line: "In Mubarak's Egypt, democracy is an idea whose time has not yet come."
No doubt most Egyptians would agree that Egypt is going nowhere, and no doubt Remnick thinks he has made Herculean efforts to avoid condescension. But why would he suppose that he understood a country from talking to its English-speakers, surfin' the net, and meeting with a guy who "has very short hair'" and "stylish rectangular glasses" at the Café Cilantro? Why didn't Remnick's intelligence, moderation and diligence rein him in?
Remnick's conclusions help to explain his overconfidence. "Going Nowhere" is not his own categorization. It is that of "Hisham Kassem, the head of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights and the publisher of the English-language magazine The Cairo Times". Kassem supports the US invasion of Iraq. He's apparently waiting for an encore: "All those arguments about how you can't bring democracy in on the wings of a B-52 are garbage... Egyptian brutality will not change and neither will the apathy of the people. Change in the Middle East will be slow, but we needed the air cover. There was no way we could have done this on our own. We were going nowhere." Like Michael Ignatieff, he believes that democracy and human rights grow out of the barrel of a gun. "Twenty-two Arab League states," he says, "all authoritarian. For decades, the Middle East has been kept in a political deep freeze. People flee from here: the crime, the fundamentalism, the brutality. There is no growth rate, no acceptable governmental or economic management. Nothing short of a military intervention could have exerted any political pressure on the region. It's the only solution, the only lesser among many evils." His disgust with the Arab world makes him say some odd things. Crime, for instance, is far, far lower in the Arab world than in the US. (In Egypt the 1994 crime rate per 100,000 was 37; in the US, 5,375.) Jordan is written off because it is 'banal'.
In adopting Kassem's two-word verdict on Egypt, Remnick notices that his pro-American source is an 'exception'. If Remnick wanted to take his cue from an 'exception', he needn't have left home: the keyboards of pet Moslems and 'Arabs' all over North America produce very similar material. He could have visited Irshad Manji, who like Tariq has very short hair and cool glasses, or Fuad Ajami, who cheers Bush on from the pages of the Wall Street Journal. But what is wrong with that? If Egyptians might generally agree that Egypt is going nowhere, mightn't Remnick have got it right?
One should suspect otherwise: how did a moderate like Remnick fall into bed with a guy who wants to bring on the B-52s? Remnick's frustration with Egypt also produces slanted coverage. He tells us, for example, about the antisemitic series broadcast on Egyptian "state-run" television and based on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. He does not tell us that "Al-Ahram, a newspaper that tends to reflect the government line", also cites the 'respected historian' Abdel-Wahab El-Messeri, who 'has written that referring to, or using, The Protocols in an attempt to combat the Zionist media "is unethical since it cannot be validated by any historical research, Arab or otherwise".' Some ideological disease appears to have clouded the perceptions of Remnick and his pet Egyptian.
The problem may be both disturbing and surprising, but its source is not far to seek: Remnick and his pet both value democracy. Like Michael Ignatieff they seem to think that one ought to kill a lot of people to establish it. When it comes to democratic ideals, love of nuance yields to vulgar savagery. Much as Remnick would regret blowing the arms off a few Egyptians - hell, the place really does need to 'go somewhere'.
Remnick's sort of value-laden despair has been countered, in the West, by many writers at various points on the political spectrum. I hope most of their critiques are fairly represented by one or another of these statements:
1) "It's not for us to preach democracy to the Middle East, much less impose it there."<br/ 2) "You can't impose democracy on someone by armed force. People must make their own way."<br/ 3) "Some places just aren't suited for democracy."<br/ 4) "Before you can have democracy, you need a dictatorship which establishes human rights and/or the rule of law." 
The first is a standard left-wing response which is often accompanied by a catalogue of the numerous instances in which the US has undermined democratic régimes or movements. The second is a widely held liberal belief. The third is the view of right-wing Arabist Bernard Lewis. The fourth in effect suggests that Remnick doesn't go far enough: democracy requires not only transient 'air support' but open-ended dictatorship. It will come, if at all, only after a long period of fairly violent military occupation which will kick the Arabs into shape.
Yet all these responses hover close to the very condescension Remnick so unsuccessfully tries to avoid. The first hints that, were we pure enough, we could and indeed should preach democracy to the Middle East. (At best, it simply avoids the question of whether democracy ought to be imposed by changing the subject to whether we would be hypocritical to impose it.) The second sounds like good parenting advice: Timmy must learn for himself that people will not always find him cute. The third suggests that some people aren't fit to run their own affairs. The fourth advocates a brutal paternalism. These debate about democracy in the Arab world resembles a dinner conversation about some abstruse point of child psychology, one which ignores the child sitting at the table. Even those obsessed with American hypocrisy challenge only the seemliness rather than the democratic premises of the discussion.
It takes more than racism to explain this debate, because many comfortable, Westernized 'orientals' are only too happy to join in. Given its premises, in fact, the debate cannot be conducted without condescension. Once you value democracy, not in the abstract but as a real-world objective, you have to admit that Western societies, with their fair-ish elections and multiparty competitions, come far closer to your ideal than Middle Eastern societies. The Middle East (excepting Israel) must then be seen as 'going nowhere', not in a pleasantly lazy sense, but in the sense of a region locked into political infancy. This is what drives Remnick's rush to judgement. For economic stagnation, even for human rights violations, there may be excuses of a sort. Maybe Western neo-colonialism is to blame, maybe the threat of a fundamentalist revolt requires a harsh response. Mustn't one at least concede that even the West commits brutalities and has economic setbacks? But as for democracy, well, one just has to shake one's head.
One might reply that, if all this is so, the condescension is deserved. Some Middle Eastern people will agree: we are hopelessly childish, they will say. This is one of those deliberately self-refuting utterances by which comfortable political types distance themselves from the contempt they are supposedly distributing even-handedly. In this case, the contempt hits those who with more open condescension are called 'ordinary people' or 'the Arab street'. These are the very people so conspicuously absent from Remnick's report.
Yet the condescension is indeed undeserved. The failure of analysis that feeds it is not, in my inexpert opinion, primarily some misunderstanding of the Middle East. It lies elsewhere, in the assumptions that underlie the controversies about democracy in that region.
Anyone who compares cultures might do well to read Chomsky's lucid introduction to Language and Cognition, a short work by the Polish philosopher Adam Schaff. In it Chomsky criticized the linguistic theories of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Chomsky said that Whorf had missed something important about Hopi versus Western conceptions of the universe. Whorf had said, not only that the Hopi had a non-linear concept of time, but that this concept was embedded in the syntax of the Hopi language. Chomsky did not dispute Whorf's claims about the Hopi conception of time. He merely showed that, if close attention was paid to the grammar of Standard Average European, you didn't get anything like a linear conception of time. So while the two cultures did no doubt have different conceptions, the syntax of their languages was no place to look for that difference.
Chomsky's essay suggests that, when making cross-cultural comparisons, it is often one's own culture one gets wrong. The Middle Eastern 'experts' and the 'thoughtful' journalists have made just that mistake. They cluck over the Middle Eastern demo-sceptics and wonder what sickness in Islam or the Arab world produces such people. Or worse, they don't wonder at all, and prate on about all the terrible features of Middle Eastern society or culture or Islamic religion that stifle democracy. What makes this into nonsense is not that its proponents don't know the Middle East. It's rather that, when comparing cultures, they inexplicably adopt a Reader's Digest version of American democracy that they would never take seriously were they considering only the political culture of the United States.
The mistake has to do with assumptions about democracy shared by virtually all Western commentators on the Middle East, right across the political spectrum. Bush and Chomsky, for instance, both believe that democracy is a good thing and can make the world a better place. They agree that today it exists only in imperfect form, and not in underdeveloped countries. They don't like authoritarian régimes. Chomsky may detest the hypocrisy and dishonesty in America's pro-democracy rhetoric. But he and Bush agree, to a surprising extent, on both the nature and the desirability of true democracy'. They have the same criteria for free and fair elections - no stuffing of ballot boxes, no censorship, no banning of legitimate political parties, and so on - even if Bush would not admit that these critera are violated in, say, Mexico or Indonesia. They also think, of course, that fair and free elections are very important. To a disturbing extent, many leftists, if not Chomsky himself, would even agree with Bush on the use of force to further democratic objectives. If the UN decided, without American pressure, to have its troops overthrow some dictatorship and conduct truly democratic elections, what's the objection? Though leftists supposedly believe that true democracy requires certain types of social progress, in practice they would welcome such elections as an important step forward. And social progress without true democracy is far from good enough for them: witness Chomsky's discrete but acute distress about Cuba.  Democracy, which Marxists used to hold in contempt, is as admired on the left as on the right.
Where then is there dissent from this view? One place to find it is, of course, in the Middle East. I have some slight knowledge of 'ordinary' Egyptians, and I also listen to what they say about how most Middle Eastern people. There is no science here and no hard data, but their opinions seem worth considering.
Most Middle Eastern people, I am told, believe that the form of government - and therefore democracy - is relatively unimportant, because power always resides with the powerful. (Call these people demo-sceptics'.) This is not the tautology it may appear to be. Democratic ideology more or less presupposes something different: that power resides with the people, that is, that the weak and powerless are, together, quite strong. At least, believers in democracy hold that we really might come to live in such a world.
But is it really just Middle Easterners and other non-Western peoples who are sceptical about democracy? What about the majority of Americans? It seems quite possible that the whole spectrum of debate over democracy in the Middle East does not represent their views - that their views are right off that spectrum.
Many, perhaps most Americans, have little or no faith in democracy. This particular silent majority' is not necessarily stupid, naive, backward, downtrodden, or demoralized. These unbelievers need not be ignorant, untravelled or 'apathetic'. Often they consider politics very important and follow it closely, because its outcomes may affect their interests. They need not suppose that elections don't matter, or that all the parties are the same, or that an ordinary person can't come to have great power. They needn't even believe that instituting a democracy will make no difference: a democracy may be worthless yet favor one power élite over another. They simply don't think that ordinary individuals have much say in who gets elected or who gets to be powerful, because it is the powerful who control that.
They may well be right. Innumerable respected political scientists and sociologists have said for decades that there are ruling élites who, through media blitzes and other forms of electoral manipulation, tend to control what happens in politics. Even if these élites are not closed castes, ordinary individuals have little say: professional politicians call the shots. The tendency to form moneyed, institutionalized political blocs used to be called 'the spirit of party' and was condemned by George Washington in his farewell address. Political parties, in which both British and Americans once saw the death knell of democracy, are now so thoroughly accepted that we are no longer even aware of their acceptance.
There is no proof that most Americans feel this way, but voter participation rates do strongly suggest it. When Americans elect only congressmen and not a president, there has not been a majority participation rate in over sixty years, and since 1982 the figure falls below 40%. It is in electing members of congress, of course, that voters can have the most direct impact on the legislative process. In recent presidential election years, the participation rate is in the low 50s.
Even this may make confidence in the democratic system look too high. Many people vote, not because they think it will do any good, but because they think they have a duty to do so. Some think their vote matters, but only because it sustains the electoral system as a whole, not because they think they have any real chance of influencing events. Others think they can influence events, but only because the contest between two machines or élites is very close, not because they have any real voice in how those élites or machines will run the country. Still others vote just for the hell of it, as a sort of gesture, not because they have any hope of being heard. I have for a number of years taught courses in political philosophy and never found a single student - I've asked - who thinks their vote really counts. We don't know how many lovers of democracy are disenfranchised, but it does seem quite possible that a majority of Americans really do not believe in the system. They may be very dismayed at this, and therefore not at all 'apathetic'. What distinguishes them from Middle Eastern sceptics about democracy is not any faith in that form of government, but a lack of any conscious denial that the form of government matters. Americans rarely think in such terms because they are confident that their government will always be democratic, not because they think that government 'belongs to them'. I was not the first kid to think that the fine words about democracy and citizenship in civics class were a bunch of crap, and I certainly wasn't the last.
Very probably most Americans, like most Egyptians, feel that their country is Going Nowhere; that its civic culture is gravely ill and that true democracy has no real chance against the influence and meddling of political and social elites. Most Americans, like most Egyptians, don't see the next election as their big chance to fix what's wrong with the country, to bring steady employment, assured medical care, security against outside attack, lower crime rates, or anything else that really matters to them.
Of course there are differences between the outlook of most Americans and most Egyptians. Americans are not as openly cynical about democracy, perhaps out of reluctance to offend against what has become the centrepiece of official American ideology. Democracy is after all an American shibolleth; Egyptians are similarly reserved about the shibboleth of Arab unity.
There is another difference: quite a few Egyptians embrace the non-democratic objective of establishing an Islamic state. This is only to say that Egyptians, unlike Americans, still think they might break the power of entrenched élites. Islamic fundamentalism' is indeed Egypt's best hope of Going Somewhere: with Egyptian communism obliterated by Nasser and Egyptian socialism by Sadat, democracy doesn't seem likely to effect any great change in their lives. It is precisely because Americans share Egyptians' disillunsionment with democracy that Americans, not Egyptians, have such a widespread and profound sense of political failure. It is Americans, not Egyptians, who feel they will always be going nowhere, always be the playthings of their own entrenched élites.
1 Example of (1): Benjamin Barber<br/ Example of (2): Amitai Etzioni, and the debate at Frontpage<br/ Example of (3): Lewis in a 2002 Jerusalem Post interview, quoted by Ian Buruma in The New Yorker, June 14 & 21, 2004.<br/ Example of (4): Niall Ferguson, "'The Future of Freedom': Overdoing Democracy", New York Times April 13, 2003 and Michael Ignatieff's Empire Lite. [Back]