The Arab World and Us

I have been quite disturbed by events in Egypt. We won’t know for some time what has been happening behind the scenes, but it appears that the Obama Administration told the Egyptian military that our support would not flag, which I, and certainly they, would have read as a green light to eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood.

Look at that geographically. Egypt has been a major player in the Middle East. In religion it is Sunni Islam. The Brotherhood made some mistakes, but it’s effort to work within democratic rules was a major breakthrough. Democracy isn’t easy. But the result is that the military is trying to dismantle the very group in Egypt that had won more than 50% of the Egyptian vote at the recent election. And it appears that we are supporting the collapse of democracy.

Now look at Syria. The situation is certainly complex but we never figured out how to support the emerging democratic movement there. I doubt there is any democratic future left at this point – there are too many people under arms.

And in Palestine, although Kerry seems to have convinced people to come to the bargaining table, Israel has thumbed its nose at us and its promises about settling the West Bank.

So from one end of the Arab world to the other, we seem to be a major player opposing Sunni Arab interests, and doing it even where it means sacrificing democracy. The population of the Arab world is half again as large as ours, and the population of the Sunni Muslim world is something like a billion people. So building a peaceful relationship with the Sunni Muslim world, as well as the Shi’a Muslim world, matters.

For most Americans that conclusion may not make much sense. Most of us know little about that part of the world. It’s foreign and seems dangerous. Many of us look at problems nationalistically or ideologically – you’re with us or against us. Few of us have much experience abroad. Schooling in a democracy like ours is driven by public feelings and that often means comforting people by reaffirming what they already believe – which tends to be that America is the greatest and that little more information is needed. Learning is as much feared as sought. We don’t have religion courses in schools because what its advocates want is to indoctrinate our children, not show them the complexities of the world they are inheriting. Too many Americans held their noses and covered their eyes rather than examine the differences among Communist countries – the difference between Vietnam, China and Soviet Russia, or the difference between Korea, Cuba and Venezuela. They’re leftist and for too many that means case closed, nothing to examine. And whatever you or I believe or want, those views have a powerful impact on school curricula.

If this or another president wants to take action that looks friendly toward some of the Muslim peoples, can we listen? Can we support him or her? Is Obama supporting General al-Sisi because he believes it is good for America or because he believes he is in a political box and can’t fight this battle with public opinion while taking on a bunch of others?

To quote William Shakespeare, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, [b]ut in ourselves.”[i]

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 30, 2013.


[i] William Shakepeare, Julius Caesar, Act I, scene ii, lines 146-147.

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