Fighting Words

The Arab Street

A vanquished cliché.

The return of politics to Iraq has had many blissful secondary consequences, one of them apparently minor but nonetheless, I think, important. When was the last time you heard some glib pundit employing the phrase “The Arab Street”? I haven’t actually done a Nexis search on this, but my strong impression is that the term has been, without any formal interment, laid to rest. And not a minute too soon, either.

In retrospect, it’s difficult to decide precisely when this annoying expression began to expire, if only from diminishing returns. There was, first, the complete failure of the said “street” to detonate with rage when coalition forces first crossed the border of Iraq, as had been predicted (and one suspects privately hoped) by so many “experts.” But one still continued to hear from commentators who conferred street-level potency on passing “insurgents.” (I remember being aggressively assured by an interviewer on Al Franken’s quasi-comedic Air America that Muqtada Sadr’s “Mahdi Army” in Najaf was just the beginning of a new “Tet Offensive.”) Mr. Sadr duly got a couple of seats in the recent Iraqi elections. And it was most obviously those elections that discredited the idea of ventriloquizing the Arab or Muslim populace or of conferring axiomatic authenticity on the loudest or hoarsest voice.

The London-based newspaper Al Quds al-Arabi, which has for some time been a surrogate voice for “insurgent” talk in the Arab diaspora, polled its readers after the Iraqi elections and had the grace to print the result. About 90 percent had been favorably impressed by the sight of Iraqi and Kurdish voters waiting their turn to have a say in their own future. This is a somewhat more accurate use of the demotic thermometer than the promiscuous one to which we have let ourselves become accustomed. Meanwhile, the streets of, say, Beirut have been filled with demonstrators who are entirely fed up with having their lives and opinions taken for granted by parasitic oligarchies.

Of course, every now and then one still reads polls, conducted by who knows what measurement, that appear to state the contrary. For some reason, the Pew Center seems especially keen on publicizing these sorts of mass-opinion finding. You’ve seen them: Nine out of 10 Moroccan teenagers have a poster of Osama Bin Laden on their bedroom walls and so forth. Yet these findings don’t seem to translate into anything much: The Muslim population with the closest experience of Bin Laden was the Afghan one, and the Afghan street, to judge by all available evidence, rejected him and ignored his threats in crushing and overwhelming numbers.

In the Palestinian elections, boycotted by the Islamists, a fairly solid turnout split the votes between Mahmoud Abbas and Mustapha Barghouti, the latter of whom scored an impressive 20 percent or so for a secular program. Where Hamas has done well in local elections in Gaza, it has been due to grass-roots welfare and social policy as much as to intransigent anti-Zionism, and it’s possible to imagine the organization evolving, as has Hezbollah in Lebanon, into a quasi-political party with seats in the assembly. The logic of this, all rhetoric to one side, points largely in one direction.

Other Muslim streets are even more problematic for those who lazily assume that the jihadists are the voice of the unheard. The populations of Bosnia and Kosovo—populations that actually did have to confront anti-Muslim violence on a large scale—are generally hostile to Bin-Ladenism. Nobody has ever used the term “Iranian street,” at least in print or on broadcast news, if only because everyone knows that Iranian opinion, as registered during the mock elections or voiced to visiting hacks, is strongly against the reigning theocracy.

This doesn’t entitle those of us in the regime-change camp to claim the “street” either. It simply means that those who once annexed the term have been forced to drop it, and for a good reason. The struggle for public opinion in the region is a continuing one and cannot be determined in advance, least of all by pseudo-populists who grant the violent Islamists their first premise.

The same will hold true, one hopes, for the cheap propagandists who have lately been flourishing the term “Islamophobia.” This word, or slogan, has been gaining ground among soft defenders of Islamism in Europe. It is used to put a stop to discussion about the political aims of Islamists in non-Islamic societies, and it has most recently generated great nervousness in Britain—sufficient nervousness to decide the Blair government to introduce legislation to make criticism of Islam into a prohibited hate crime.

Here again, the most persuasive evidence is the evidence that looks us in the face. In Iraq, Muslim militants place bombs in the mosques of those Muslims they regard as heretics. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, too, the Salafi and Wahhabi extremists commit murder against Muslims they deem unclean or unorthodox. And in the West, there are non-Muslims who excuse such atrocities as “resistance.” These are often the same as those who hailed what they thought of as the “street.” I don’t think they should be indicted for hate crimes, but they should be made to understand that what they say is hateful and criminal, as well as sectarian. The battle for clarity of language is a part of this larger contest, and it is time for the opponents of terror and bigotry to become very much less apologetic and defensive on this score.