Commentary Magazine


Self-Determination, Arab-Style

In the course of 1941, as a child of five, I reached Morocco, coming from Vichy France. Although English, I was then in the care of an aunt and uncle, the latter a Spanish diplomat who had been accredited to the government of Marshal Pétain but was now being transferred to the consulate in Larache. We were to live in Tangier. I well recall the blue sky, the imposing block of the hotel at which we first arrived, the extraordinary relief of being able at last to eat enough to feel full. The man who carried the trays was extremely fat and his laughter at the sight of the appeasement of hunger was itself a pleasure. At night, the room converted into an excitingly whitened tent as the mosquito net was lowered over the bed.

It was not long before we moved into a house with a view over the Mediterranean to Gibraltar, a chunk of a silhouette on the skyline. Next door (but rarely in residence) was the Glaoui, the great Berber chieftain from the south, and friend of France. Soon I was discovering the local witch doctor, who dyed her hands and feet with henna, and who burned crows’ feathers in awesome magical rites. Soon I was having my scalp examined for the lice which it was assumed I would have caught as a result of associating with Arab boys of my age. I was spellbound by the long twist of hair in the center of their otherwise shaven heads, onto which, I was informed, God would grip if He should wish to raise them up to heaven. In the garden, I followed around after Mohammed Driss, master of cactuses and specialist in arum lilies.

The Arab world, then, to me primarily meant safety, food, color. Other dimensions were in the distance. One day we were driving into the Petit Socco of Tangier. The big black car was pushing through the flow of the crowd, when a hooded face stooped at the window and a man spat right at the glass between him and me. As the phlegm slid down the pane, the indignant grown-ups tried to prevent me from looking and asking why this had happened.

Years were to pass before I acquired perspectives on these experiences of my five- and six-year-old self. Grown-up and returning to Tangier, I found the house as I remembered it. The Glaoui had long since died, humbled and disgraced on account of his friendship with the French; he and his family had been dispossessed, and Morocco was independent. I walked through familiar gates where the witch doctor had squatted on her haunches, past the graceful arum lilies, and there was Mohammed Driss, unchanged, still bent over his work. Immediately recognizing me from afar, he arrived at a run. When he embraced me, his cheeks were wet with tears, and neither of us could speak for a while.

Morocco, like the majority of Arab states, reached its independence in the aftermath of World War II. For thirty years now (in some cases longer, but in the Gulf a little less), the Arab states one and all have been free to make whatever political or social arrangements they choose.

To an Englishman of my generation, this evolution appeared only right and proper. Chance alone had brought the British into the Middle East in the first place. The Industrial Revolution had been developed in England. In consequence, a new order, based upon science and technology, had spread throughout the world, and in the course of this widening process, peoples everywhere were expected to adapt, just as the English themselves had done. It was not supposed that the adaptation would be straightforward, but it was rational and therefore in time everybody would accept it.

Colonialism, we were taught, had no other justification than the establishment of this coming international order. Within itself, colonialism contained its expiry date. A stage would be reached in the spread of modern communications and education and facilities when the Arabs, like everyone else, would be on an equal footing with the colonial powers.

As we saw it, World War I had proved the major disruption to smooth or normal evolution. The Ottoman empire had fatally allied itself to Germany. Whether or not they liked it, the British and the French had then become responsible for the Arabs in the successor states of the defeated Ottoman empire. Under the colonial aegis, the institutions prerequisite to independence were devised, such as a constitution, legislative assemblies, political parties, armed forces, a judiciary practicing a civil code fitting the new circumstances.

The test of the effectiveness of these institutions lay in the Arabs proclaiming that they were ready and able to manage them. Between the wars, progress had seemingly been perceptible. In Egypt, as in Iraq and Syria and North Africa, Arabs were indeed to be heard proposing self-government. These countries, it could truthfully be said, were a good deal better prepared to rule themselves than Saudi Arabia or Yemen, regions which were both so backward and out of reach that they had slipped into independence almost unseen, in the hiatus between the drawn-out decline of the Ottoman empire and the arrival of Western influences.

Arab voices reaching Europe at the time of World War II and afterward were in the European idiom. Nationalism for the Arabs, these voices said, was the same as nationalism for Europeans: the right to one’s own country, one’s past and present, one’s liberties. A slogan like “Egypt for the Egyptians” had its unarguable logic in the West. In one country after another, moreover, public movements began to oppose colonialism with rising nationalism, in demonstrations and riots. When a nationalist leader like Abd al-Rahman al-Bazzaz in Iraq declared that “The national movement is ‘democratic,’ ‘socialist,’ ‘popular,’ and ‘cooperative,’” it seemed reasonable to assume that the angry mob on the street proved the point. No post-1945 European was likely to question the value of these adjectives or to doubt the sense in which they were being applied. The hour of independence had arrived. The Arabs would resume the acknowledged place that was theirs in the international order.

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This was the received wisdom with which a twenty-year-old like myself met the Suez crisis in 1956. I was a very junior officer in a regiment standing by for operations in Egypt. I lectured my platoon on the necessity of recapturing the Suez Canal, even if this meant overthrowing Colonel Nasser, and I did not believe what I was saying. Nasser seemed to me and to many others to be exercising legal rights in doing what he thought was best for his country. Those few who argued that this was an incomplete understanding of Egyptian society and politics were dismissed without a hearing; they said that Nasser was not concerned with what he could do for Egypt but with what Egypt could do for him, and this cynicism could not be squared with what we had heard of Egyptian independence. In the event, the political failure of the British and the French surely defined the reality of Arab nationalism. The resignation of Prime Minister Anthony Eden, subdued and silent and ill, appeared to certify that Egypt and Egyptians had rights and values like those of any Western country.

The Suez crisis marked the end of colonialism, British as well as French, in the Arab world. Fighting in a last gasp to hold Algeria from 1954 to 1962, the French were destroying everything for which they had worked. Peace brought relief, even if a million French people were to be dispossessed and exiled. Everywhere the independence had arrived for which Arab nationalists had been pleading and fighting. Their new men had won through, not only Nasser in Egypt and Ben Bella in Algeria but also Bourguiba in Tunisia, young military officers in Syria, and their counterparts overthrowing dynastic regimes in Yemen and in Iraq, and finally Libya.

“Give us five years,” the new military ruler of Syria, Husni Zaim, had vaunted in 1949, “and I will make Syria as prosperous and enlightened as Switzerland.” Michel Aflaq, perhaps the leading theorist of Arab nationalism, wrote an essay as early as 1940 under the title “Nationalism Is Love Before Everything.” In his opinion, nationalism was all things to all Arabs, it was spiritual and would not clash with religion, it was racial “in the sense that we hold sacred this Arab race,” it spread “hope in the soul,” and it was even revolutionary as well. Thanks to nationalism, then, Arabs might expect to be observant Muslims and progressive, free, and happy. How nationalism might become embodied in something more substantial than these warm emotions was not spelled out.

At the same time, nobody denied that enormous wealth and power were amassing in the hands of the few while the huge majority was destitute, that injustice and corruption were general, that violence was an everyday occurrence. These blots, it was explained by Arab and Western apologists alike, survived from the past, the “feudal” or colonial past, and perhaps had even been perpetuated by Westerners for purposes that were not clear but could only have been malign. The new rulers were soldiers, said to be an elite, a class of their own, eager and efficient, “in a hurry,” and moreover with an ideology. Socialism was to be their modality for ushering in the great and undoubted benefits of nationalism.

What this socialism might be, what institutional form it could have or what program it might adopt, whether or not it was applicable to Arab societies and traditions, and if so which, who exactly was to practice it and according to what models or theories, were practicalities not under discussion. Whenever such questions were raised, the language of debate rose loftily. Michel Aflaq again:

When I am asked to give a definition of socialism, I can say that it is not to be found in the works of Marx and Lenin. I say: socialism is the religion of life, and of its victory over death. By giving work to everyone and helping them to develop their talents it keeps the patrimony of life for life, and leaves for death only dried-up flesh and scorched bones.

How was this to be translated into policy? Yet an informed commentator like the French sociologist Jacques Berque, sympathetic to the Arabs as well as to socialism, could write in 1964, “Almost everyone professes adherence to socialism in the Middle East.” He could go further: “Liberalism is deeply rooted in the urban life of the Arab East.”

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Such assertions were taken at face value. If true, then these Arab socialists and deeply rooted urban liberals, these successful nationalists, were in a recognizable Western mold, apparently responsible politicians acting for responsible constituents. In theory, they had open horizons before them, a world to make, in which the Arab spirit of which they were indubitably proud would find its contemporary expression. Coming into their own, they ought to be the equal of Britain and France, even able to patronize them a little, forgiving them more in sorrow than in anger for any past mistakes, gratified by any past achievements.

In addition, the nationalists had the unexpected good fortune to attain power at the height of the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union. This geopolitical confrontation of two superpowers offered leverage to everyone in between. No longer at the bidding of a single colonial power, the Arab leaders could now play off two massive blocs, both offshoots of European history but nonetheless political rivals, sidling between the one and the other in order to obtain the highest favors, up-to-date arsenals, the most preferential treatment.

Truly the moment appeared propitious. In an unprecedented transfer of resources, capital flowed in from the entire West to develop oil fields in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, North Africa, to build airports and steel mills and public utilities and communications. Places which hitherto had known subsistence agriculture and barter trade were now the object of Five-Year Plans. The most remote oasis in the Sahara or the Empty Quarter of Arabia acquired a generator for electricity. Computation is impossible but it is certain that the Arab world since 1945 has received billions upon billions of dollars in the form of aid, grants, loans, and investments from Western governments and private sectors alike, as well as goods, and free or subsidized services of a general or technical kind, not to mention the immense sums from the sale of oil and natural gas.

Yet the Arabs did not take their due place in the modern international order. Something was still amiss. Money and opportunity and good will were of little or no avail. In the years since independence, the Arabs have instead been creating an order all their own, owing nothing to the structures or values of the West, nothing to nationalism or socialism, justice or equality, as generally understood.

Censuses and statistics are not reliable enough to show exactly how many Arabs there are, but the figure is between 160 and 200 million. Some 50 million of these are Egyptians, making them far and away the most substantial of Arab populations, outmatched numerically in the Middle East only by Turkey (which is not Arab). Arab annual per-capita income in the early 1980′s varied from $100 to $15,000, according to Samir Amin, the political economist, although the latter figure is somewhat notional, reached by dividing national oil revenue by population figures. Amin notes the more meaningful figure of $370 as average per-capita consumption. Sixty percent of all Arabs are under nineteen years of age and therefore have known nothing but the post-independence sociopolitical system. One and all, in a score of countries, they have grown up amid an uninterrupted sequence of wars, both national and civil, with coups and assassinations, and they are familiar with every trauma of war, massacre, terror, and sudden death.

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I am no Arabist, no Orientalist, no social or political scientist, or indeed specialist of any kind but only a writer concerned to make sense of what I see and hear. It was 1962 before I returned to the Middle East. What could be observed was already stark enough. Nasser and his imitators had laid violent hands on their countries. The institutions and resources of the state were entirely at their disposal, the army and the bureaucracy, the treasury, education, and above all the secret police and intelligence services. Socialism had become qualified as Arab socialism, which in practice was only absolute rule, everywhere an exercise of untempered autocratic power. Switzerland indeed! Husni Zaim had long since been murdered, and his successors had been removed and usually murdered too by rivals themselves destined to disappear in the same bloody whirlpool. In Iraq, a similar succession of rivals for power was engaged in murder and massacre. Slogans in praise of unity and progress were overwhelmingly loud but did not translate into reality. In 1958, Egypt and Syria had declared themselves to be a political unity, only to separate three years later in recrimination.

Most extraordinary was the example of Algeria, which French intellectuals and others had been heralding as the torchbearer of socialism and progress. In 1962 Ahmed Ben Bella, leader of the liberation movement against the French, had proclaimed himself premier of a Democratic and Popular Republic, transforming his supporters into a government and a National Assembly. A series of compulsory measures of confiscation then placed the state and its resources in their hands. Within a year, Ben Bella was executing as “counterrevolutionaries” colonels and others who thought that they too had claims upon these resources. Eighteen more months, and Ben Bella was overthrown and imprisoned by his colleague Houari Boumedienne. Algeria was declared an Islamic state. Algerian women, famed as freedom fighters equal or superior to their menfolk, returned to the veil. Evidently Algerian nationalism and socialism could not be what their European supporters had imagined.

It was during the Six-Day War in June 1967 that the discrepancy between what was done in the Arab world and what was said about it in the West became so bewildering that I wanted to get to grips with it. As a war correspondent, I found myself in the Sinai desert. Somewhere near Abu Agheila, I came upon Egyptian trenches. Sprawled over the sand were soldiers who had fought and died there, more like boys in their youthfulness. What political process, what self-delusion in the leadership, could have ordered such vulnerable troops into so wretched a battle? A wave of pity shook me, and then anger against Nasser.

Captured Egyptian prisoners were willing to speak of their ordeal. Mostly they knew little or nothing about Israel and had hazy or antique conceptions of the Jews. Hatred was not one of their emotions. In the usual Egyptian manner, they were gregarious and friendly. Like all soldiers after battle, they were glad to be alive. At Kantara on the east bank of the Suez Canal, they were eventually loaded into boats and ferried across in parties of fifty at a time, and this continued for several days. Supervising, a doctor was obliging them to sign a register, and one by one they pressed their thumbs onto a purple ink-pad and then onto the floppy pages of a book. These were conscripts, and illiterate. On the other bank, under the sun, waited mothers in immobile and resigned lines, assembled from all over the country to learn the fate of their sons. Behind the serried mothers ran the barbed-wire fencing of an officers’ enclosure and four or five officers were reclining in striped deck chairs, scrutinizing the masses through field glasses. Why did the mothers and returning sons not storm those lounging and staring officers, and curse at them and cry for humane treatment? No less unimaginable was Nasser’s announcement on Egyptian television that the war had ended in catastrophe, whereupon millions of Egyptians crowded into the streets to weep and cheer and implore him not to resign (a plea he accepted without ado, in revealing contrast to Eden’s earlier departure).

Today I stand by the sense of moral outrage that so upset me at the time, but I have since perceived how essentially Eurocentric this reaction is. Like those who were so seized by their own concepts of nationalism and socialism that they transposed them by an act of utter imagination onto an Arab world which has no place in it for anything so alien, so I too was forming judgments according to a scale of values which could not apply in those circumstances. Nonetheless, somewhere in the frozen immobility of those officers and the frightened mothers at the Canal was born the impulse to understand and interpret for myself a society in which such a scene was possible.

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There have been other moments, too. That same week of June 1967, Israel had captured the West Bank, the territory of the old British Mandate of Palestine which had been incorporated into Jordan in 1948 after the first round of Arab-Israeli fighting. Hearing that the inhabitants of the West Bank were fleeing in a mass exodus, I drove in haste to the Allenby Bridge, then a narrow and broken-down footbridge, and the crossing-point between the West Bank and Jordan. Sure enough, refugees were swarming down to cross over. Until then, the majority of them had not seen an Israeli soldier, let alone been caught up in the war. The fighting had been brief, and it was over. Their faces stiffly wooden and inexpressive, they passed across, whole families with small children, babies in arms, possessions tied in bundles. If precedent were a guide, they were unlikely to be returning. It seemed obvious that they must be exchanging their homes and land for a future which could only be more uncertain and hopeless. Ready to stop and talk, they were nevertheless unable to explain their motivation. Fear was not moving them. In the grip of a collective response, they were obeying codes of their own, inviting comparison with the mothers of Egypt waiting for their sons.

That evening I wandered by myself in the Jordan Valley, at Aqabat Jaber, a complex of refugee houses from which some 60,000 people had fled. Too old or ill to leave, a few very elderly people lingered in that ghostly place. Abandoned hens and goats wandered into open rooms. On house walls and doors were superstitious signs painted in bright blue to ward off the evil eye and all bad spirits, and to promote fertility. Here, it seemed clear to me, a whole community had committed a mistake which it could not help committing. Something in the culture more powerful than either self-interest or common sense had worked upon these people.

The twenty years that have elapsed since that war offer more and more examples of self-inflicted and almost suicidal injury. After the Six-Day War, Nasser sought to recover by launching the so-called War of Attrition, consisting of artillery exchanges across the Suez Canal, during which Ismailia and Port Said were virtually destroyed and hundreds of thousands of refugees swarmed into a Cairo that could not accommodate them. (Victims in the Middle East have become statistics to be estimated in round numbers rather than counted.) A further round of Arab-Israeli fighting occurred in 1973, with an extension in 1982 when Israel invaded Lebanon.

The Arab-Israeli conflict, according to a senior Egyptian diplomat in 1985, “has been the most important single factor in the shaping of history in the Middle East during the past four decades. Had it not been for that conflict, we would have been able to see in that area a much more stable order, the orientation of which would have been liberal and rational.” This sentiment is repeated so often that it seems a truism, but it is superficial: plenty of other wars have broken out to defy liberalism and rationality, and they owe nothing to the presence of Israel in the Middle East.

Morocco and Algeria have fought, and for years Algeria has financed a proxy, the Polisario movement, to continue its feuding against Morocco. Libya has raided across the Egyptian and Tunisian borders and interfered militarily in Sudan. Syria has twice invaded neighboring Lebanon, and once neighboring Jordan, and it has mobilized against neighboring Iraq. Iraq has threatened neighboring Kuwait and Syria and has twice sent forces into Jordan, and under Saddam Hussein fought one of the longest wars of the century against neighboring Iran. Jordan, Yemen North and South, and Oman have experienced civil wars. In South Yemen, Ali Nasser Muhammed and Abdul Fattah Ismail, both nominally Marxists, fought in 1986 to decide which of them should rule; perhaps 13,000 people died, and fifty years of development in the port of Aden and along the shore were shelled to ruins.

For over a decade now, moreover, the world has watched in impotence and horror the death agony of Lebanon, as its component communities, Maronite, Druze, Sunni, Shia, Palestinian, have been each in turn victim and victimizer in the accelerating cycle of massacre and counter-massacre. Lebanese villages, city quarters, refugee camps, refineries, and hospitals have been destroyed indiscriminately. Beirut, once one of the most agreeable of Mediterranean cities, has become a mass of rubble and no-go areas. Over the years, Beirutis have been obliged to endure nights of random bombardment, to emerge pale and shaking in the dawn. Truces are no sooner made than broken. Rooftop snipers fire at any person visible in the streets below, women and children included. Churches and mosques are the object of sacrilege, and the living, and even the corpses of the dead, are regularly defiled. In a country of about 3.5 million, a tenth have become refugees, perhaps 150,000 have been killed, and countless more maimed and wounded.

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Mercilessness to external enemies is matched by mercilessness to the internal population under rule. In 1982 President Hafez Assad of Syria directed his artillery upon people in his own town of Hama who threatened his absolutist hold on power, and in the ensuing carnage killed several tens of thousands. A million and a half foreign workers live in Saudi Arabia, and in 1982 some of them demanded better living conditions. Six hundred police surrounded one particular camp. The security forces selected three Koreans at random, put them on a truck, drove them away and executed them without any due process of justice, as Said Aburish, a Palestinian by origin, describes it in his book. Raising the matter with a Saudi prince, Aburish was told that guilt or innocence was immaterial. The example was enough. Neither Korean nor any other workers would now dare contemplate disturbing the authorities. An assassination attempt in November 1986 on the head of state in Kuwait led to the deportation of 26,898 people. Some 32,000 Tunisians were expelled from Libya and had their assets seized, for no other reason than that a proposed merger between the two countries had come to nothing.

The Palestine Liberation Organization has killed some tens of thousands of people by now, only a relatively small number of whom are Israeli or Jewish, though these include many schoolchildren and a sixty-nine-year-old cripple thrown in his wheelchair off a liner at sea. Hijackings and hostage-takings, involving politicians, academics, businessmen, tourists, clergymen, journalists, who happened to provide available targets, have become commonplace. The world has grown accustomed to pictures on television and in the newspapers of Arabs strewing corpses in their wake, throwing bodies out of aircraft on runways, driving cars loaded with high explosives to kill anyone who might happen to be within reach, placing bombs in markets and shops.

Nothing appears too inhuman. Nizar Hindawi, a Jordanian in London but in fact a Syrian agent, over a long period deceived an Irish girl into thinking he loved her, made her pregnant, bought her a ticket to Tel Aviv, and placed in her luggage a bomb to blow up in midflight, which would have killed her and his own unborn child as well as all the passengers. Having put the plan into effect, as he thought (wrongly, thanks to security measures), he returned to the Syrian embassy in London, where the ambassador masterminding this operation “greeted him warmly,” according to the evidence later given in the British court which sentenced Hindawi to life imprisonment.

Two typical newspaper items speak for themselves. The first is on the conduct of Syrian soldiers in Lebanon:

In Tripoli on December 18, Syrian soldiers arrested a leader of the fundamentalist Islamic Unification Movement, also known as the Tawheed. All its members are Sunni Muslims. In response Tawheed killed 15 Syrians. That night members of the pro-Syrian Arab Democratic, Lebanese Communist, Baath, and National Syrian Socialist parties cordoned off the suburbs of Tabbaneh. Syrian intelligence officers then named more than 200 people for summary execution. All were shot in the head. The massacre is taken to be a warning to other groups that Syria rules in Lebanon.

The second newspaper item is a report from Iraq:

Fifty-seven boxes were recently returned to the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniya in Zeit trucks—large Russian military vehicles—by the Iraqi government authorities. Each box contained a dead child, eyes gouged out and ashen white, apparently drained of blood. The families were not given their children, were forced to accept a communal grave, and then had to pay 150 dinars for the burial.

The fifty-seven children were among several hundred taken hostage by their own government in order to bring the rebellious Kurdish minority into line by means of this atrocity.

Public executions are frequent in Syria and Iraq, and criminals also suffer amputation in Saudi Arabia, Libya, Sudan, and Iran. Between 1983 and 1985, according to a newspaper report, religious courts in Sudan approved over a hundred amputations, sometimes for petty theft, and thousands of floggings, even an unconfirmed crucifixion. A doctor, Kamal Zaki Mustapha, apparently British-trained, is quoted as saying that he was preparing executioners for this task, teaching them how to dislocate the wrist from the forearm. “There was never any cutting of the bone. I attended the first seven or eight cases and when I was satisfied with the standard of chopping, I didn’t go back.”

In Saudi Arabia, offenders are decapitated or have a limb amputated in public on a Friday, the day of prayer. Now and again, a shocked Westerner describes in the press how during his stay in Saudi Arabia he has stumbled upon such a sight, witnessed by a large crowd. Death of a Princess was a film shown on British television in 1982 about the execution of Mishal, a young Saudi princess whose offense was to wish to live abroad with a young man of her choice. The Saudi regime admitted that the execution had occurred for the reasons given, but the mere fact that the film was screened led to diplomatic tension and, of all paradoxical things, an apology to the Saudis from the British foreign minister of the day.

In Libya, the execution of offenders has been lengthily shown on television. In one instance, Muammar Qaddafi, who is responsible, offered the explanation that those hanged were “terrorist groups,” although none of them had perpetrated any attack, and none had been before a court of law. Whether a country declares itself secular or religious has less bearing on the level of cruelty than on the methods of its implementation.

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In the years of independence, the Arabs have so far made no notable inventions or discoveries in the sciences or the arts, no notable contribution to medicine or philosophy. Among those millions of quick and gifted people of individualistic outlook, and heirs to one of the world’s great civilizations, hardly a single person has earned an international reputation except as the beneficiary of his country’s politics or his country’s oil extraction. Sucking in Western goods out of all proportion to their capacity to absorb them, the Arabs are returning only oil, the Middle East’s commodity par excellence. Oil alone now permits Arabs to feed themselves. In 1985 the Arab states imported foodstuffs to the value of $22.5 billion. At a conference held in Abu Dhabi in February 1986, Saif Ali Al-Jarwan, the minister of economy and trade in the Emirates of the Gulf, explained that 60 percent of Arab food was now imported. As he put it, “This means that we have to import six out of ten loaves of bread from abroad.”

Instead of construction, destruction; instead of creativity, wastefulness; instead of a body politic, atrocities. The Moroccan intellectual, Abdallah Laroui, has summed up what ought to have been the new and positive era of independence as “the long winter of the Arabs.” This self-critical tone is now occasionally to be heard, at least among intellectuals. The Algerian writer Malek Bennabi entitled a section of his book on contemporary events, “The Chaos of the Modern Muslim World.” The prominent Palestinian novelist, Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, writes:

From the Arab Gulf to the Atlantic Ocean I heard a cry, I heard weeping and the sound of sticks and plastic hoses. Capitals and casbahs, the secret police was everywhere, on mountain-tops and in the valleys below; men in neat civilian suits walking to and fro like a thousand shuttles on a thousand looms, hauling off to the centers of darkness people by the tens and hundreds.

In The Arab Predicament, a sustained attempt at a truthful reckoning of these Middle East realities, Fouad Ajami, originally a Lebanese Shia and now living in the United States, calls the material of his book “a chronicle of illusions and despair, of politics repeatedly degenerating into bloodletting”

An Iraqi writer in exile, Khalid Kishtainy, writing to an English newspaper, has offered one explanation for this dereliction. Even from a London address, it took courage to say openly in print that he could see from the latest news of horrors in Lebanon that the Arabs have given their leaders and politicians the valid title “sons of a bitch,” and he concludes, “That is, Sir, what they are.” The rulers, then, are alone to blame for whatever is done. But is it likely that “sons of a bitch” have been thrown up in every Arab country simultaneously but coincidentally, without exception?

Another explanation resonated in the speeches of Nasser and his colleagues and imitators over the Arab world. To them, “imperialism” was the reason why their societies were making so little headway. Blame was directed away from themselves onto this “imperialism,” yet there was no external reference for the idea. Neither British nor French garrisons, nor even stores, had been permitted to remain in any Arab country, as though their mere presence would be conducive to backwardness. At the same time, postwar Germany and Japan contained foreign bases with large numbers of foreign troops, and both countries were spectacularly recovering from a wartime devastation on a scale fortunately never experienced anywhere in the Middle East.

In this usage borrowed from the Soviet Union, “imperialism” was a code word for the United States (a country not notably impeded from progressing by its own colonial past). The American presence in the Middle East was associated almost entirely with the extraction of oil for which the market price was negotiated and paid, with aid and development projects, and with its support for Israel. How this translated into “imperialism” was never explained in the speeches of Nasser and his followers. “Imperialism” was something other, happening like a fate, blind, occult, often to be detected in strange euphemisms like “external forces” or “vested interests.” This was a shorthand for some psychological state of mind akin to an inferiority complex.

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For me, it was soon evident that words like “socialism,” “democracy,” and “revolution” had no meaningful application to Arab societies but were serving a purpose as metaphors for an absolute rule that could not be declared openly as such. Merely mystifying, these metaphors were for export only. It was abroad, in Western conferences and congresses, in learned journals and in fashionable reportage by no means always or necessarily Marxist, that Arab socialism and revolution thrived. But the realization that “imperialism” was another such metaphor, in this case for the failure or evanescence of Arab nationalism, came more slowly. I resisted the conclusion because it was painful to accept that Britain and France had so misconceived the nature and intent of Arab nationalism. Supposing themselves to be acceding to natural and popular demands, Britain and France had actually handed over whole populations to the tyranny of the ambitious few among them.

For at least a generation, “imperialism” as a metaphor hid the extent to which nationalism lacked political or social foundations in reality. Nationalism, as rhapsodized by Aflaq and his like and manipulated with supreme skill by Nasser and others, served to legitimize aspiring one-man rulers in their bid for power. Listening, approving, conceding, the colonial powers released themselves from their responsibilities to the Arab masses—those masses who, according to the American social scientist Morroe Berger, “really believe in their inalienable right to be exploited by people of their own nationality.” Perhaps there was nobody in the ruling circles of the West who sympathized sufficiently with the Arab masses to foresee what would happen to them.

Frantz Fanon, the Marxist agitator from the West Indies who supported the Algerian independence movement, could hardly be accused of residual colonialist urges, but he was quick to detect cynicism in the attitude of his opponents. “In plain words, the colonial power says: ‘Since you want independence, take it and starve.’” A far better writer and a more rounded personality than Fanon, the Algerian Mouloud Feraoun, felt that his countrymen were being dismissed “to manage as best they can.”

Here speaks a Moroccan, a small street trader, Al-Hajj Muhammad, voicing disappointments common to Arabs who were his contemporaries:

In those days, we thought that once we obtained independence everything would be wonderful. We thought we Muslims would live the way Christians live, with villas, cars, and servants. But now we are no better off than we were under the Christians. Now the Fassis [men from the city of Fez who led the nationalist movement] rule as the Christians used to. They have the villas, cars, and servants. But those of us who toil for a mouthful of bread have gained nothing since independence.

Quite what the relationship should be between Arabs and modern civilization, as epitomized in villas and cars, is hard if not impossible to define, but the ending of colonial rule could do nothing to clarify or rationalize it. If anything, the Arabs were left more haplessly than before to make what they could of this civilization. Many even began to turn their backs on their own countries. Europe today has between six and eight million Muslim immigrants, the majority from North Africa. Millions more ask little better for themselves than to abandon their own societies for a European one, so much so that Sweden, Denmark, West Germany, and Switzerland are among countries legislating against further Arab (or Iranian) immigration.

The passage of the years and the unfolding of the wars among the newly independent states has revealed how misleading it was to suppose that the violences of the Arab world were momentary maladjustments, as it were the teething troubles of nationalism. To me as to many, the Middle East for a while seemed in anarchy; here was the war of every man against the other, in which the frightening phrase of Thomas Hobbes had come true, and life was “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Life for the Arabs is certainly that, but it is also displaying a pattern, much more fundamental, recurrent, rooted in the past.

“For all the indisputable diversity, the remarkable thing is the extent to which Muslim societies resemble each other,” Ernest Gellner has observed. “One has the feeling that the same and limited pack of cards has been dealt.” Here again, slogans of “imperialism” widened the discrepancy between what was done in the Arab world and what was said about it, creating artificial distinctions where actually none existed. Like Algeria, Egypt since Nasser, Iraq since 1958, Syria, Sudan, North Yemen and South Yemen are nominally republics, nominally “progressive.” Jordan and Morocco, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia have dynastic ruling families and are nominally “conservative.” All have had varied historical experiences. And yet now common to all is the rule of a single power-holder around whose ambitions the state has been arranged.

Set up by Muslims for Muslims, every Arab state is explicitly Islamic in confession. Religious and ethnic minorities have been persecuted everywhere. Nowhere is there participation in the political process corresponding to any conception of representative democracy. No parliament or assembly except by appointment of the power-holder, no freedom of expression throughout rigidly state-controlled media, no opinion polls, nothing except a riot to determine what public opinion might be. Nowhere in the Arab world is there security guaranteed under the law for persons and property. The same is true for non-Arab and Shia Iran, where the difference between the rule of the late Shah and his successor Ayatollah Khomeini may be posed as a question of who is persecuting whom and according to what principle. Lebanon, which until 1975 had maintained participatory institutions, has also become a truly Hobbesian example of social and political disintegration.

_____________

 

Westerners, unsuitably and even laughably projecting their own political and moral attitudes where these cannot apply, habitually and ignorantly misconceive the responses they are likely to encounter from the Arabs. In Lebanon in 1983, a terrorist sponsored by Syria or Iran drove a truck packed with explosives into a barracks, killing 241 American Marines. To abandon Lebanon as a result was a response comprehensible as pragmatic to an electorate, but which in the Islamocentric perspective looks quite different, a shaming of the entire West and an honor to the anonymous terrorist whose bomb, however freakishly, proved to be strong enough for supreme arbitration. As a Western democracy unable by reason of geography to extricate itself from the Arab collectivity, Israel is in a similar predicament, routinely obliged to arbitrate by force while fruitlessly pleading for democratic procedures of compromise and civility to resolve a conflict that would be redundant, indeed would never have assumed its historic form, if such procedures had been available in the first place.

Time after time, another bout of fighting produces a flurry of further metaphors about socialism and revolution, which fade out as yet another absolute ruler takes power exactly as his predecessor had done. To a Westerner, the conclusion that political instability and violence are all of a piece with continuity is almost too paradoxical to be credited, in too great a conflict with the obvious assumption that orderly politics can be produced only by an orderly society. It is difficult for a Westerner to jettison every one of his deceptive slogan-metaphors as worthless, to make the imaginative leap of abandoning his universe and his institutions, and so enter the Arab collectivity of tribe and kin and religious affiliation.

Far from creating approximations to Western social and political norms, the Arab order in its post-1945 independence has been reverting to custom, to basic tribal and kinship structures, with their supportive group values, as they were in pre-colonial days—with hindsight, perhaps it was only natural that this should have been so, a defiant assertion of that special and persistent sociopolitical system which in the last resort makes them Arab. Where Arabs are actually asserting their identity as Arabs, in the Eurocentric view they are backward; where they are adjusting relationships among themselves in the customary manner, they seem violent; where they are justifying themselves and their values, they seem irrational. Whether victims or victimizers, the Mohammed Drisses of the world, and the witch doctor who once so captivated me, and the Glaouis and Husni Zaims, are not metaphors but flesh and blood, in the thrall of custom. To describe that custom as “progress” is truly to patronize the Arab masses who still have no say in deciding their fate.

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About the Author

David Pryce-Jones, the British novelist and political analyst, is the author of, among other books, Betrayal: France, the Arabs, and the Jews (Encounter).




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