CAIRO, Egypt - One of the most popular graffiti tags here is roughly translated, as "It's our mosque, not their Temple." You can find these words emblazoned on not only concrete walls of tenements, but also under framed pictures of al Aqsa Mosque in the offices of newspaper editors, politicians and lawyers. I first noticed it at the lobby of Cairo's medical syndicate, the Egyptian equivalent of the American Medical Association.
This slogan is a way to understand Arab public opinion about the latest war in Lebanon and Gaza. There is no Jewish claim to the remains of the second temple on the base of the Temple Mount. There is only the mosque where Mohammed ascended to heaven for a brief visit.
There is no equivalent academic movement in the Arab world similar to the Israeli post-Zionists of the 1990s, who sifted through Israeli archives to dissent, dubiously at times, from what they saw as the myths of their state's founding. There are no Arab equivalents of the Israeli B'tselem, who spend their hours documenting the plight of Palestinians under occupation. There are not even programs at universities to study the enemy, to understand Israeli society, to learn Hebrew. There is only this abstract noun - the Zionist entity, populated by abstractions - the Jews.
From this well of ignorance, slanders and lies flourish. The Holocaust? It never happened, a myth of the Jew-run press. Israeli scientists invented AIDS. Israelis poison Palestinian drinking water. Hezbollah is still resisting Jewish occupation, even though it celebrates how their arms drove Israeli occupiers out of southern Lebanon in 2000.
How can anyone be surprised that in this environment, when Arabs are given an electoral choice, pluralities and majorities will vote for parties that seek the destruction of the enemy abstraction? There was no serious coverage in the Arab press of Israel's withdrawal last summer from Gaza, only the line about occupation. While Israelis may have abandoned the dream of a greater Israel extending to Gaza and the West Bank, most Arabs struggle for Jerusalem.
The ruling regimes in the Middle East help proliferate this ignorance. The Saudi royal family funds the publishing house that prints Arabic translations of the old Russian forgery, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Ramadan miniseries produced in Syria and Lebanon depict the practice of rabbis using the blood of gentile children to make Matzoh. When an Egyptian playwright, Ali Salem, visited Israel in 1994 and published a book about his travels, not an apology, just an account of particulars of his time in Egypt's northern neighbor, he was kicked out of the writer's syndicate and suffered the brunt of a rumor campaign led by the state-funded press. From a professional perspective he was ruined.
The consensus in America and Europe now is that free elections in the Middle East will empower those openly seeking the elimination of Israel. This is what the sovereign families prefer. Hence the mediocre strong men and sultans of the Arab world become indispensable to the western powers that seek nothing more than stability and oil. Our diplomats sigh in relief when they read comments from anonymous members of the Saudi royal family who criticize Hezbollah. They fret when they see the Arab reporters screaming at the Arab League's secretary general for not promising Arab armies will save Lebanon from the latest Zionist invasion.
But despotism also has its costs. The corollaries of tyranny - corruption and a suffocation of rights - also drive young men to grow beards the size of their fists, read and re-read passages of the Koran and embrace the nihilism of Saudi-exported Islam. The fruits of western prosperity - iPods, cars, clothes - are not on offer to even the brightest Arabs, where almost all the spoils of the state are hoarded for friends and family of the rulers. Most college graduates in Egypt today cannot afford a furnished apartment. While there is a liberal opposition in the Middle East, its agenda is rendered moot when it sees Beirut burning and is told that at any moment, Cairo or Amman could be next.
So with no good options for a future, more and more young, educated men choose to destroy the source of temptation and reject all of the things they wanted. The jihad movement is unbending in its opposition to the West and Israel. Like the petty dictators that so often throw them in torture rooms and jail cells, the death Sheikhs benefit from the West's reliance on these jailers.
The Bush administration has labored under the illusion that the region's royal families understand this dangerous cycle and will voluntarily reform before it tips out of control. It would be nice to believe. But when reality intrudes, as it is intruding now, our ambassadors cannot be bothered to discuss the latest press laws or jailing of protestors.
No, there is peace that must be processed. If only we could get Israel talking with the right Arab leaders to extinguish the latest fire from the fundamentalists. Meanwhile, most Arabs see only a war for a mosque on a mountain and no evidence there was ever a Temple there before it.