March 7, 2009

The Personal and the Political in the Middle East

Roger Cohen is taking heavy criticism for a piece he recently wrote in the New York Times in which he said the “annihilationist” anti-Semitic rhetoric of the Iranian regime tells us less about Iran than the fact that he, an American Jew, was treated with “consistent warmth” on his trip to Tehran and Isfahan. I can’t say I agree, but I sympathize to an extent with what he’s saying because I've had similar surprises in the Middle East, happening upon hospitality instead of expected hostility.

Arabs, Persians, and Kurds are so well-known for their considerate treatment of guests it has become a guidebook cliché. No one expects rudeness in, say, Tunisia or Morocco, but I can see why a Jewish visitor might be startled by a warm welcome in a country whose government threatens to incinerate the Jewish State. I imagine he felt a bit like I did when I first visited Baghdad in the scorching summer of 2007 when violent insurgents still waged pitched battles with American soldiers.

I had already visited the friendly Kurdish region in Northern Iraq before I dared venture south into the Red Zone. Western civilians were hunted there by militias and death squads, and it wasn’t the sort of journey one embarked on lightly. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous or that I expected to feel welcome. My nervousness ebbed slightly, though, because I did receive a warm welcome from every single Iraqi I met in the capital. Baghdad’s Arabs weren’t an iota less friendly or hospitable than even the Kurds who hoped their autonomous region could be made into the 51st American state.

Of course I was embedded with the United States military and had soldiers from the 82nd Airborne as my own personal bodyguards. Kidnapping me wasn’t an option for the Iraqis I met on the street. Their politeness, however, was optional and given freely. Don't assume they smiled and said "welcome" just because the Americans carried weapons. Several soldiers I met had been inside Sadr City, and they told me even children there threw rocks and gave them the finger. (I have since been to Sadr City myself, and can report that the mood is calmer these days.)

It would have been a serious mistake, though, had I assumed too much about Iraq and its politics from the friendliness of its people. A significant number of Iraqis at that time still supported the very insurgents who would have covered my head with a hood and dragged me into an alley if they had the chance. Somebody in Iraq was setting off car bombs and laying IEDs and cutting off heads, and I’ve spent enough time there now that there’s little chance I haven’t come into contact with some of those people. Roger Cohen himself might have scoffed if I had written a column where I dismissed the Iraqi insurgency as irrelevant because the Iraqis I met were nice to me personally.

Arabs, Persians, and Kurds are among the easiest people in the world to get along with in person, including many Arabs, Persians, and Kurds who belong to terrorist organizations. I have met perfectly pleasant individuals who support and are members of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.

I've spent twice as much time in Lebanon as I have in Iraq, and only on the rarest occasions have I encountered any hostility. Two men I met in Beirut who staunchly support both Hezbollah and the Assad regime in Damascus treated me to a Cuban cigar, a half dozen cups of strong Turkish coffee, and two fascinating hours arguing about Middle East politics. One told me he was a lawyer and handed over his business card. “If you need any help while you’re here,” he said, “call me right away.” His party’s slogan is “Death to America," but I have no doubt his offer to help me was sincere.

Most Westerners who spend time in Muslim countries have similar stories to tell. Jeffery Goldberg related some of his own on his Atlantic blog recently. “I was once with a mullah in Pakistan,” he wrote last week, “who told me that Allah would soon fulfill his promise and destroy the Jews, but who invited me to stay in his guest room rather than make a dangerous night drive back to my hotel. I took him up on his offer, and slept soundly. It wouldn't be fair of me to call this sort of hospitality superficial, because it grows from a real spirit of personal generosity, but I've learned the hard way that the personal isn't always the political.”

It's likely that many Iranians Roger Cohen met really don’t feel hostility toward Jews or even toward Israel. Just about everyone I know who has been to Iran has told me the regime’s face to the world is unrepresentative of what a huge number of Iranians think. But even if Cohen met Iranians whose beliefs are in lockstep with those of the regime – which also is likely – I wouldn’t expect anything less from them than what he reported. Every Middle Eastern person has been raised in a culture where hospitality even toward people from enemy countries is mandated. Not every person lives up to the standard, of course, but most of them do. We'd be wrong to think this reflects much on their politics.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at March 7, 2009 1:05 PM
Comments

Roger Cohen is taking heavy criticism for a piece he recently wrote in the New York Times in which he said the “annihilationist” anti-Semitic rhetoric of the Iranian regime tells us less about Iran than the fact that he, an American Jew, was treated with “consistent warmth” on his trip to Tehran and Isfahan.

It is nice to know and would be very good time to recollect right before Ahmadinejad's nuclear warhead destroys Tel-Aviv and the rest of Israel.

I am sure niceness if German people is the very thing majority of Jews thought about right before they were put on trains and carted off to death camps.

Posted by: leo Author Profile Page at March 7, 2009 2:45 PM

I confess that this seeming concern about how kind, considerate, warm, .... the Arabs/Muslims are escapes me. Who cares?

I would rather they treat me in a rude manner, but would stop the killing.

Exactly how does the fact that their culture "esteems" treating guests in a kind manner (though apparently it is o.k. to kill guests if any idiot mullah says to do so) have any meaning whatsoever in the context of the threat that the Muslim fanatics pose?

We would be idiots (and all too often are) to correlate any "kindness" of Arab/Muslim's to their politics.

"Every Middle Eastern person has been raised in a culture where hospitality even toward people from enemy countries is mandated." Kind to you one minute- plant an IED, cut off your head or shoot you the next minute. Hmmm, quite an advanced culture our good friends the Muslims have, isn't it?

My guess is that Iran would be only too happy to make all of Israel "consistently warm" -for about 50,000 years.

Posted by: rsnyder Author Profile Page at March 7, 2009 5:13 PM

It's just so silly to perpetuate the falsehood that Iran wants to "incinerate the Jewish nation". Their foolish president, Ahmadinejad made a foolish statement that he has clarified a hundred times since. You Americans should be familiar with foolish presidents, having finally got shot of one recently. Nejad is up for re-election this year and hopefully he will lose.

Nejad said he wanted to see Israel "wiped off the map of the world." He did not mean Israel incinerated. Think about it. Palestine is a small country. You have been there. Palestinians would inevitably be incinerated as well.

Nejad used to say the Jews should go back to Europe. That's foolish too. It's the Europeans, that's mine and your ancestors, Michael, who have consistently killed and expelled Jews, starting with the Crusades and continuing with Spain in 1492. Then the shit really hit the fan in Eastern Europe and, later, Nazi Germany.

The Jews never did anything to deserve this treatment. Quite the reverse, they were, are and can be an asset to any society, in my opinion.

But Nejad now says (I watched him live recently on Presstv) he thinks Israel, as an exclusively Jewish state, will collapse the way South Africa, as an apartheid state, did.

I hope he is right.

On another note, a few years ago now there was a boat heading to Australia with about 300 asylum seekers from Afghanistan. Australia was in the midst of a fierce election campaign and the Prime Minister of the day demonised these people and, against all international rules, used the Navy to drive them off to a small island, Nauru.

Our PM, against all the conservative objections, volunteered to take them all and we did. My wife taught many of the children who were on that boat. Both they and their parents were all lovely people, and none have transgressed our laws, although one adult refugee was recently stabbed to death just for being Middle Eastern.

So I agree with you, the Middle Easterners have lovely manners.

And didn't Cohen say Iran hasn't invaded anyone for a thousand years? How does the US compare?

You Americans can be so pathetic. A car backfires and you all suspect terrorism. Earthquakes are far more likely.

Posted by: kbrmrebutted.blogspot.com Author Profile Page at March 8, 2009 3:23 AM

KBM: Say, how did that South Africa thing turn out?

"So I agree with you, the Middle Easterners have lovely manners"

Muslims and Anti-Jew Protesters Riot at Israel's Davis Cup Match in Sweden.
Please see http://gatewaypundit.blogspot.com/ (or any other site that covers this incident).

Lovely manners indeed.

Posted by: rsnyder Author Profile Page at March 8, 2009 5:08 AM

"Nejad said he wanted to see Israel "wiped off the map of the world." He did not mean Israel incinerated. Think about it. Palestine is a small country."

Nejad repeated those comments over and over. You make it sound as if it was a slip of the tongue. When a leader makes statements like that and then oversees a parade of long range ballistic missiles draped with "Death To Israel" banners, and while Iranian bombs, rockets, and other arms are consistently killing Jewish civilians in Israel (and elsewhere, such as Buenos Aires), I trust the Israelis' instincts on this one over your lame apologetics. Oh, and by the way, "Palestine" is not now nor has ever been a country other than a sovereign Jewish one, and was so named by the Romans to try to erase the essential Jewish identity of the land and its people.
====================
"The Jews never did anything to deserve this treatment. Quite the reverse, they were, are and can be an asset to any society, in my opinion."

As long as that society isn't one of their own making, right? The underlying text of your message is that Jews are great as long as they are kept from self-determination, but somehow, the local Arabs of "Palestine" (read: Israel) must form a 23rd Muslim-Arab nation-state, at the expense of the only one the Jewish nation aspires to, and has a right to.
=====================

"But Nejad now says (I watched him live recently on Presstv) he thinks Israel, as an exclusively Jewish state, will collapse the way South Africa, as an apartheid state, did."

Is this willful ignorance on your part, or just naivete? Israel is more ethnically diverse than any country in the Middle East. I guess you haven't noticed the nearly 20% of her population is composed of Muslim, Christian, and Bahai Arabs. Oh, yeah - the Druze, too. ALL of whom have more political and social freedoms than in any of the other Muslim-Arab nations, and your beloved Iran. Yes, Jews are the majority. So what? Why is it you never hear anyone deny Iran the right to sovereignty because Shiite Persians are the majority?

Posted by: Li'l Mamzer Author Profile Page at March 8, 2009 6:00 AM

Nejad said he wanted to see Israel "wiped off the map of the world." He did not mean Israel incinerated. Think about it.

I heard this argument many time before. Assuming you are correct and Ahmadinejad did not mean it to come out as it is interpreted by tge rest of the world two questions for you:

1. Why Ahmadinejad did not correct misunderstanding until this time?
2. How one can achieve "wiped off the map of the world." part using non-violent means?

Posted by: leo Author Profile Page at March 8, 2009 7:31 AM

I think the more important point in his article is that Iranian Jews feel comfortable and don't consider themselves at risk. This would seem to be self-evident and not worthy of note since presumably those Iranian Jews who didn't feel safe have already gotten out of there.

Anyway, I find it amusing, this story about a stranger in a strange land and how surprised he is that people were nice to him. This is generally true everywhere in the world, isn't it? Unless you do something provocative (like Christopher Hitchens) or stupid (like Rachel Currie), most people don't spend their time roaming the neighborhood looking for some random foreigner to kill.

Posted by: Bennett Author Profile Page at March 8, 2009 7:53 AM

I think the more important point in his article is that Iranian Jews feel comfortable and don't consider themselves at risk. This would seem to be self-evident and not worthy of note since presumably those Iranian Jews who didn't feel safe have already gotten out of there.

I wish you'd stop speaking on behalf of Iranian Jews unless you are one of them.
As to those who decided to stay there are measly 25K left of hundreds of thousands. Here is self evidence for you.
Oh, and take it from former Soviet jew, you are not always allowed to get out. Some time you are being used as bargaining chip and being fattened up before slaughter sometime too.
What an ...

Posted by: leo Author Profile Page at March 8, 2009 10:26 AM

"I wish you'd stop speaking on behalf of Iranian Jews unless you are one of them."

The tenacity of willful ignorance never ceases to amaze me. Who would take the blatantly and viciously antisemitic word of a Jew-murdering terrorist Islamist regime that the few remaining Iranian Jews are happy, safe, and content?

Posted by: Li'l Mamzer Author Profile Page at March 8, 2009 12:32 PM

"As to those who decided to stay there are measly 25K left of hundreds of thousands. Here is self evidence for you..."

You seem to have missed the point, Leo. All the Iranian Jews quoted in the article spoke positively about their home country. It's certainly possible, even probable, that the article's writer only quoted Jews who were willing to profess homage to Iran. It wouldn't have fit his narrative otherwise. But then if these Jews are so eager to leave Iran, why provide propaganda for others to use?

If there truly are thousands of Jews in Iran forced to stay there against their will, then that's a noteworthy story in its own right and perhaps one you should provide some evidence to support rather than simply projecting your own particular story onto theirs and expecting everyone to take it as written. You don't live in their neighborhood anymore than I do.

Posted by: Bennett Author Profile Page at March 8, 2009 12:42 PM

But then if these Jews are so eager to leave Iran, why provide propaganda for others to use?

You certainly have no understanding of how world spins around.
Can you even comprehend the possibility that all those potential dissidents are being very closely watched and have all their relatives hostage?
Hell, if back in the day my being Soviet citizen foreign reporter would ever wanted to talk to me what do you think I would've told him? Ever heard if Gulag, insane asylums, ...?
I do not imply this is exactly what could've happened to whoever talked to our good reporter but certainly it is the possibility in theocratic state hell bent on spreading its ideology.
And that is why I suggest we do not speak on behalf of Iranian Jews or any other Iranian minority.

Posted by: leo Author Profile Page at March 8, 2009 1:01 PM

"You certainly have no understanding of how world spins around."

And it seems you don't either, at least not in that neighborhood. As I stated earlier it's not incredible to suppose that Simon only quoted Iranian Jews who spoke positively about Iran. And now you speculate that the ones who talked to him were coerced somehow. Maybe that's true as well.

But it's just as credible to conclude that the Iranian Jews who've remained in that country have done so voluntarily, just as the Jews in Paris and London and elsewhere have apparently chosen to stay in their home countries despite the sometimes grievous harassment they face. It doesn't sound anymore dangerous in Tehran than it is in Balmo. Is Sweden holding its Jews hostage as well?

Posted by: Bennett Author Profile Page at March 8, 2009 1:16 PM

Bennett,

My speculation was offered as possible explanation in reply to your speculation:

It's certainly possible, even probable, that the article's writer only quoted Jews who were willing to profess homage to Iran. It wouldn't have fit his narrative otherwise. But then if these Jews are so eager to leave Iran, why provide propaganda for others to use?

I even made an effort to note that my speculation is indeed just that:

I do not imply this is exactly what could've happened to whoever talked to our good reporter but certainly it is the possibility in theocratic state hell bent on spreading its ideology.

Given what was said by both of us I cannot understand why did you decide to post this:

And now you speculate that the ones who talked to him were coerced somehow.

Did I really give you an impression that this is only possibility? I thought my point was and is that you should not speak on behalf of Iranian Jews.

But it's just as credible to conclude that the Iranian Jews who've remained in that country have done so voluntarily, just as the Jews in Paris and London

Yes, it is possible but you do not know whether it is or it is not, which make your initial speculation completely baseless:

I think the more important point in his article is that Iranian Jews feel comfortable and don't consider themselves at risk.

Posted by: leo Author Profile Page at March 8, 2009 3:27 PM

Thanks for sharing your first-hand experiences and relating them to Roger Cohen’s recent piece. Based on what you are writing it would seem likely that a conciliatory foreign policy approach will have a higher probability of achieving the U.S. foreign policy goal of stabilizing the Middle East than a confrontational one.

Posted by: Persephone Author Profile Page at March 9, 2009 5:48 AM

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 03/09/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

Posted by: David M Author Profile Page at March 9, 2009 7:25 AM

Europeans, who (probably) do not have any plans to slowly destroy the American state by firing artillery rockets into our backyards and major cities, are openly hostile to Americans. Just the sound of an American accent is often enough to send a European into a frothy rage about imperialism, capitalism and rude customs agents.

Iranians, who do have plans to slowly destroy Israel by firing artillery rockets into backyards and major Israeli cities, are polite to visiting Jews. These are the kinds of contrasts that make travel so interesting.

Some cultures believe that violence is a necessary and integral part of life, and they have no problem reconciling the idea that you can be polite to someone that you may or may not have to kill. As Winston Churchill famously said, “When you have to kill a man it costs nothing to be polite.”

But some cultures take the pacifist view that violence and anger is always wrong. So, if they feel anger or violent rage towards a person or country, they feel that they have to distance themselves from that person or country, and blame them for causing such a 'peaceful' person to feel rage.

Roger Cohen has traveled the world. It's not clear why he would be gullible enough to believe that the superficial politeness of people living in a totalitarian state with a history of violence would indicate genuine peaceful intent. I have to guess that he's not that gullible, but he assumes that his audience is.

Posted by: maryatexitzero Author Profile Page at March 9, 2009 9:22 AM

Mary: Europeans, who (probably) do not have any plans to slowly destroy the American state by firing artillery rockets into our backyards and major cities, are openly hostile to Americans. Just the sound of an American accent is often enough to send a European into a frothy rage about imperialism, capitalism and rude customs agents.

Iranians, who do have plans to slowly destroy Israel by firing artillery rockets into backyards and major Israeli cities, are polite to visiting Jews. These are the kinds of contrasts that make travel so interesting.

Yes, the contrast is fascinating. The Middle East feels more pro-American than Europe, although it is not.

Persephone: Based on what you are writing it would seem likely that a conciliatory foreign policy approach will have a higher probability of achieving the U.S. foreign policy goal of stabilizing the Middle East than a confrontational one.

That part of the world doesn't work like our part of the world. Somebody I recently spoke to over there -- I forget who -- said "If someone in this region isn't afraid of you, you will do what he wants."

That quote is unpleasant, but most of the time it's true.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at March 9, 2009 10:35 AM

I believe Iran has had jews living there for well over 2 thousand years.

Posted by: Joe Rushty Author Profile Page at March 9, 2009 11:55 AM

Michael:
That part of the world doesn't work like our part of the world. Somebody I recently spoke to over there -- I forget who -- said "If someone in this region isn't afraid of you, you will do what he wants."

U.S. military expenditures exceed those of all other nations combined. The U.S. has a nuclear arsenal and delivery capabilities to incinerate every major city on earth. That's in addition to having the most modern conventional fighting force. Even if you are correct and "that part of the world doesn't work like our part of the world"....don't you think that this firepower is enough to induce just a little respect in pretty much everyone? If not, what would it take? Can we maybe at least talk to them to see if we have something worth discussing? What have we got to loose?

Posted by: Persephone Author Profile Page at March 10, 2009 7:54 AM

Persephone: Can we maybe at least talk to them to see if we have something worth discussing?

"We" have been talking to Assad and Khamenei's people all along. We have nothing left to discuss, but if Obama wants to reinvent the wheel, that's terrific. The world can always use another wheel. As soon as the fifth wheel is added to the inventory, we can have a more creative and worthwhile discussion amongst ourselves about how to proceed. Come back then, we'll talk.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at March 10, 2009 8:25 AM

Michael:
We have NOT been talking to them as much as threatening them, which is...your approach. Hasn't worked out too well. Forgot to add a link to Roger Cohen's latest effort. Well worth reading, imho.

Posted by: Persephone Author Profile Page at March 10, 2009 8:53 AM

don't you think that this firepower is enough to induce just a little respect in pretty much everyone?

It was enough for a few decades.

But, our weak response to the OPEC oil embargo..

..and our weak response to various terrorist attacks in Europe

..and the fact that we ran away from Islamist terror/warriors after the Khobar bombing and in Somalia

...in addition to Carter's non-response to the Embassy kidnappings in Iran (which inspired Khoemeni to call Carter a "headless chicken")

..and the fact that our politicians will debase themselves in every possible way to keep the oil and Gulf money flowing

- all of these things have managed to convince terrorists and the states that support them that they can do whatever they please and get away with it.

Of course, they know there are limits. These aggressors don't treat us (or Israel) as badly as they treat Christians and Muslims in Africa - they don't murder us by the millions and enslave us. For that, I guess we can thank our nukes.

Posted by: maryatexitzero Author Profile Page at March 10, 2009 3:42 PM
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