Monday, December 11, 2006

Here's an excerpt from interview with Al-Jazeera Editor-in-chief (!), done by Pierre Heumann, who is "the Middle East correspondent of the Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche. His interview with Ahmed Sheikh originally appeared in German in Die Weltwoche on Nov. 23, issue 47/06."

(Via: Harry's Place)

"How do you see the future of this region in which news of wars, dictators and poverty predominates?

The future here looks very bleak.

Can you explain what you mean by that?

By bleak I mean something like "dark." I've advised my thirty year old son, who lives in Jordan, that he should leave the region. Just this morning I spoke with him about it. He has a son and we spoke about his son's education. I'd like my grandson to go to a trilingual private school. The public schools are bad. He should learn English, German, and French -- Spanish would also be important. But the private schools are very expensive. That's why I told my son to emigrate to the West for the sake of my grandson.

You sound bitter.

Yes, I am.

At whom are you angry?

It's not only the lack of democracy in the region that makes me worried. I don't understand why we don't develop as quickly and dynamically as the rest of the world. We have to face the challenge and say: enough is enough! When a President can stay in power for 25 years, like in Egypt, and he is not in a position to implement reforms, we have a problem. Either the man has to change or he has to be replaced. But the society is not dynamic enough to bring about such a change in a peaceful and constructive fashion.Why not?In many Arab states, the middle class is disappearing. The rich get richer and the poor get still poorer. Look at the schools in Jordan, Egypt or Morocco: You have up to 70 youngsters crammed together in a single classroom. How can a teacher do his job in such circumstances? The public hospitals are also in a hopeless condition. These are just examples. They show how hopeless the situation is for us in the Middle East.

Who is responsible for the situation?

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the most important reasons why these crises and problems continue to simmer. The day when Israel was founded created the basis for our problems. The West should finally come to understand this. Everything would be much calmer if the Palestinians were given their rights.

Do you mean to say that if Israel did not exist, there would suddenly be democracy in Egypt, that the schools in Morocco would be better, that the public clinics in Jordan would function better?

I think so.

Can you please explain to me what the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has to do with these problems?

The Palestinian cause is central for Arab thinking.

In the end, is it a matter of feelings of self-esteem?

Exactly. It's because we always lose to Israel. It gnaws at the people in the Middle East that such a small country as Israel, with only about 7 million inhabitants, can defeat the Arab nation with its 350 million. That hurts our collective ego. The Palestinian problem is in the genes of every Arab. The West's problem is that it does not understand this."

Let's recapitulate: The existence of a vibrant, economically and technologically successful Jewish democracy in the region causes Arabs to feel pathologically inferior and inadequate. So all 350 million of them neglect their civil commitments, their projects for individual freedom and advancement, the basic education of their children, the economic viability that will reduce poverty in their countries.

"The West's problem is that it does not understand this."

Makes perfect sense.

Just as this does:

"Mr. Sheikh, as the Editor in Chief of Al-Jazeera, you are one of the most important opinion-makers in the Arab world. What do you call suicide bombers?

For what is happening in Palestine, we never use the expression "suicide bombing."

What do you call it then?

In English, I would describe it as "bombings."

And in Arabic?

Literally translated, we would speak of "commando attacks." In our culture, it is precisely not suicide.

But instead a praiseworthy act?

When the country is occupied and the people are being killed by the enemy, everyone must take action, even if he sacrifices himself in so doing.

Even if in so doing he kills innocent civilians?

That is not a Palestinian problem, but a problem of the Israelis."

These gems of wisdom and incisive analyses are not a parody. They are straightforward speech. And the speaker of these words is someone who cares about his grandson's education, who wants him to learn three, four languages. He is one of the top intellectuals in the Arab world.

Fouad Ajami wrote about this pathology. Here's Martin Kramer's review:

It was Ajami's earlier book, The Arab Predicament (1981), that finally broke the spell of The Arab Awakening. In it, Ajami probed the discontent that spread with the failure of the nationalist project following Arab independence and the debacle of 1967. It was a harsh indictment of the post-colonial Arab condition — a condition that has continued to deteriorate, necessitating another regression report. This new book draws its title from the claim by T.E. Lawrence that he had acted in Arabia to give the Arabs "the foundations on which to build an inspired dream palace of their national thoughts." If the dream has become a nightmare, and the palace a prison, who must accept responsibility? For Ajami, this has never even been a question: It was not the Lawrences, the well-intentioned or malicious foreigners, but the Arabs themselves who put bars upon the windows of their "dream palace," and posted executioners in the gardens.

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