Taming the Elephant: A lesson for Arab and Muslim Communities


Humans devised a way to tame the most powerful land animal on the planet — the elephant. They start by securing a baby elephant firmly with a strong rope and a sturdy stake driven deep into the ground. The baby elephant struggles to break free, but struggle as it will, it cannot escape its bonds. The young elephant eventually tires and gives up trying. Thereafter, as soon as it reaches the end of its rope, it goes no further. It has been trained always to think that it cannot break free of its bounds; its spirit has been broken.

As elephant grows it becomes stronger, while the rope becomes thinner and the stake smaller. Yet every time the elephant meets resistance from the end of the rope, it stops. It thinks it can go no further because it has been trained not to try to break free. Eventually the elephant reaches full size and, having learned the behavioral lessons of infancy so well, it can be easily restrained by only a thin rope and a tiny stake. It has long given up trying to break free of its bonds of captivity.

This analogy can be applied in large measure to the 350-million-strong community of the Arab world, as well as to the 1.5 billion Muslims on earth. The Arab states have been taught that they cannot do anything to combat the political problems they face. When one Arab state gets the idea of thinking and acting on its own, its self-declared masters beat that state into submission and depose its independent-minded leaders. They then install a suitably obedient and compliant replacement. The other 21 Arab states — particularly their leaders — simply stand by and observe that they must obey strict limits imposed on their behavior. Not surprisingly, the Arab world is divided into 22 separate and often competing entities, frequently governed by feudal families who are terrified of their own people and dependent on outside powers for their very political survival. The same can be said for most "Muslim" states.

This dismal picture unfortunately has parallels with the Arab and Muslim communities here in North America, which are politically weak and fragmented along the same sectarian lines as those in the Middle East / "Muslim world". Like the tamed elephant, these communities are broken in spirit, conditioned to believe that they cannot change their situation and that nothing they do matters.

The habits of appeasement, collaboration and continually ingratiating themselves to perceived superiors have unfortunately been carried over to the West. When there is a political challenge or crisis situation, the vast majority of the Arab and Muslim community (with a few notable exceptions) remains passive, resulting in little or nothing being done. This behavior contrasts strongly with the confidence and assertiveness of the Zionist community and their Christian Zionist allies. They speak out loudly and organize themselves in support of Israel, no matter what that country has done, how many laws it has broken, or crimes it has committed. As Oxford University Professor Avi Shlaim has noted, public debate about Israel is much more fierce and partisan in North America, leaving relatively little space for the dignity of difference. The passion with which many prominent American Jews defend Israel betrays the atavistic attitude of "My country, right or wrong." ("Israel, Free speech, and the Oxford Union" By Avi Shlaim, Open Democracy, 13 – 11 – 2007) It is largely left to non Zionist or anti Zionist Jews, and a few brave independents to fight against what they see as unjust policies toward Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims, rather than passively accept whatever is dished out to them. For example, when Nobel Peace Prize winner Bishop Desmond Tutu was banned from speaking at St. Thomas University in Minneapolis MN, a group called the Jewish Voice for Peace succeeded in reversing the university’s decision through organizing a campaign that generated 2700 letters and editorials. (See; "Stifling criticism of Israel, as the University of St. Thomas has done, makes matters worse," by Mitchell Plitnick and Cecilie Surasky, Minneapolis Star Tribune, October 9, 2007.)

Many more in the Arab and Muslim communities of North America must join the fight with their 20Jewish allies and other friends in support of rights and justice for Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East and at home. It is also about their very self-preservation. North American Arabs and Muslims must open their eyes, rediscover their spirit, and realize that they have the power and the ability to stand up for themselves. In doing so, they could change their entire communities’ relationship with the United States and Israel. But in order to succeed, they must organize for political action, stop bowing to false perceptions of power, stop collaborating with their opponents, and stop hiding behind passive attitudes.

There are too many incidents in which western Arab and Muslim leaders refuse to defend their own communities’ interests and fail to support those who advocate on their behalf within the relevant North American political power structures. In fact, there are many instances where these so called leaders are more interested in proving that they are "good Arabs," and not "trouble makers" or "terrorists," and thus end up being used to support the political objectives of their opponents. By habitually trying to appease those in power they sabotage efforts to advance their own cause and remain as helplessly dependent as the elephant tied to the stake.

Until they overcome this self-inflicted and learned condition of powerlessness and helplessness, little can be done to assist them. They must learn to help themselves, support those who advocate for them and restore their dignity and pride in being Arabs and Muslims with a great historical and cultural tradition. At present, however, the Arab and Muslim communities are more like the tamed elephant that does not know its own power, or how to use its strength to gain freedom from the binding rope.