Liberty and Hope Struggle For a Place in the Mideast

In his State of the Union address, President George W. Bush declared that “liberty is the future of every nation in the Middle East, because liberty is the right and hope of all humanity.” How is the hope of all humanity doing in the Middle East these days?

Palestinian voters showed their degree of devotion to liberty by turning out Al Fatah and replacing them with Hamas. This looked like a bigger change than it was. Al Fatah, Yassir Arafat’s old gang, is a party of corrupt, double-talking terrorists. Hamas is a party of terrorists, whom tenure of office will no doubt make corrupt. Their main difference from Al Fatah is that they spare us the double-talk of dealing with Israelis one day and killing them the next. Hamas stands for all killing, all the time. There will be no Nobel Peace Prizes for them. But what is a Peace Prize, next to the chance of sending some Jews to hell while you bomb-blast your way to paradise?

The Palestinians’ options were limited. There are no Palestinian Libertarians, or Social Democrats, or even a Tammany Hall. But how long would such groups last even if they were magically created? Forty years of murderous warfare have addicted the Palestinian people to murder, and the rhetoric of murder. Even those— presumably a significant number—who prefer to live their lives and keep their heads down acquiesce in the daily hymns of hate, which are the language of Palestinian nationality.

On some subjects, the public of the Muslim world is more fastidious. Last fall, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 mildly satirical cartoons of Muhammad (example: Muhammad is wearing a bomb for a turban). I can imagine David Levine or Roman Genn taking the Danes aside and saying, “C’mon, watch me …. ” Yet the protests against these images have run round the world, including riots, flag burnings and representations to the Danish government by various Muslim countries.

In 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini demanded the death of Salman Rushdie on account of his irreverent novel The Satanic Verses. In freewheeling New York, there was a pro-Rushdie demonstration in front of the Iranian consulate on Third Avenue, and even a tiny counterdemonstration. I remember, from the latter group, a black-hat Orthodox man holding a sign: JEWS CONDEMN SATANIC BLASPHEMY. No decent man will engage in casual blasphemy. If such exercises are supported by the state, via subsidies or tax breaks, or if they take especially provocative forms, such as marches through targeted communities, there might be legitimate questions of propriety or public order. But to give offense in a magazine, exhibit or performance that one may buy or attend, or not, is beyond the notice of the laws of a free country. Tom Paine wrote (in 1795) that the Christian God was one part “dying man” and another part “flying pigeon.”

We’ve been living with offenses for a long time, and yet there still seem to be a lot of Christians among us.

Grant that the anti-cartoon protests are ginned up by politicos with their own agendas: There were big demonstrations in Syria, an embattled dictatorship casting about for a popular cause, as well as neighboring Lebanon, a recovering pluralistic society whose gangsters likewise need a new lease on life. It nevertheless seems that many Muslims do not yearn to live in countries where freedom extends to the obnoxious.

What do men, in the Middle East and elsewhere, want? Three things, it would seem. They want to live. They want to be free, in the most minimal sense of not themselves being slaves or prisoners. Their third want is harder to state. Dignity is a possible one-word answer, though recognition might be closer to it. John Adams, following Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, wrote that men want to be seen: One of the worst consequences of extreme poverty, he thought, is that paupers become invisible.

None of these desires is absolute. Men risk death in battle. Nations conquered in wars give up their freedom to save their lives. And men and women in groups of all kinds, from mobs to monasteries, subsume their individuality in the service of some great cause or communal effort. This last transaction is peculiarly subtle, and has become more so in our demotic, mongrelized world culture. The whirl of images buffets old categories and makes people feel rootless and adrift. They can react by donning masks of protest—Klan robes in the United States decades ago, veils in the Muslim world today. But these are not traditional costumes, or not quite; when they are worn to make a statement, the man or woman wearing them may stand tall even if he or she is invisible.

The best result—defined as the least mayhem and oppression over the long run—comes from balancing the three fundamental desires. Pacifists and anarchists ultimately will lose everything, including their lives and their freedom; self-assertion can make us into monsters, as well as men. The best political means of achieving this equilibrium is another balancing act—the interplay of interests and institutions. Everyone can hold an election; it’s the second election that’s tricky. If elections produce a two-party rotation between Hamas and Al Fatah, there is still more work to be done. President Bush acknowledged as much when he said that “[r]aising up a democracy requires the rule of law, protection of minorities, and strong, accountable institutions that last longer than a single vote.” Or as the old blues song says, when you lose your money, learn to lose.

So how is liberty doing in the Middle East? Better than it was six years ago. The communal patchwork of countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon means weakness when invaders or despots pit one group against another, but it can also be a force for stasis, in which new habits can grow. We know what the old habits got us. Cultivating new ones is worth a try, unless we want to live in an armed camp for the next 50 years.