The death and chaotic burial of Yasser Arafat provides a
better glimpse and understanding of the cultural void between
Arabs, Muslims, and the Western world.
I begin this column with the risk that there are many people
who will, in knee-jerk reaction, either accuse me of some
sort of racism, or, accuse me of not having a clue about the
Middle East and its problems. Others wont care either
way. So be it.
Like many of my fellow media comrades who have never had to
directly cover the strife between Israel and the Palestinians,
I have kept abreast of all the peace talks, all the proposed
accords, all the changing critical players, etc. You always
have to stay close to some stories in this business because
you never know if and when the call may come to cover or comment
on world events.
Clearly, one of the most intriguing and long-time players
was Yasser Arafat, the multiple-personality leader that some
have called a demon, who was laid to rest in the same Ramallah
compound where hes been a virtual prisoner in his own
home for the last few years, courtesy of the Israeli government.
This column is NOT going to get into the intricate nuances
of whats not working in the Middle East or if there
will ever be a resolution. But the passion that exists on
both sides, and we certainly saw the vehement Palestinian
passion at Arafats funeral, should give Americans a
very good idea of why we face a very uncertain and perhaps
perilous future in trying to bring Democracy to the Muslim-controlled
The term cultural gap doesnt adequately
describe the feelings that swirled through me as I watched
the perverse drama of Arafats funeral unfold in the
middle of the night on the West Coast, and early afternoon
in the Middle East. It was chilling.
There is a fine line between unbridled passion and lack of
civility, but regardless of what you want to call it, the
actions of Palestinians wanting to see the burial of their
leader was a scary spectacle at best. This NOT a criticism,
as much as it is an observation, of how different Americans
react and respond to a funeral for our leaders.
As much as we loved and admired John F. Kennedy and were angry
about his assassination, we didnt rip his coffin from
the clutches of the soldiers carrying it. We didnt pounce
on the cortege and rip the flag from the coffin. We didnt
fire automatic weapons into the air and put everyone else
at risk of death. Yes, I know, there are differences in the
persona of JFK and Yasser, but they were both well-known,
admired, and popular national leaders whose death caused major
national angst. Its true that JFK only served there
years as resident and Arafat was the hope of Palestine for
more than 40 years, but his is the closest analogy I can find
to make the point.
Perhaps we are too formal as Americans. Maybe we were raised
incorrectly and wrongly taught to diffuse our emotions in
public, taught that a public display of respect is more important
and acceptable than the sheer pandemonium that erupted on
my television screen at four oclock in the morning.
The tens of thousands of Arafat mourners who breached the
security and the walls at the Ramallah compound, carrying
sticks, automatic weapons, and swords, created an atmosphere
of chaos, pure and simple. We only see this type of conduct
from drunken hooligans after sports championships, not national
When the two helicopters arriving from Egypt with Arafats
casket and a delegation of foreign leaders eye-balled the
marked landing circles in the midst of the compound, they
suddenly saw their landing zone swallowed up the chaotic crowd
moving in to envelop the choppers BEFORE they landed. There
was a real risk of a catastrophic crash because the helicopters
were low on fuel and loaded with official mourners
from Middle East countries.
Palestinian security forces had to fire weapons above the
crowd to get them to comply and retreat so the helicopters
could land. Once the birds were on the ground, the crowds
surged forward and the foreign dignitaries onboard were trapped
by the sea of mourners who made it almost impossible to unload
the casket and exit the helicopters to pay their final tribute
The black Jeep that would eventually serve as the cortege
was erratically driven into the crowd, darting in and out,
as if to dare the mourners to hold their ground and get run
over. Finally, we saw the flag-draped coffin carried off the
plane, and in an amazing display of raw emotion and chaos,
the casket was both carried and pounced-upon, as it wound
its way to the final resting place.
Perhaps the most astonishing sight, in a series of unbelievable
maneuvers, was watching gun-toting members of HAMAS and the
Alaxa Martyrs Brigade, the most militant and violent elements
in the Middle East, sit and/or stand ON the coffin as it was
carried towards the burial site. Some fired their weapons
into the air from atop the coffin. One commentator called
it a tradition.
When the militant wings of ANY political faction, with a reputation
of using their own people as suicide bombers, are seen riding
a dead leaders coffin and firing AK-47s into the air
and that is considered the norm, we are very FAR apart in
And worse, we are VERY far apart in cultural acceptance of
these kinds of actions and displays of passion. Is it any
wonder we are still puzzled about what could possibly drive
someone to fly an airplane into the Twin Towers or behead
innocent hostages in Iraq?
I do not want to be accused of racial or religious insensitivity
or ignorance by laying out the observations of the chaotic
and sometimes bizarre Arafat funeral. It is important to remember
that the Arab and Muslim communities are actually a complex
of communities. Internally, they are differentiated along
four major fault lines. One of these is religion. Not only
are there Christians and Muslims, but subgroups of each of
those: Maronites, Copts, Orthodox, Sunni, Shia, and Druze,
to name a few.
Second, people come from different countries and different
hometowns. Here in the U.S., for example, we find large numbers
of Arabs and Muslims in the Detroit area. There we have Lebanese,
Iraqis, Yemenis, Syrians, Palestinians, Jordanians, Egyptians,
and others. Some people have homelands in conflict with those
A third cleavage exists between recent immigrants and those
born in the U.S. Some families have been here for a century.
They are very different from each other and they largely don't
Finally, there are class differences. The subgroups are very
different from each other, live in different places, move
in different circles, marry along different lines, and vote
But it is their organizations that mobilize voters, raise
money, and influence policy. In politics, if you're not organized,
you do not count. And that is what Yasser Arafat did best.
He organized the Palestinians and gave them regular doses
of fiery rhetoric, fanaticism, and his core belief that there
should be a state of Palestine and that Israel should cooperate
and in some cases, just give in to the process.
We know the result of those difficult differences between
neighbors to date and dont really know if theyll
ever be resolved. President Bush and British Prime Minister
Tony Blair think they have a new way to successfully revive
the Middle East peace talks.
However, after what we just witnessed at Yasser Arafats
funeral, we need a true miracle to bridge the cultural, religious,
political, societal, educational, and emotional gaps between
the American way of life we love and protect, and the way
of life that exists in parts of the world we are trying to
influence and change.