Lee Smith: It comes from Osama Bin Laden's observation that when people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse. I know this idea will be confused with the notion that Arabs understand only force, an idea often, and incorrectly, attributed to the Bush administration. It is useful to recall that throughout history most of mankind has "understood" force. Those lucky few who are fortunate enough to be able to live their political lives free of the fear of violence are largely concentrated in the capitals of contemporary Western Europe and along the east and west coasts of the United States, who not coincidentally happen to make up the primary audience I was writing for, so I wanted to explain that the inhabitants of the Arabic-speaking Middle East are not as fortunate as we are. To say that Lebanon is held at gunpoint by an armed gang, or that Lebanese journalists are assassinated for their work, Syrian intellectuals and Egyptian rights activists are typically thrown in prison and tortured, and regional minorities like the Shia, Druze, Alawi, Christians, Kurds and Jews have often been the target of purges and political violence all in the name of Arab nationalism, a corporatist ideology that seeks to erase communal as well as individual difference, is not to say that Arabs only understand force, but that violence is a central factor in Arab political life and it is impossible to understand the region without taking this into account.
MJT: There are indeed a number of clashes in the Middle East that have little to do with us, and it's easier to see this up close than it is from a distance. There are, for instance, clashes between Islamists and secularists; between Sunnis and sectarian minorities like Shias, Christians, Alawites, and Druze; between Arab Nationalists and ethnic minorities like Persians and Kurds. Why would one of these factions think it could get a leg up on the others by killing thousands of people in the U.S.?
Lee Smith: I am not sure if that's exactly how I'd explain 9/11. But let me start by saying that it's true one of the ways that various groups compete against each other for shares of power is by going after third parties. For instance, I argue in the book that Hezbollah's dominant, though largely obscured, issue is the region's Sunni majority. There is no doubt that Hezbollah despises Israel and would very much like to bring about its demise, but their deeper, perhaps existential, concern is not the some 5 million Jews on Lebanon's southern border, but the Sunni sea that has engulfed the Shia for more than a millennium. And so fighting Israel establishes this Shia militia's credentials as genuine Arabs, even as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi argued shortly before his death that Hezbollah was actually a Zionist front that protected the Jews from the real, i.e. Sunni, resistance. So, here is some of the sectarian animus at work in the region, the clash of Arab civilizations.
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