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The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations

di Lee Smith

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In a provocative, timely book, a noted journalist and expert on Arab-American affairs overturns long-held Western myths about the Arab world, and offers a doctrine to help the United States correct its assumptions concerning the region.
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I was finishing up this book as the Arab populations in Tunisia and Egypt were taking to the streets to demand changes in their respective political systems. Reading Smith’s analysis of the pathologies of Middle Eastern politics as the protests unfolded in real time was like listening to a well-informed commentator provide deep background to the typically superficial and incomplete media coverage of such events.

In the book, Smith constructs a thesis which he believes explains both the violence of terrorist organizations and the repressive governments of the region. His synthesis of historical and contemporary episodes, biographical anecdotes, policy critiques and analysis is illuminating, but inconsistencies and simplifications undermine the strength of his conclusions.

Smith begins with an epigram attributed to Osama Bin Laden:
"When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse."

The key to understanding the region, writes Smith, is political culture. A culture that prefers the strong horse makes for a political culture that precludes accommodation and compromise. As Plato noted in The Republic, political systems reflect the nature of the society. The problem with the Middle East is not the repressive regimes nor Islam nor the Islamists, but Arab societies.

According to Smith, the cycle of violence in the Middle East is the defining characteristic of a political order described by Ibn Khaldun eight centuries ago. Once a ruling class reaches a certain stage of decadence, another group that still adheres to a strong warrior ethos will come along and defeat it in war. The ideology of the group is beside the point, just so long as it binds them to one another and preserves assabiya (group cohesion).

It is a common misperception, writes Smith, that Arab regimes and the Islamists are sworn enemies; rather, they are like brothers wrestling for the same share of power. Repressive violence and terror are two aspects of a political culture that has no mechanisms for either sharing power or transmitting political authority from one governing body to another except through inheritance, coup, or conquest. The Islamists make war to gain power; the regimes fight to maintain it.

Smith takes the (none too original) observation that Arab societies are riven by tribal feuds and tries to spin it out into the realm of International Relations. Recurring small-scale wars and instability, writes Smith, are the consequence of the contest for power between an Iranian-led resistance bloc—which includes Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas—and the U.S.-backed regional order comprising Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Arab states, and Israel. Here is the Sunni-Shi’a fault line writ large—‘resistance’ being the default stance of the ever-marginalized and oppressed Shi’a minority. (Noted too is the advantage handed to Iran as the U.S. took out the Sunni Arab counterweight regime next door.) Smith’s analysis is interesting if not entirely persuasive, as he must include the non-Arab Persians and Israelis in the mix. So is the source of tensions Arab political culture or realpolitik?

Smith also has difficulty (as everyone does) in untangling religion and politics in the Middle East. His point that Islam is not the source of the problems is valid, but mostly because there is no monolithic Islam. Smith spends much ink describing the rise of Salafism (the Sunni impulse to return to the “pure” Islam of Muhammad and his companions), the concomitant failure of liberal movements in the 20th c. (in Egypt, mostly), and the fluctuating political fortunes of minority sects like the Sufis and the Alawis. Lebanon, which Smith believes represents the most likely setting for political accommodation and cooperation, is also the place where political factions are inextricably identified by their religious affiliations.

Smith contrasts the West’s optimistic belief in Progress with the Arabs’ despairing sense of temporal decline: things have gotten worse since the founding of Israel, worse since the period of European colonization, worse since the Ottomans ruled, worse since the Mongols overran Baghdad, worse since the Abbasids replaced the Umayyads, worse since the death of Hussein, worse since Ali’s defeat, and much worse since the death of the Prophet. Ascribing such a uniform consciousness to the region seems to contradict his insistence that the region has always been divided against itself. Smith argues that the pathologies that infect Arab societies pre-date Islam, but his review of factional antagonisms, clerical skirmishes, philosophical debates, and strategic jousting among the various players in the region makes his chosen first cause ('Arab political culture') seem inadequate and incomplete.

What a pathological political culture cannot explain are the relatively peaceful demonstrations that toppled long-standing dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt and the apparent longing for greater freedoms now.

Smith seems pessimistic about any near-term transformation. It’s not that Arabs are incapable of democracy, he writes, but that most of them do not want it, and those who do want it have not the means to win it.

So, are we seeing the beginning of reforms, or just a change of horses?
2 vota HectorSwell | Feb 17, 2011 |
A simplistic yet vital first hand portrayal of the real issues separating the West from Islam. As a second generation Arab American, this book explains much of what I previously sensed yet still found so mystifying. ( )
1 vota shanksmd | Apr 11, 2010 |
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