The Strong Horse:
Power, Politics, and the Clash
of Arab Civilizations
By Lee Smith
Random House, 256 pages
Jabbing a thick finger in my direction, the former al-Qaeda recruiter and veteran of the Afghan mujahideen proposed a unified theory for the cultural, political, and economic malaise afflicting the peoples of the Middle East. The problems of the Islamic umma would melt away, he explained with mechanical certainty, if only the United States abdicated its superpower role and stopped interfering in the affairs of Muslim countries. Naturally, this entailed first and foremost scrubbing its alliance with imperial Israel.
It is a shopworn and deeply unconvincing explanation of the problems afflicting countries that have been ruled by his co-religionists for the better part of a century. But it is one that stubbornly persists, propped up with the help of many Western academics and pundits who seem more interested in issuing indictments of American policy than in confronting the political and social backwardness fettering much of the Arab world. Together they have set out a narrative whereby America is but the latest colonial power to have insinuated itself into the Muslim world and impaired its culture.
This emphasis on the “outsider” obscures problems indigenous to the region, and scholars in the mold of Bernard Lewis have pressed the corrective, namely, viewing the culture of the Middle East on its own terms and taking its peoples seriously as human agents. Lee Smith’s The Strong Horse, an amalgam of travel journalism, memoir, popular history, and policy-musing by a correspondent for the Weekly Standard, is offered in the same spirit. (The title is drawn from Osama bin Laden’s assertion that what fundamentally animates the Islamic world is brute power: “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse.”) The product of Smith’s decade-long immersion in Islamic culture, The Strong Horse aims not only to counter pernicious diagnoses of its problems but also to serve as a cautionary tale about the barriers Western governments face in attempting to catalyze solutions.
Ten years ago, Smith was earning a living as a contributor to ArtForum and an editor at the Village Voice—not typically regarded as redoubts of neoconservatism. At the beginning of his story, we find him making a pilgrimage a few months before September 11 to the Columbia University office of Edward Said, the dean of postcolonial studies and an activist for the Palestinian cause. Smith bears with him a gift of recordings of Palestinian folk songs and is seeking insights into Arab-American relations. But after the mass murder in Lower Manhattan, it becomes apparent to Smith that he cannot rely on the judgment of someone who just a few years earlier was thundering against (as Said put it) “speculations about the latest [Islamic] conspiracy to blow up buildings, sabotage commercial airliners, and poison water supplies.”
Increasingly dissatisfied with the narrow and disingenuous Orientalist critique of the West, Smith engages in years of on-the-ground investigation, moving about the Middle East in search of a narrative that places the people and political leaders of the region at the center. Two years into the occupation of Iraq, he has concluded that a top-down imposition of democracy will falter. Arab liberals, many frustrated by the policies of the Bush White House, submit that a reorientation of society must advance from the bottom up. Democracy is “society’s flower, not its root,” Smith writes. And everywhere he travels in the region, it becomes uncomfortably clear that the flower is not on the verge of blooming.
To those who believe that an infusion not of Western military might but of culture—in the form of television, films, and music—can have a profound impact on regional mores, Smith says that this, too, is a chimera. American pop culture is widely available, but its impact is negligible. The most popular program of the television network al-Jazeera is a talk show called Sharia and Life. Its host is one Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian cleric who is rather fond of suicide bombings, wife-beating, and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Despite the availability of Radiohead and Britney Spears, the Egyptian public made pop singer Shaaban Abdel Rahim wealthy and famous when he released his song “I Hate Israel.”
When he turns to the retailing of Middle Eastern history by Western journalists and intellectuals, Smith bracingly dispenses with comfortable shibboleths. Though the crimes of Western imperialism are frequently hauled into the dock by such thinkers, Smith reminds us that “the umma was an imperial power of the first order,” and “the Islamists want to restore the umma to its rightful place in world affairs to be the strongest tribe.” They are frank, unapologetic, and unselfconscious about this. Reading the American and European press, one can forget that hatred of the United States “long predated the invasion of Iraq,” and perfunctory state condolences aside, “the most vocal Arab spokesmen celebrated or justified 9/11.” Viewing the power struggles of the Middle East only through the lens of American foreign policy ensures that we ignore the shocking prevalence of Islamic supremacism in the Middle East. As Smith trenchantly observes, “The United States is hated not because of what it does, or because of what it is. The United States is hated for what it is not, not Arab and not Muslim.”
The search for Arab moderates, Smith continues, has led Western Arabists to grade using a steep curve. The Arab nationalism of the recent past may have “looked like secularization,” he says, but it “was merely a veneer laid over a society that had been proudly Muslim for over a millennium.” Many of those who appeared to be voices of moderation were only moderate relative to the dominant politics of the region. When the infamous Palestinian child murderer Samir Kuntar was released from an Israeli prison, he was celebrated by leaders of Lebanon’s pro-Western Cedar Revolution. Al-Jazeera, praised in certain quarters of the West for being less biased than Fox News, “threw a welcome-home party.”
America’s efforts to ingratiate itself with the Arabs go unrequited. “Washington does not embrace Israel at the expense of the Arabs,” Smith observes. “Rather, it is allied with them both, funding and/or protecting every Arab state, except for Syria.” He might have added that the U.S. has repeatedly come to the assistance of beleaguered Muslims—in Afghanistan, Kuwait, Bosnia, and Kosovo. But as even a rueful ex-fundamentalist recently explained to me, this was done for cynical reasons of self-interest. America’s strategic partnership with Israel, likewise, was born out of some Zionist-imperialist ideological fusion.
Laced through The Strong Horse are lively anecdotes (of conversations with a former Egyptian film censor or evenings spent in louche Syrian nightclubs crawling with dipsomaniac Saudis), illuminating disquisitions on Islamic doctrine, and fascinating portraits of various wealthy “trust-fundamentalists” who stalk the region. The Strong Horse avoids policy prescriptions—a dime a dozen in books about the Middle East—and instead relies on a series of sharply observed episodes, deftly arranged to demonstrate a civilization in perpetual crisis. After September 11, Smith writes, Americans wanted to fix a system they thought was broken, whereas “in fact it was functioning just as it always had, for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years.”
Pessimism animates Smith’s narrative from the beginning. Just a few pages in, he offers the following depressing précis of recent attempts by the Bush administration at spreading democracy: “In failing to grasp that Arab political pathologies were organic—that is, the absence of democracy in the region is the result of Arab societies’ conception of what politics requires—the White House’s Middle East policy left the Americans pushing a set of idea and values that most Arabs had no interest in.” Smith’s travels, by contrast, led him to the unavoidable conclusion that “violence is central to the politics, society, and culture of the Arabic-speaking Middle East.” He finds this uncomfortable truth lost on many in Washington. In his Cairo address last spring and on many other occasions, President Obama has said that if only America spoke directly to the citizens of the Middle East, it would convince them that there was no enmity between Islam and the West. This, says Smith, is simply a “delusion.” Anti-Americanism is the “region’s lingua franca,” and Arab politics is stubbornly guided by the “strong horse” principle.
What, then, does Smith see as the policy consequences of his discoveries? At the least, America should lower its sights and settle for reasonable facsimiles of Western democracy. “It was inevitable,” he writes, “that the Arabs would take a pass on some of the social values that Americans tend to associate with a democratic way of life, like gender equality and other issues like ‘anti-religious speech and behavior.’?” But if American power can’t reverse illiberal impulses, and if popular culture has only a negligible impact on Arab culture, it isn’t clear how liberal forces can be empowered in any way to change the despotic governments under which they suffer. It is as though Smith has been so disappointed by his decade-long immersion in Islamic culture that he cannot see the signs that a peculiarly Arab version of democracy, with all its deficiencies, is indeed developing in Iraq—by Iraqis—with the help of steadfast American action.
Smith closes with a reminder that “despite the setbacks in Iraq, the reality is that American power is as great as it ever was.” Power to do what or effect what he shies away from saying, and on the basis of the tale he has told, one senses that his feeling is: not very much.