- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 4, 2003

Is democracy possible in an insulated nation? So far, most considerations regarding the war in Iraq have centered on strategic issues. Now, we are faced with the problem of implementing the Bush doctrine. First articulated by the president in June 2002, the doctrine calls for introducing or imposing democracy in a land that has never experienced it. This goal may turn out to be more formidable than the war itself. The reasons are historical, cultural and, well, “psychiatric.” The process of introducing democracy into Iraq is, of course, far from the consulting room, and one might question what psychiatry has to offer. In fact, it has a substantial amount to contribute to this experiment in spreading democracy and lowering the barriers to a lasting peace. Where do these barriers come from? The psychiatric impediments to a lasting peace in Iraq follow on the heels of historical and cultural factors that played important roles in preparing the West for democratic processes and structures. By the 12th century, Arabic culture was a fount of science, art, literature and philosophy. However, its subsequent development, especially after its eviction from the European continent in the 15th century, has been largely a devolution characterized by an admixture of stagnation, resentment and parochialism. While the West authored the Magna Carta and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, experienced a renaissance, a reformation, an enlightenment and a scientific revolution, the cultural richness of the Arab world seemed to lie fallow.One result of this troubled development has been the persistence of modes of thought characteristic of tribal societies dominated by a mythical conception of the world. Such thinking often includes contradictory statements, bizarre logic and peculiar meanings. With insubstantial political development to separate the Arabs from their past, these archaic forms of thinking continue to exert their influence, thereby reducing the conceptual flexibility necessary to negotiate for themselves a suitable accommodation with the West. There are, of course, educated classes in the Arab world more inclined toward reason — graduates of the University of Baghdad, Tikrit University, Cairo University and others. Nevertheless, many Westerners perceive an irrational quality in Arab life — the glorification of the suicide bomber, the fear of female sexuality and a pervasive intolerance of “infidels,” for example. What are these ways of thinking that seem to glue Arab feet to a world long gone? First, there is the tendency to substitute fantasy for reality, to seek refuge in an autistic explanation of the world. For example, last October, Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan suggested that President Bush and Saddam engage in a duel. Ramadan had transformed diplomacy into a plea for dreamy wish-fulfillment in a battle of superheroes. More recently, with coalition troops 12 miles from Baghdad, Saddam’s information minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, appeared on television and explained to the world that enemy soldiers were nowhere near the capital — a wish transformed into reality. The divorce from the real is seen most clearly in the way Saddam surrounded himself with yes-men who then reinforced his sense of authority, thereby enabling him to spin tales of victory as the ruin of defeat bit at his doorstep. For Westerners living in free-market democracies, such insulation is self-defeating and leads to delusional thinking. For Saddam, it made sense. Second, there is a marked concreteness, a tendency to take words literally at the expense of appreciating the abstract and metaphorical meanings they would otherwise convey. This inclination helps explain the Arab obsession with the World Trade Center. Most Americans saw the attacks in 1993 and 2001 as attempts to destroy a “symbol” of American power and culture. The Arabs did not see the two towers as predominantly symbolic, but as real. The U. S. Department of Defense quotes Saddam as saying on the radio in February 1991, “We will chase [Americans] to every corner at all times. No high tower of steel will protect them against the fire of truth.” The “high tower” in this case has little metaphorical weight and is better seen as a literal reference.Third, the so-called Muslim fundamentalism with which Americans have become unhappily familiar is less a religious form of thought than a kind of delusional account of the world. The reason is that these seemingly religious beliefs are held without any doubt at all; they are not so much beliefs as they are defenses against a painful reality. As we see in the Book of Job, most religious people have doubts about God’s existence or his interest in ordinary mortals. Not so the fundamentalists. None of these examples should be construed as mental illnesses or inabilities to function. As modes of thought, they exemplify how distant much Arab thinking is from that of ordinary Westerners. If we are to offer democracy to the Iraqis, we’d better understand why their thinking will often seem strange to us, why the logic of early tribal culture fills so much of their reflections and why their inexperience with negotiation and deliberation, not to mention their intolerance for new ideas, are the products of an unavailing history. The president has taken a brave stand. Knowing how the other side thinks will help him succeed.Dr. Irwin Savodnik is a psychiatrist at UCLA Medical Center.


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