Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Want to understand Al-Qaeda? Here's a clue

Want to understand al-Qaeda? Who doesn't?
 Michael Totten interviewed Lee Smith concerning his new book: A Strong Horse. Lee Smith has a great insight. Smith seems to be saying that in the Middle East, the major political motivator is internal Middle East politics. The attacks on the United States by Al Qaeda and anti-Americanism in general are generated by the needs of Middle East regimes in the domestic and inter-Muslim arenas. Here's the heart of the argument:
MJT: The title of your book is The Strong Horse. Can you tell us exactly what that concept means?

Lee Smith: It comes from Osama Bin Laden's observation that when people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse. I know this idea will be confused with the notion that Arabs understand only force, an idea often, and incorrectly, attributed to the Bush administration. It is useful to recall that throughout history most of mankind has "understood" force. Those lucky few who are fortunate enough to be able to live their political lives free of the fear of violence are largely concentrated in the capitals of contemporary Western Europe and along the east and west coasts of the United States, who not coincidentally happen to make up the primary audience I was writing for, so I wanted to explain that the inhabitants of the Arabic-speaking Middle East are not as fortunate as we are. To say that Lebanon is held at gunpoint by an armed gang, or that Lebanese journalists are assassinated for their work, Syrian intellectuals and Egyptian rights activists are typically thrown in prison and tortured, and regional minorities like the Shia, Druze, Alawi, Christians, Kurds and Jews have often been the target of purges and political violence all in the name of Arab nationalism, a corporatist ideology that seeks to erase communal as well as individual difference, is not to say that Arabs only understand force, but that violence is a central factor in Arab political life and it is impossible to understand the region without taking this into account.
MJT: On the first page of your book, in the first paragraph even, you said we all took 9/11 too personally. I think a lot of readers who will love your book might also be a bit startled when they see that. Can you explain what you mean?
Lee Smith: Yes, it took me a while to get to that point in my thinking about 9/11. As I say in that same passage, as a lifelong New Yorker, someone who was raised there, went to school and lived there, I took 9/11 personally, as an attack on my hometown, my family and friends. That's the reason I went to the Middle East to find out what happened, because I took it personally. However, as I spent more time in the region I came to see 9/11 outside of the framework of Islam v the West, even as this conceit has great appeal across the American political spectrum. The right of center tends to argue that there is a war between Western civilization and the lands of Islam; the left of center typically contends that the problems of the Middle East are essentially the result of Western interference in the region, from colonialism to Zionism to American hegemony in the oil-rich Persian Gulf. After a while, I came to see that the issues in the region began in the region and belong to the region, and while Western influence has often been harmful, and more often beneficial, to the Arabs, it has been a very minor factor in shaping a region thousands of years old. There is indeed a clash, but it is between the inhabitants of the Arabic-speaking Middle East, and the 9/11 attacks were essentially an overflow of those issues that reached American shores.

MJT: There are indeed a number of clashes in the Middle East that have little to do with us, and it's easier to see this up close than it is from a distance. There are, for instance, clashes between Islamists and secularists; between Sunnis and sectarian minorities like Shias, Christians, Alawites, and Druze; between Arab Nationalists and ethnic minorities like Persians and Kurds. Why would one of these factions think it could get a leg up on the others by killing thousands of people in the U.S.?

Lee Smith: I am not sure if that's exactly how I'd explain 9/11. But let me start by saying that it's true one of the ways that various groups compete against each other for shares of power is by going after third parties. For instance, I argue in the book that Hezbollah's dominant, though largely obscured, issue is the region's Sunni majority. There is no doubt that Hezbollah despises Israel and would very much like to bring about its demise, but their deeper, perhaps existential, concern is not the some 5 million Jews on Lebanon's southern border, but the Sunni sea that has engulfed the Shia for more than a millennium. And so fighting Israel establishes this Shia militia's credentials as genuine Arabs, even as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi argued shortly before his death that Hezbollah was actually a Zionist front that protected the Jews from the real, i.e. Sunni, resistance. So, here is some of the sectarian animus at work in the region, the clash of Arab civilizations.

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