Wassim Al-Adel

Blogger and commentator

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master, that’s all.”

At various times in the last one hundred years, “The East” has conjured up a variety of images for the Western mind. One must be under no illusion that we are referring to the Western mind, for somebody in 13th century Baghdad would not refer to their land by that term, nor would people in China, who refer to their land as Chung Kuo, or the Middle Kingdom. So it is that throughout the twentieth century the West has used “The East” to refer to the Kaiser’s Germans, the Soviet Union, China or Japan, and now, most recently, the Islamic world. So how can we make a word mean so many different things? Well the real question, a Western voice tells us, is which is to be master, that’s all. The truth is that there is only the West, the East is whatever Humpty Dumpty decides it to be.

Still, like Barak Obama, we ignore the flimsiness of such labels at our own peril. The man’s disastrous foray into what should have remained a storm in a teacup will have far-reaching consequences as the mob again questions the loyalties of a President whose middle name is Hussein. For better or for worse, the mob believes that it is at war with a religion and not just individual groups of fanatics. We must work, therefore, with whatever meaning the term East is meant to have, and at this time it is the Islamic world. But there is a deeper paranoia within the Western mob, one that was triggered by the attacks on the World Trade Center. There is, permeating throughout American popular culture, a deep-rooted fear that history has caught up again with the West, in spite of its efforts to create modernity as a barrier to the past and a vehicle for an ever-present now. It is the awakening of this terror that was the truly unforgiveable crime, and the reason why the Bush administration declared war on a feeling instead of a country, a group or a people.

We know now that the end of the Cold War did not bring about the end of history and the last man but rather, some would say, it brought about the end of the Western man’s dominance. In fact it is not the words of Francis Fukuyama that we should be paying attention to but those of Sayid Qutub an Islamic thinker executed by Egypt’s Nasser in the sixties. Qutub prophetically and confidently asserts, at the start of his “Islamic” manifesto, that the age of the dominance of Western man is ending, that Western civilization, with all its material benefits, has not been able to offer the moral leadership necessary for mankind. Enter the vanguard of Islamic revivalism, who will assume this leadership for all mankind. If the last century witnessed the battle for humanity’s economic destiny, the present century will see a decision made for its spiritual one. What the mob opposed to the so-called “Ground Zero” mosque fear most is that Dr Fukuyama’s “Last Man” at the end of history will be a Muslim.

Yet there is also a far more serious problem that most commentators on such issues do not understand. This is the issue of sovereignty, where a nation decides but is not decided upon. The United States, Britain, France and Israel are all sovereign nations whereas countries like Sudan, Haiti, Jordan or Oman are not, to name but a few. The Scottish and English judiciary curtly dismisses American queries about the release of the Libyan Megrahi, whereas Sudan is about to be partitioned and its president has an international arrest warrant placed on his name. A French government is not accountable for its meddling in Saharan Africa, but an Iraqi president is hung by the neck for his activities within Iraq. Remarkably perhaps, Arab liberals do not understand this and seriously entertain notions that, for example, Queen Elizabeth of the United Kingdom sees King Abdullah of Jordan as a peer; or that the President of the United States and the Emir of Kuwait match each other in stature. The rulers of many of these “Eastern” countries we speak of are naught but roosters assigned to their respective garbage mounds. Therefore it is important that we understand this before we entertain notions of uniform rules or freedoms applying across various countries. But there are free countries in the East and, not surprisingly, the West sometimes places a particular emphasis on the welfare of minorities there, a concern that coincides greatly with the national and economic interests of Western countries. See for example the French interest with uranium from the South East of Sudan –a witness to its own funeral.

The East, as defined by the West, need not have to respond to requests for “allowing” the building of extra churches any more than it needs to be taught how to accept and integrate minorities. This is not because such things are not important, but because history tells us that it is the West which cannot deal with such issues and not the opposite. Nobody pointed this out more elegantly than Syria’s president Assad when he stated, “Listen, Europe has a complex about the Holocaust. We don’t because we didn’t do it”. All too frequently, the West projects its own failures and shortcomings onto the East. This does not mean that the latter have any shortage of problems, but becoming defensive is not acceptable.

Furthermore, we see the Western world laughs when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad makes a statement in the United Nations in which he begins his speech with “In the name of God, the most gracious the most merciful” or when he says that there are no homosexuals in Iran like there are in the West. It simply is not comprehensible to some that Western values and morality are not universal or self-evident. But when it comes to minarets going up in Switzerland then the freedoms initially meant only for Western citizens are quickly brushed aside. Universalism, it seems, is only acceptable for the outside when used as a stick to beat “rogue states”.

Again, Arab liberals do not understand this, and when faced with such facts usually dive into the water to avoid the rain. For example one Saudi writer, Hani Naqshabandi, does not see the mob with pitch-forks and a noose; instead he marvels that the authorities have graciously allowed American Muslims to build a community center so close to “Ground Zero” (the name given by Americans to the site of the former World Trade Center) – contrasting this with what he thinks Arab countries might have done. He appears to think that the American president can be petitioned like the Saudi king at a weekly majlis and that benevolent justice is dished out with the solemn nod of a head.

Sadly such views are a norm and not an exception with Arab and Muslim writers who take a particular relish in pointing out “the problems within” rather than the problems without; or who believe there is “an Arab mind” that is broken and needs to be fixed. This is a silly view, laughable were the reality not so tragically different. In todays “East”, as the formidable Kuwaiti thinker Abdullah al Nufaissi rightly points out, there have in fact never been a greater number of Western troops, ships and weapons roaming so freely throughout Muslim countries as there has been in history. What is broken about a mind which understands such a self-evident reality? Instead, the “East” is expected to explain itself, to answer for the blame like a battered wife. The real question we all face at the start of the twenty-first century is not about whether the East and West should come to some sort of accommodation, but what is to be done with the West, the sick man of the world?