Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Killing the Levant, Rekindling the "Arab World"

In 1999, long before the fitful rise and fall of the 2011 “Arab Spring,” former Arab-nationalist author and public intellectual Hazem Saghieh published a scathing critique of Arab dogmas, delusions, and political discourse. He named his book The Swansong of Arabism. It was a work of painful and honest introspection, in which the author called for casting aside the soothing jingles of “Arab Unity” and discarding the assumptions of “Arab Identity,” urging his former comrades-in-arms to let go of, and bid farewell to the corpse Arabism. “Arabism is dead,” wrote Saghieh, and Arab nationalists would do well bringing a healthy dose of realism to their world’s changing realities: “they need relinquish their phantasmagoric delusions about ‘the Arab world’ [… and let go of their] damning and outmoded nomenclatures of unity and uniformity [… in favor of] liberal concepts such as associational and consociational identities.”

Arabism and unitary Arab identity—“philosophies of compulsion, coercion, and exclusion” in Saghieh’s words—have rained disaster on the Middle East of the past hundred years; yet their ideologies persist as lodestar to many an irredeemable nationalist, and their illusive terminologies remain the dominant prism through which some insist on defining the Middle East. Liberal, multi-ethnic, polyglot models such as those of Switzerland, Belgium, or India, complained Saghieh, “elicit nothing but contempt from Arabists still infatuated with overarching domineering pan-identities.” Diversity frightens the Arabists he claimed. To wit, Lebanese militant scholar Omar Farrukh wrote during the second half of the 20th century that it is irrelevant should Iraqis deem themselves a hybrid of Aramaeans, Persians, Kurds, Turks, Indians, and others still: “They still are Arabs, in spite of their racial diversity,” even in spite of themselves, “because the overriding factor in their identity formation is the Arabic language.” Likewise, Farrukh stressed that the inhabitants of today’s Morocco, Algeria, Libya, and elsewhere in Northern Africa, may very well be a mix of Berbers, Black Africans, Spaniards, and Franks; “but by dint of the Arab nation’s realities [sic.?] they all remain Arabs shorn from the same cloth as the Arabs of the Hejaz, Najd, and Yemen.”

More recently, Palestinian public intellectual and journalist Rami Khouri suggested proclaiming “the death of the ‘Levant’ label” as a referent to the lands of the Eastern Mediterranean. His rationale was that the “revolts across much of the Arab world capture the fact that Arab citizens are now in the very early stages of rewriting their own history and crafting their own national narratives.” Consequently, those citizens’ physical and geographic space, argued Khouri, deserved nomenclature reflecting the nature of their world and the mood of their revolts. The “Arab world” was a more apt term to describe Egypt, Syria, and their Mediterranean bailiwick claimed Khouri; “Levant,” on the other hand, was a linguistic, perceptual, and geographic throwback to a hated “colonial era,” which the current upheavals seem bent on erasing. Yet Levantines could not disagree more with Khouri's oversimplifications; most see themselves not as colonial inventions, but as sophisticated, urbane, cosmopolitan mongrels, intimately acquainted with multiple cultures, skillfully wielding multiple languages, and elegantly straddling multiple traditions, identities, and civilizations, including those of Khouri’s vaunted Arabs.

Yet, oblivious to the realities of the Levantine Near East as a crossroads and a meeting-place of peoples, histories, languages, and ideas, Khouri seems hellbent on snuffing out diversity in the name of Arab uniformity; as if Arabism’s resentful history of the past hundred years had not yet been sanguinary enough, repressive enough, or negationist enough. “History beckons to the Arabs,” wrote recently Syrian thinker Adonis,
to put an end to their culture of deceit; for, [the] states of the Levant are much greater, much richer, and much grander than to be reduced to slavery for the benefit of Arabism […] and no amount of cruelty and violence emanating from Arab nationalists will change the reality that the Middle East is not the preserve of Arabs alone.
Yet Khouri somehow deems it fitting to slay Adonis’s Levant—the Levant of millions of Adonises—on the altar of a spent ideology and an “Arab world” that no longer obtains. Never mind that in this year’s Middle East uprisings not a single banner was raised in the name of an “Arab world,” not a single candle was lit in the name of an “Arab world,” not a single slogan was intoned in the name of an “Arab world,” and not a single victim (mauled by the cruel killing machines of writhing Arab nationalist regimes,) not a single victim self-immolated for the sake of an “Arab world.” Still, the indecent champions of a moribund “Arab world” have no shame piggybacking on the sacrifices of those seeking freedom from the brutality and servitude of a hackneyed and dessicated ideology.

Nearly a decade before Khouri’s delusional exhortation to rename the Levant, Nizar Qabbani, an Arab nationalist with impeccable credentials, was announcing the death of his Arab world, not the Levant; and he was inviting incorrigible nationalists to join him at the wake. Eulogizing an anthropomorphic “Arab world,” Qabbani wrote:
… This is the end of dialogue […] My language has despaired of you: and I have set fire to my clothes, and I have set fire to your language and your lexicons. I want out of my voice; out of my writings; out of my place of birth. I want out of your cities of salt, your hollow poetry, […] and your tedious language and silly myths and lore. I have had enough already of your hallowed idiots and your lionized impostors. I have despaired of your skins; I have despaired of my nails; I have despaired of your impenetrable wall.
Perhaps Khouri, and those like him, still romancing outmoded delusions about some uniform, unified, reformed “Arab world,” would take heed.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

On the "Apartheid" State and Palestinian "Terrorists."

Last night David Makovsky and Gaith al-Omari spoke at the Schusterman Center—Brandeis University—about the upcoming bid for the UN recognition of a Palestinian State this Fall. It was fabulous. The talks were introduced by Brandeis Professor and Schusterman Director Ilan Troen, and moderated by Crown Center Director Shai Feldman. I couldn’t stay for the extended discussion session—which probably turned out to be more interesting than the presentations—but here’s one of the conclusions that I found particularly refreshing:

Pro-Israelis and pro-Palestinians around the world (and around US campuses) need to grow up already. The conflict is about lives, not about ideals that whacko extremists brandish on both sides. If Palestinians and Israelis on the ground have come to an understanding (and they have) that both their narratives are valid, and that both their decisions and behaviors affect the lives of people living inside the conflict, then so must their “supporters” who pontificate and posture and wave flags from outside the conflict. There is no solution—and therefore no possibility for a Palestinians state to emerge—outside of the “two-state” solution. Palestinians are only now coming to realize that they made a big booboo in 1947 by rejecting the UN “two-state” partition resolution. Better late than never. Palestinians can no longer deny the Jews’ connection to (what in 1920 became) British Mandatory Palestine; today Israel. Israelis can no longer say “there is no such thing as a Palestinian people.” That is silly, and both parties recognize the mistakes of their past posturing. They don’t necessarily have to like each other’s narratives—and again, it’s silly to expect them to. But they’re coming to terms with those narratives, and they are learning to respect them. It is time their supporters on the outside—and around US campuses—became responsible adults and followed suit.

I will try to post a transcript of the talks when I have time.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Arabism; An Orientalist Trope?

Arab nationalism and the post-WWI order it imposed on the Middle Eastern mosaic is another Orientalist trope says Shlomo Avineri in this recent Haaretz piece.

Not tooting my own horn--okay fine, I am--but this is something to which I have alluded repeatedly earlier this year, when every other Middle East expert and their sister kept tripping over themselves heralding a so-called "Arab Spring," and an "Arab Re-Awakening." Back then I wrote--and today I still believe--that
the dismantlement of the "anciens régimes" in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, point to a defrocking of the Arab nationalist order, not its "rebirth"; [signaling] the emergence of new nation-states, not the mending of an old ideology. Much has been written [...] about the region's turmoil bearing the markings of Eastern-Europe-1989. The comparison is tempting. However, it is not unlikely that future historians might revise this parallel and re-christen this year's momentous events as the early stirrings of a Middle Eastern "Peace of Westphalia"; the breakup of the imperial [and I dare say an imperialist] Arab (dis)order and the birth of new free nations. Eastern-Europe-1989 did not only bring about the fall of the Iron Curtain; it raised a Velvet Curtain to reveal the birthing of new nations. Not Egypt, not Libya, and not Tunisia; Sudan is the glimpse into the future of the Middle East.
Maybe this is wishful thinking--and I admit my analysis is not ideologically innocent, I am sympathetic to minority rights and minority narratives in the Middle East--but all indicators seem to validate the Sudanese model. To wit, Hebrew-U Political Scientist Shlomo Avineri wrote today that "the independence of Southern Sudan [and I would add the impending fragmentation of Libya and Syria] reflect the failure of Arab nationalist ideology to impose solidarity and uniformity upon complex, multiethnic societies."

Avineri, whose work is ordinarily seated snugly to a "left of center" well disposed to "Arabist causes", wrote that in a sanctimonious "international community that sticks to its principles" the Southern Sudanese should have achieved their independence long ago, without the oppression and the blood-tribute exacted by "the Arab and Muslim Sudanese leadership" whose stock in trade remains an unforgiving Aflaquesque Arabism.

But Sudan is only the most obvious (and fashionable) "modern" example. Otherwise, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, among others, are likewise modern creations--mainly the product of flimsy British cartography, heedless of the complex, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, polyglot societies that have defined the Middle East for millennia, even at the height of the more recent Arab and Muslim ascendancy in the region. The modern Arab nationalist order wrote Avineri
which presented these new countries as an integral part of the Arab world [...] reflected reality only in part, but for several decades served as a powerful device for oppressing minorities--Kurds in Iraq and Syria, non-Arabs in Sudan. Even the constant pressure on Lebanon to accept pan-Arab policy, at the expense of maintaining its unique character as a mutiethnic, multireligious society, is part of the attempt to force an Arab national identity on a pluralistic, complex society.
The fledgling republic of Southern Sudan might be signaling the end of the reductive, repressive Arab nationalist order argued Avineri; a prelude to a new map of the Middle East, and the beginnings of the dismantlement of an imperial idea obsessed with enforcing solidarity and uniformity where diversity and multiplicity once reigned. Echoing what I advanced in a series of essays in The National Interest earlier this year, Avineri wrote today that
As can be seen from the experience of Eastern Europe, the disintegration of the communist regimes not only gave rise to democratic alternatives, but also led to a reawakening of national movements once suppressed by communist ideology...
Again, this is the glimpse into the Middle East's future!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A BDS of History in Israel

The longer I stay here, the more I realize how much the Lebanese and Israelis share in common; geographically, culturally, politically, and ethno-religiously. Israel and Lebanon also share much in that those in their societies who are advocating for complex, expansive, spacious identities—recognizing the “otherness” of “the Other”—appear to be on the losing side of history.

In the early 1940s, speaking of the “Lebanese paradox” which, in its cultural and linguistic diversity represented a microcosm of the modern Middle East, Lebanese thinker Michel Chiha wrote that:
Conquerors and their conquests have all come, gone, and faded away; yet the Lebanese have remained. Lebanon [and by association the entire Levantine coastline] is the meeting-place into which peoples flock and assimilate regardless of their origins. It is the crossroads where varied civilizations drop in on one another, and where bevies of beliefs, languages and cultural rituals salute each other in solemn veneration. We are above all a Mediterranean nation, but a nation, like the Mediterranean itself, discerning and sensitive to the stirring music of universal poetry.
This is the essence of the Israel that I have come to know these past few years; a state of the Jewish people to be sure, but a diverse human and cultural space composed of Jews, Arabs, Christians, and others; a mix unparalleled anywhere in the Middle East; a space with topologies, climate-systems, histories, languages, and geographies favorable to diverse cultural and human compositions, synthesizing centuries of intellectual, linguistic, and ethno-national intercourse and traffic.

Alas, this diverse, pluralist—and yes, democratic—Israel is losing ground to a rigid, reductive, exclusivist Arabist interpretation of history. The model here is one not unlike that of the “association of minorities” that was pre-1975 Lebanon. What’s more, the scenario that has led to the dismantlement of the Lebanese “federation of ethnicities” might very well be lurking in Israel’s future. It is a discourse that—to use the language of Syrian thinker Adonis—is constructed upon a negationist ethos; an instinct that rejects the non-Arab “other” and refuses to “reflect on the other” in language, history, temperament, and social habits.

Here is how Israel is validating the Arabist interpretation of history—and I’m not dramatizing here; this is serious stuff!

The municipality of Rahat, a Bedouin township in the Negev, boasts a rich public library featuring thousands of Arabic-language volumes treating topics ranging from linguistics, to Koranic studies, Arabic literature, history, sociology, and culinary arts. So far so good, yes? No! Strolling down the “Arab History” aisles, I picked up Muhammad Muhammad Hassan Sharraab’s “Dictionary of the Counties of Palestine ” (Second Edition, Amman, Jordan: Al-Ahliyya Publications, 2000.) Flipping through the pages, I come to Chapter Three (p. 31), titled “The Ancient Inhabitants of Palestine.” The title itself was tantalizing—given that in my neck of the woods “Ancient” ordinarily referred to a pre-AD70 Era, when “Palestine” had not yet come into being—let alone had the term “Palestine” been invented. But the anachronistic terminology was fascinating enough, so I read through the chapter, and I provide a translation of its most notable passages below:
The Canaanite Arabs were history’s first people to have inhabited Palestine. This is attested to by a prominent historian [no name or reference are provided, of course] who said that ‘the opinions of the gifted jurists from among the luminaries of practice and knowledge are unanimous in that the Arabic-speaking peasants of Palestine are the descendants of the Pagan tribes inhabiting that land prior to the Israelite conquest.’ Their feet are deeply rooted in the soil of Palestine, since the remotest history. Indeed, since the very dawn of time peoples of the Semitic Race have inhabited Southern Syria—that is, Palestine—following a series of migrations issuing out of the Arabian Peninsula and beginning around the year 3500BC. Based on this, we can confirm that the Arabs had been present in Palestine for at least 5000 years.
Now, aside from the fact that the so-called “[Semitic] migrations issuing out of the Arabian Peninsula […ca.] 3500BC” are corroborated by no known archaeological or historical record—they are in fact based on the more recent 7th century Muslim conquests of the Levant, retrojected into an unknown past—the text exudes ideological puffery (in the garb of a serious etymological dictionary.) For one, the Semites are not a race, and the term “Semitic” refers not to peoplehood, but to a group of languages (including Arabic and Hebrew) that are as “related” to and as “distinct” from one another as French is “related” to and “distinct” from English and Rumanian. Secondly, despite the modern Arab nationalist cant, not all of the tribes emerging out of the Arabian Peninsula were necessarily Arabs. Furthermore, Arabs and Canaanites are two distinct peoples, making use of “related” but “mutually incomprehensible” languages—that is to say distinctly Arabic and Canaanite languages—that no serious “gifted luminary” can subsume into a single label. And finally, it is surprising that “the Arabs had been present in Palestine for at least 5000 years,” and yet left us no written or archaeological record of their presence. Indeed, the peoples of the Levant—“Palestine” included—had been “literate” since at least the 13th century BC; the Hebrew Bible tells us so; so do Ugaritic literature and Phoenician records. Yet the Arabs who “had been present in Palestine for at least 5000 years” seem to have bucked the Canaanite and Hebrew Alphabets despite Sharrab’s claim that “the Canaanites were a Semitic race of Arabs.”

I’m not going to bore you with the rest of the translation. For those interested, I've included an image of the Arabic text below, and I’ll post the rest of the translation once I'm back in Boston and have more reliable internet. For now, it’s interesting to note that this narrative is reminiscent of the great Edmond Rabbath—one of the chief intellectuals of Arab nationalism—who, with much swagger and gravitas (ahem, and with a straight face) advanced the claim that “Canaanite and Hebrew were dialects of Arabic,” and by inference, that both “Canaanites and Hebrews were lapsed Arabs that should be brought back to the fold.” Very Aflaqesque, no? But more importantly, this is the history that the "racist intolerant apartheid Jewish state" is allowing in the Bedouin School System. A BDS from within.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

I'm a Christian Too; Welcome to Israel

This post was picked up by the National Interest and published, on August 8 2011, under the title Shalom, And Welcome to Israel!

From the outset, at El-Al’s JFK security counter, Israel had already begun shattering stereotypes. My “cross-examination” took roughly five minutes even though I was told to expect a grueling five-hour interrogation. This was my first time flying El-Al, Israel’s flag carrier.

The airline’s security personnel were tough as nails; deliberate, methodical, invasive even, but supremely courteous. They wanted to know why I was going to Israel, what was the purpose of my previous visits, the names of the conferences I had attended in years past—at Be’er Sheva and Tel Aviv—the names of some of my colleagues in Israel, my area of specialty, and the courses I taught at Boston College. It was all seemingly anodyne, and a legitimate line of questioning—albeit not the kind one would ordinarily expect when boarding a flight to Paris or Amsterdam. But I was not heading to either Paris or Amsterdam, and I came prepared for Israel’s rigorous border-crossing rituals.

I spent my childhood in the Middle East, in war-torn Lebanon to be exact. I am intimately acquainted with the predatory nature of my neighborhood. I also know how vigilant one must be to stay alive in my little piece of paradise. “If you’re not a wolf you shall be mauled and devoured by wolves” goes a popular Arabic adage.

But in the end I was cleared for check-in and boarding, in under five-minutes, and El-Al’s security personnel were apologetic for having kept me a tad longer than the Jewish colleagues accompanying me on this trip. In fact, I felt I was “harassed”—to use the term of my Jewish companions—far less than Israeli citizens; and at the time I hadn’t an inkling that what I was being subjected to amounted to “harassment.” I still don’t. Israel has won this public relations battle as far as I am concerned. But the icing on the cake came hours later, during boarding, when one of the security agents who had been scrutinizing me and my passport earlier at the airline counter declined to see the travel documents I had handed him. He waved me through with a friendly tap on the shoulder, quipping “I know who you are Franck, have a nice flight.”

The arrival in Israel was equally contrary to convention. Although I cannot say that on my previous trips I was “detained” or “harassed” by Israeli immigration, it always took me at least a half-hour of (overall friendly) questioning by the Shin Bet (Israel’s General Security Service) before being given the entry stamp. This time around I was not even singled out for questioning: it was only my “menacing” immigration officer-in-the-booth and myself. She greeted me with a broad smile and a friendly Shalom, and spoke to me in Hebrew—to which I replied with the little Hebrew I could manage. But the minute she opened my passport—and, I assume, saw “Beirut” as my “place of birth”—her complexion changed, her brow furrowed, and her smile stiffened into bewildered suspicion. And although she had tried to keep her composure and friendly disposition, it was clear that this was now serious business, and firmness was the name of the game. She asked all the routine questions: “why are you here?” “what’s the name of the conference you are attending?” “what courses do you teach?”, etc… Then came the more serious part:
--“Where are you from?” she inquired.
--“Andover, Massachusetts, USA,” came my answer.
-- (No, stupid,) “where were you born?” she probed tersely.
--“Ah, that ‘where are you from?’ Beirut-Lebanon!
--“How long ago was your last visit to Lebanon?
--“About ten years ago.
Then, after quizzing me on my father’s and grandfather’s names, she popped the question; the one she’d been itching to ask:
--“So, what are you; Muslim or Druze?” she queried.
--“Neither,” I said, “I’m a Maronite, from Mount-Lebanon!
Her face lit up, she looked me in the eye, smiled (again), stamped my passport, and blurted out “I’m a Christian too; welcome to Israel!” I smiled back, thanked her, turned around, winked at the colleagues fretting behind me worried that their “goy” companion was being mistreated by their tough co-religionist border-officer, and walked into Israel.

In the aggregate, it took the Maronite goy from Lebanon less time to get through the impregnable Israeli security “wall,” than it took my habitués Jewish companions who’d spent a lifetime travelling there. I tell this story because, to my mind, it reveals an Israel that is at great odds with the stereotypical “bunker-state” that it is often made out to be—both by its Arab rivals and its smart liberal Western-Jewish critics. At the very least, Israel is a complex, dynamic, enterprising society; a turbulent democracy perhaps, with flaws and failings aplenty, but a democracy regardless, trying to maintain itself as such—and as a refuge for Jews and other Near Eastern minorities—against tremendous regional and international pressures.

In a recent critique of Arab totalitarianism, Syrian thinker Adonis wrote that for nearly a century of Arab-Jewish antagonisms in the Eastern Mediterranean, Arabism and its ancillaries
have attempted to submit the richness of the Levant to a single linguistic, cultural, racial, and religious identity, laying down the foundations of a uniform, monolithic, one-dimensional culture; a narrow, regurgitant, exclusivist culture, built solely on negating, apostatizing, marginalizing, and obviating ‘the other’...

Israel is an experiment in the opposite direction—arguably a clumsy belabored experiment fraught with pitfalls and challenges. Yet it remains the Middle East’s only experiment in minority “self-rule” where Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze, and others have equal rights before the law and enjoy the same individual freedoms of assembly, conscience, and dissent, without fear of retribution. It is certainly not Switzerland or Sweden. But judged by the standards of its own neighborhood—where non-Arabs and non-Muslims have traditionally not fared well at all—it remains infinitely better for one to be an aggrieved minority in Israel than a privileged majority in, say, Egypt, Syria, or Jordan.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Aflaq's "Us and the Opponents of Arabism"

I gave a briefing on Syria, Lebanon, and Sectarianism to Congressional Staffers earlier last week. It was very well received, and generated a healthy conversation. However, some unreformed Arabists in the audience objected to my quoting Michel Aflaq, and one of them actually came to speak to me in private, after the Q&A, telling me that "it behooved us Arab public intellectuals [and with "us" she meant me, as well as her] to not air out the ugly aspects of Arabism in front of Americans." This woman was dead serious! A well spoken, elegant, and highly educated senior congressional staffer, of Syro-Lebanese extraction, still peddling a hateful ideology, and still attempting to sanitize it and advance it as the only face of the Middle East. And then we wonder why the failures of interpretation, failures of scholarship, and failures of policy vis-à-vis the Middle East continue!

Below is the segment (pp. 40-41 of the 1959 edition of Aflaq's في سبيل البعث / For the Sake of the Baath) which I quoted in my talk.

I reproduce it here because it was removed entirely from subsequent editions of Aflaq's collection (form 1961 on.) I have wrestled for quite some time with the English translation, attempting to make its exquisite ugliness as close to the original Arabic as possible. Although terms like “extermination” (when speaking of “opponents of Arabism”), and “orgasm” (when describing the feelings a violent Arab nationalist might draw from “exterminating” non-Arab opponents might) seem inconceivable to modern Western readers—especially those “liberals” besotted by Arab nationalism—the following were indeed Aflaq’s words. The fact that they were removed from all subsequent editions of في سبيل البعث is all the more disturbing—and perhaps even a validation of the fact that, although perhaps uttered in the heat of passion, were an expression of a deep visceral sentiment of Aflaq's vis-à-vis non-Arabs. The rest of في سبيل البعث, even when not "cleaned up", does, anyway, confirm the psychopathic nature of the Arabist creed.

I reproduce the Arabic below, because it needs to be documented and anthologized, for the benefit of Anglophone readers—even as modern Arab nationalists seek to conceal this disturbing reality.
العمل القومي القابل للنجاح هو الذي يدفع الر الكره الشديد، حتر الموت، نحو الاشخاص الذين فيهم الفكره المعاديه لفكرته. فمن العبث ان يكتفي افراد الحركه بمحاربه النظريات المعاديه لنظريتهم، وان يقولوا ما لنا وللاشخاص. [...] ان النظريه المعاديه لا توجد وحدها وانما تتجسم في اشخاص يجب ان يبيدوا حتى تبيد هي ايضاً. ان وجود عدو حي لفكدتنا يبعث فيها الروح ويحرك فينا الدم. فكل عمل لا يحرك فينا الانفعالات الحيه ولا يشعرنا برعشه الحب وانتفاضه الكره ويغير جريان الدم في عروقنا ودقات نبضنا هو عمل عقيم
In order for their Arabism to triumph, Arab nationalism must be imbued with a hatred unto death, towards any individuals who embody an idea contrary to Arab nationalism. Arab nationalists must never dismiss opponents of Arabism as mere individuals […] An idea that is opposed to ours does not emerge out of nothing! It is the incarnation of individuals who must be exterminated, so that their idea might in turn be also exterminated. Indeed, the presence in our midst of a living opponent of the Arab national idea vivifies it and stirs the blood within us. And any action we might take [against those who have rejected Arabism] that does not arouse in us living emotions, that does not make us feel the [orgasmic] shudders of love, that does not spark in us quivers of hate, and that does not send the blood coursing in our veins and make our pulse beat faster, is ultimately a sterile action…
It doesn't get scarier than that! Specially if you factor in the ongoing ethnic cleansing in Syria today.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

An Open Letter From Adonis

Boulversé!! That's the first word that popped into my mind after reading this article by Adonis today. Disturbing doesn't quite capture it!

After a long eerie silence, Adonis has finally written a devastating indictment of Assad and the political culture that gave rise to cruel men of his ilk. I have translated the looooooooooog op-ed, and you will see that it's an elegant rejection of the Baath Party and its hateful ideology; but it's no less a brutal whipping of Assad and his goons.

Adonis has only recently been permitted to return to Syria, to visit his aging mother (whom he hadn't seen in ages.) She's over 100 years old, and the regime would think nothing of pushing her over a cliff in Kassabin should Adonis dare talk out of turn. That is why you will note that his language is somewhat "guarded"--shall we say. But, Adonis is after all a wordsmith; and words he does know how to weigh and wield with extreme caution.

What he's treating in this op-ed is something that he's actually written about in great detail in his recent collection of essays (الكتاب الخطاب الحجاب) (Book, Rhetoric, Veil..) a title that in itself is a devastating frontal assault on religion and the Arabs' valorization of religious identities.

People like Assad, but also like Nasrallah, do not escape Adonis's scalpel in both the book, and this op-ed (which I think condenses the book's thesis.) Echoing the op-ed, Adonis argues that a culture that obscures the "Truth of and about 'the other', and rejects the existence of 'the other' as such," is indeed a culture that devalues human existence. "This is the creed of Michel Aflaq's Baath" argued Adonis; and
"a culture that accepts such a creed is one doomed to extinction. [...] A nation consumed by a need for 'oneness' in thought, opinions, language, and belief, is a culture of tyranny, not singularity; a collectivity that acts as an impregnable obstacle to personal and intellectual enlightenment... [...] It is imperative that the Arab mind be shaken out of its static context; a context doused in a kind of inertia bordering on the comatose physical state and the cultural, intellectual stupor. Rather than generating a comprehensive self-examination challenging the obsolete political, cultural, intellectual, and historical foundations of Arab culture, Arabs--whether on the individual, official, or intellectual level--remain besotted and immobilized by their cultural accretions. They unleash their rage on the 'the o
ther' rather than casting an introspective gaze at their own endogenous deficiencies..."

Enough of الكتاب الخطاب الحجاب, okay? Here's the translation of the As-Safir Essay (emphases added):

An Open Letter to President Bashar al-Assad; Man, His Rights and Freedoms, or the Abyss


June 14, 2011

Mr. President,
Allow me to say that it defies reality and reason to believe that democracy will somehow materialize in Syria soon after the current regime's dismantlement. Conversely, I would say it still defies reality and reason to believe that the current brutal police state in Syria should remain in place simply because there's no guarantee of a democratic aftermath.
This is the main dilemma of the times at hand!

Democracy shall not come about in Syria without a long and arduous struggle, nor will it come outside the framework of a number of indispensable preconditions and principles. That is why, it is imperative that we lay down the groundwork for these principles and preconditions. Today, not tomorrow!!! This is on one hand. On the other hand, without democracy there is nothing but retrogression and backwardness, until we trip and fall into the abyss.

It is superfluous to argue that the Arabs’ recent history is unacquainted with the principles of democracy. I would say that the Arabs have never been acquainted with the principles of democracy at any point in their history, not only in recent times. Indeed, culturally speaking, democracy has always lain outside of the Arabs’ cultural patrimony.

Nevertheless, this does not mean that it is impossible for Arabs to labor and lay down the foundations of democracy. Indeed, there were many courageous and constructive post-independence attempts [in the early 20th century] aimed at integrating democratic values into Arab societies. Still, integrating democracy, again, requires certain indispensable preconditions without which no amount of work for the sake of democracy will accomplish anything. Among those preconditions are a number of things that the Arabs need to borrow from ‘the other’. However, “borrowing” something and refusing to "use" that which one borrows will lead to naught—keeping in mind that the Arabs, throughout their history, have borrowed a number of things, both functional and theoretical, from ‘the other’. Indeed, not only have the Arabs borrowed, they borrowed, practiced, and perfected aspects of 'the other's' culture.

One of the main preconditions of democracy is for the Arabs to take their societies—politically and culturally speaking—out of the “divine, heavenly, and unitary era,” and thrust it into the “human, earthly, individual era.” In civil political language, this means a complete separation between that which is religious, and that which is political, social, and cultural. Throughout history, going from the early days of the Arab-Muslim state to the present time, many were the Arab intellectuals and poets who have struggled to instate this concept of separation. Unfortunately, not only have they failed in their endeavors; they were denigrated, accused of blasphemy, and often killed—depending on their individual cases and the historical eras they lived. Indeed, then like now, the "foundational religion" always won the day. Then like now, the conflation of the religious and the political remains the theoretical and practical foundation of Arab-Muslim life. Indeed, the ingrained destructive bases of this sort of mixing between the secular and the sacred are still the facts of life in Arab Muslim societies; facts of life to which we bear witness daily, in a number of domains. It is based on these foundational tenets of our societies that the killing of Man is lent legitimacy. Indeed, for the sake of the “text” and “scripture”, and for the sake of a certain interpretation of the “text” and “scripture”, Man is killed in our societies; killed both intellectually and physically.

So, my question is the following. How can we expect democracy to take root in a climate that devalues individual freedoms and human existence, and rejects ‘the other’ as such, either by casting ‘the other’ off, or by dismissing him as an infidel, or by outright killing him? How can we expect democracy to take root in a society that is incapable of fathoming of life, culture, times, places, and human civilizations, except through the lens of our reading of the “Text”—which, as we all know, is a “Text” with multiple, indeed contradictory, interpretations. Add to that the fact that, regardless of how lofty the “Text” might be, it can be easily debased when read by narrow minded folk, as is often the case nowadays.

In any case, there is no democracy as such in religion—at least, not the kind of democracy that is understood in the original Greek and modern Western conception of idea. Religion, by its very definition, is a form of bias or bigotry for the benefit of “heaven”; a way of subjugating the earth to the will of heaven; a way of shackling Man with the “Texts” of heaven. What’s more, when it comes to basic human relations, religion is incapable of dealing with ‘the other’ outside of the confines of mere “tolerance” of ‘the other’, and in the best of worlds possible “openness” toward ‘the other’. Yet, “tolerance” is nothing if not the antithesis of democracy. For one tolerates ‘the other’ outwardly, all the while deeming oneself superior to that tolerated ‘other’. Tolerance is indeed an insincere pietistic smugness; a form of “monopoly” over the truth, and indeed, a form of conceit and racism. In any case, “tolerance” is not “equality”, and is indeed the total opposite of “equality.” Man does not require “tolerance”; Man requires and deserves “equality.” For, without equality there are no rights, no recognition of the ‘the other’, and no democracy. And so, democracy remains mere drivel, rhetoric, and idle talk in Arab society.

Mr. President,
To recapitulate, laying down the foundations of democracy begins with the complete separation between all that which is religious on the one hand, and all that which is political, social, and cultural on the other hand.

Need I remind you then, that contrary to what was expected of it, the Arab Socialist Baath did not engage this kind of separation. This Baath Party, which has been leading this country for close to half a century has donned an old cloak, dominated the political arena, played the “old game”, and ruled with the same old mentality, adopting the same old outmoded cultural and social contexts. Therefore, the Arab Socialist Baath Party ended up resembling an ultra-racist organization when it came to the non-Arab ethnicities in our midst—namely the Kurds. In this sense, the Arab Socialist Baath Party morphed into a “religious party”, or rather a party built upon a religious structure. And just as belonging to Islam—at least in the Salafist conception—has been rendered into a sort of a human-intellectual “supremacy”, so has belonging to the Baath Party become a kind of human-intellectual “supremacy”—theoretically speaking—and a political, commercial, and functionary “supremacy”—practically speaking. And so, the Baath Party’s struggle became one intended to draw society into the Baathist “religion”, instead of fighting to liberate society from the “foundational religion” and construct a whole new civil society where citizens are judged based upon their capabilities and contributions, not upon their religiosity and partisanship.

Mr President,
Most specialists and observers of the Middle East agree that the “ideological experiment” has been an utter failure in the Arabs’ political life—an utter failure in every domain possible, not very much unlike the failure of the Communist model. Why, the Arab Socialist Baath party is part and parcel of this failed experiment. However, if the Baath has remained solidly ensconced in Syrian life, this is thanks to its brutal coercive ideology and its “police-state” methodologies, not due to its appeal.

History shows that coercion, brutal as it might be, can guarantee the hegemony of one group over another, but it can do so only for a limited time period, and only as long as certain internal and external conditions allow this hegemony to remain in place. What’s more, the hegemony of the single party breeds only divisions, dislocations, backwardness, humiliation, and violation of basic human dignity. In the end, there is no legitimate hegemony, save for that of freedom; and there is no security ultimately, except by way of liberty.

And therein dwells the paradox today: We are faced with a political party that claims to rule in the name of progress, under the pretext of lifting society away from backwardness to launch it towards progress. But this is a political party that is at the same time guilty of the same ills of which it accuses its opponents; a political party that is responsible for the country’s stagnation, retrogression, and ongoing collapse; a party that is responsible for the rending of Syria and the sullying of its millenarian image in the muds of sectarianism, tribalism, communal conflict, outside intervention, torture, murder, and desecration of victims’ corpses. This is the legacy of the Baath!! […]

Surely, Mr. President, most Party members must agree that the Syrian authorities currently ruling in the name of the Baath have not been worthy of the Party Principles. Indeed, they might claim that today’s rulers are behaving in ways that are in total contradiction with the Party’s Guiding Principles, especially as pertains to civil life, human rights, and basic freedoms. At least, this is what Party members are expected to recognize, if only out of moral obligation. Truth is, however, this Party hasn’t been established for any purpose that can be deemed modernizing, new, or creative. Indeed, whether in practical or cultural terms, this party has been a model of traditional, reactionary, religious organizations; the same applies in terms of culture, education, or any other intellectual endeavor. In fact, in over forty years of rule, this great Party did not establish a single “model university”, and not a single “prototypical” technical, intellectual, or artistic institution. It is a Party that could care less about the humanity of Man—except, of course, when it comes to the humanity of those who were card-carrying Party members.

In fact, the best way in which I could describe this Party is that it is closer to a “religious cult” than it is to a political organization: a “cult” that hindered the emergence of free civil society, destroyed the morale of people, and established a culture of “blind Party obedience” and venomous vilification of those who opposed it; a culture of silly sloganeering and superficial proselytism.

Indeed, one of the ironic tragedies of this Party is that those who are taking it to task today, are doing so under the banners of “communal” and “clannish” loyalties—tragic, isn’t it, for a Party that preened and propped itself upon ostentations of “nationalism” and “secularism”. The reality is, however, that the very discourse and “rationale” of this Party are religious to their core. Thus, the fine culture that this Party took pleasure in normalizing turned out to be a culture of haggling, racketeering, extortion, monopolies, communalism, sectarianism, tribalism, and brazen accusations of “treason” leveled against those who refuse to toe the Party line.

The Party adopted and promoted all these practices to the hilt, and all for a simple reason: self-preservation and the monopolization of power. This Party cared much more for maintaining itself in power than it did for transforming society and guiding it on the path of change, renewal, and cultural rejuvenation. So, in practice, authority under the auspices of this Party was reactionary—but a reactionary establishment whose overthrow did not require revolution, for it carried within itself the very seeds of its own downfall. In that sense, the Baath Party has been an utter failure in “dismantling the old societal structures to thrust them in the path of progress”—as it often likes to arrogate itself. This is all the more reason for Article VIII of the Constitution to be removed, now, before anything else—and before any other kind of “reform”—is given lip-service. Article VIII of the Constitution is a glaring symbol of tyranny, disregard for human life and human dignity, and contempt for Man, Reason, and Freedom. Therefore, it must be abolished.

What I’m asking of the Party Leadership to do today, is marshal a modicum of moral and historical decency and come clean; recognize the failures of past experiments, and work assiduously on discarding and overcoming them. A new democratic page must be written; one that is indispensible for the building of a new society and a new government that is open to all of Syria’s political forces, and all its intellectual energies; especially the energies of the nation’s women and youth. This is the only way for Syrians to break free from the ossified traditional context, and chart a new course in the direction of a new, democratic, civil society.

Mr. President,
Nobody doubts that demands for democracy do not necessarily imply that those carrying the standards of democracy are perforce true democrats. Allow me to say that, absent the two conditions below, no democracy can be achieved. For democracy to eventuate,

1- citizens (men and women alike) must become part of a Syrian society that is an indivisible whole. The must become Syrians before claiming any other affiliations based on religious, sectarian, tribal, or ethnic loyalties.
2- Secondly, ‘the self’ must recognize and accept the distinct ‘other’ (be he man or woman) as a complete human being and a complete component of Syrian society, with equal rights and equal freedoms as ‘the self’.

What’s more, criticism and opposition are a basic human right and a fundamental precondition of democracy.


Who, or what is the opposition in Syria today?
The voices that are being heard in the Syrian opposition today are the voices of thinkers, writers, poets, artists, intellectuals, young men and women, people of varied origins and holders of different points of view, noble visions, and just aspirations. However, this opposition is not a united front under a single banner, even if only symbolically speaking. There is no single document that lays out the vision and goals of this opposition beyond its calls for the ouster of the current system.


There are also some oppositionists who are engaging in demonstrations, skirmishes, and confrontations. Some of them are agitators, sloganeers, militants, and ultimately dead demonstrators. Their common denominators are moral ideals and dedication to certain patriotic principles.

Others still might be driven by a violent contrarian streak; rioters, salafist, sectarians, thirsting for revenge.

History teaches that those who end up triumphing in such revolts or revolutionary uprisings, will most likely be the ones who are better organized, and those who are numerically superior. Which means that victory will come to those who “work” for it […]

Mr. President,
Today, more than at any other time in its history, Syria is in dire need of a brand new political alphabet; a new updated political alphabet to bequeath to the rest of the Arabs; an alphabet that would renounce deceit and dishonesty in the relationships between Party and Nation, and between People and Leader. For, only tyrants resort to deceit and dishonesty.

History beckons to you, Mr. President, to put an end to this culture of deceit between Syria and the Arab Socialist Baath Party. For, Syria is much greater, richer, and grander than to be reduced to slavery to the benefit of this Party—or any other party for that matter. You are invited, in the name of humanity and civilization, to do Syria’s bidding, not the Party’s bidding. […] Much too much time has been expanded for this Party to uplift this noble, unique, and distinct country. But the Party squandered this opportunity […] and no amount of brutality and violence will prove otherwise. Prisons are wide enough for individuals sometimes, but there can never be enough prison space for an entire nation. You cannot imprison an entire nation […] and political prisons are nothing if not a symbol of failure, and no amount of brute force and violence can cover up or suppress this fact.

In its brutal exercise of power all these years, this Party has abused the cultural identity of Syria. It submitted the richness of Syrian identity to a single linguistic, cultural, “racial”, and “religious” Arabism, laying down the foundations of a uniform, monolithic, one-dimensional culture. In sum, the Baath Party presented us with a narrow, regurgitant, exclusivist culture, built solely on negating, apostatizing, marginalizing, and obviating ‘the other’, in addition to accusing him of treason; in other words it brought us an Arabist replacement for theology.


In this way, over a period of forty years, the Party dismantled a diverse pluralistic Syria, forcing upon it a closed, brutal culture of “oneness.” Thus, Syrian culture was rendered one of proselytism, publicity, and propaganda linked to a brutal security apparatus. And so, Syrian culture was entrapped between two closed cultic mentalities: one arguing in the name of religion, heritage, the past, and Salafism; the other, Baathist, making the case for an oppressive Arab identity, in total contradiction with freedom and basic human rights, rejecting cultural pluralism, the very essence of Syria’s distinct personality…

Sunday, March 13, 2011

"Arabian Gulf" And Other Fairytales

A version of this post was published at The Hudson on March 22, 2011.

A recent Kuwait Times news-story announced a $4.5m gift to George Washington University’s Institute for Middle East Studies, courtesy of the Government of Kuwait. On the face of it this piece of news is less than newsworthy; endowed Chairs and research institutes supported by Middle Eastern governments with dubious human rights records and illusive academic credentials have become the bloodline of Middle East and Islamic Studies at America’s leading universities. Harvard and Georgetown are beneficiaries of tens of millions of dollars in grants from such renowned donors as the House of Saud, the al-Nahayan Charitable and Humanitarian Foundation, and the Bin Laden dynasty—all, incidentally, affiliated with states notorious for their poor Human Rights records. Likewise are Princeton, Columbia and Cornell recipients of donations from morally repugnant Middle Eastern regimes. The recent flurry of news about distinguished American academics lending their influence and expertise to burnish the less than savory reputation of Middle Eastern despots—a scheme Tufts University’s Daniel W. Drezner termed “Scholars for Dollars”—is only the latest manifestation of this trend. And so, George Washington’s latest gift from Kuwait’s al-Sabbaah dynasty is arguably another attempt by a ”first among equals” at keeping up with the Joneses.

To be fair, universities solicit and receive grants from a variety of sources; most of them reputable and legitimate; many philanthropic in nature, often with no strings attached; others with less than innocent intents, meant to curry favor and influence pre-determined outcomes. But even when university gifts stem from altruistic impulses—with the greater good and the advancement of knowledge as lodestars—they can be cause for alarm and can potentially taint an academic institution and prejudice its mission. A case in point is the way in which the Kuwaiti Government—one of the world’s worst human trafficking offenders —spun its recent GW donation for media and public relations gains, both in the US and at home. The Kuwait Times spoke with swagger of a longstanding “distinctive and solid” relationship between the Kuwaiti Government and George Washington University; it flaunted the fact that GW had awarded the Emir of Kuwait an Honorary Doctorate of Law in 2005, and claimed the university to have established a Kuwait Chair to conduct “research and studies on the Arabian Gulf region.” Ahem, exactly where in the world is “the Arabian Gulf region,” and does George Washington University really do research and teach courses on “the Arabian Gulf”?

Risible and mendacious as it may sound to the discerning observer, the phrase “Arabian Gulf” is perhaps not much cause for concern; especially when GW’s homepage defined the Chair in question as one devoted explicitly to the study of the “Gulf and Arabian Peninsula Affairs;” an artful choice of semantics that heeded the donor’s dislikes—by omitting the objectionable adjective in “Persian Gulf”—and maintained for the university a modicum of academic integrity—by feigning to indulge an “Arabian Gulf” fantasy. Still, this is a slippery slope in an academic field already fraught with emotions and ideological rivalries, and one long mired in political advocacy.

Bespeaking the Persian Empire’s importance during antiquity, the appellation Sinus Persicus (today the “Persian Gulf”) reflects a very old usage, one going back to Strabo (64BC-AD24), perhaps even to earlier Classical Greek and later Roman geographers. Even tenth century Arab cartographers, and Arabic-language maps in more recent times, have referred to the Persian Gulf as “Khaliij Faaris” (“the Gulf of Persia”), seemingly unbothered by its non-Arab pedigree. In 1917, the US State Department’s Board of Geographical Names designated the Persian Gulf as the sole official name of the region in question. The United Nations followed suit in 1975 and again in 1984. Yet, it was recently revealed that the United States Navy has been using the term “Arabian Gulf” for decades, “out of deference for US allies in the region.” “Our [Arab] partners […] use [the Arabian Gulf], and so do we,” said US Navy spokesman Lt. Myers Vasquez.

Whether driven by ideological or pragmatic concerns, indulging such fallacies and bowing to the neuroses of one’s political partners can have dire consequences; especially when the partners in question are known practitioners of cultural suppression, oppression of minorities, historical revisionism, and rejection of minority narratives.

Seemingly bland terms such as “the Arabian Gulf” (or even the “Arab world,” to name another of Arab nationalism’s favored ideological talismans) are misleading. The “Arab Middle East”—an inaccurate construct normalized also “out of deference for US allies in the region”—is home to an estimated population of 300 million people, among them 15 million Kurds, 15 million Copts, 25 million Berbers, 7 million Jews, and tens of millions of Armenians, Southern Sudanese, Maronites, Assyrians, and others, all of whom non-Arab “users” of a slew of Arabic-defined languages. Yet American political expediency, moral abdication—or, why not, “deference for US allies in the region”—seem unworried by this kind of pandering to Arabist assumptions and outmoded Arab colonialist models.

Albeit a Western coinage, colonialism and imperialism are not exclusively Western. And though they were wars waged against Muslims, the Crusades and Reconquista were delayed defensive endeavors; not a colonial enterprise, and not a prelude to modern European Colonialism—as is often the portrayal in remorseful Western narratives. Indeed, conquest and colonialism have been salient chapters in Muslim history (from the seventh century Arabians, to the fifteenth century Ottomans,) and Muslim colonialists preceded their European charges down that path by close to a millennium. The Iberian Peninsula, Central Eurasia, Western Asia, the Fertile Crescent, and Northern Africa were home to venerable civilizations prior to the Muslim-Arab conquests of the seventh century. What came to be called the “Arab world” during the twentieth century is anything but an exclusively Arab preserve. In fact, pluralism and multiplicity of identities have been hallmarks of Middle Eastern history for millennia—even as modern Arabists seek to blur this reality. The Brill Encyclopedia of Arabic Language and Linguistics writes that prior to the Arab conquests of the seventh century the region now misleadingly labeled the “Arab world”
had hosted many other cultures, including the Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Phoenicians, Ancient Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans. […] The legacies of these pre-Islamic peoples and cultures did not all simply disappear with the advent of the Muslim Arabs. […] Peoples of the region resisted the forces of Arabicization, Islamicization, or both, [and] earlier cultures [have remained, alongside] groups convinced that their ancestors belonged to a people different from [the “Arabs”.]
Yet, the Arab colonialist view of a cohesive uniform “Arab world,” denuded of its pre-Arab heritage, seeps into America’s official, academic, and popular Middle Eastern discourse. Never mind that a good third of Middle Easterners aren’t Arab; never mind that they still use languages and partake of collective memories distinct from those of Arabs; and never mind that their national names, place-names, and parameters of identity are explicitly non-Arab. The Arab die is cast, and “deference for US allies in the region” seems to justify shedding historical clarity and shirking academic decency.

Syro-Lebanese poet Adonis recently offered a devastating appraisal of this worldview. The image of the universe that Arabs have built around themselves and the political culture that they spawned, he wrote, are completely closed to the outside world; Arabs and Arab nationalists are resentful, scornful, and loath to diversity. Theirs is “a kind of culture, […] where the ‘other’ is Evil, Hell, Satan […] and where distinctness and plurality are rejected out of hand.”

This is the monolithic Middle East that is being legitimized and intellectualized at America’s leading universities today; a Middle East where the millenarian “Persian Gulf” is re-christened “Arabian,” where a rich tapestry of cultures are deemed a uniform “Arab world,” and where ancient pre-Arab peoples who so much as patter an idiom resembling “Arabic” are summarily anointed “Arabs.”

Friday, February 25, 2011

A "Peace of Westphalia" for the "Arab Disorder"

A version of this post, titled "The Arab Westphalia," appeared in The National Interest on March 7, 2011.

“Blame it on the English” is a popular Lebanese wisecrack; the idiot savant’s elixir and the learned man’s exit line when answers become too few and far between. “When all else fails, blame it on the English!” goes the playful adage. Yet, when placed in a wider Middle Eastern context the phrase loses its flippancy and reveals a remarkably keen sense of history.

After all, the British—or rather the English in Middle Eastern parlance—did probably get most things wrong about the region, and are perhaps fair game for the blame. The checkered Eastern holdings of the Ottoman Empire, which they inherited alongside the French in 1918, were viewed by the British as a homogenous exclusive preserve of Muslims and Arabs; a “land-bridge” as it were to His Majesty’s crown-jewel, India. And so it behooved the British and their colonial cartographers to maintain, or rather to contrive, a single monolithic “Arab world,” in what is to this day an inherently diverse, fractured, and fractious Middle East.

The French on the other hand, partly to spite their British rivals and scuttle their colonial designs—in favor of a loftier Gallic mission civilisatrice—viewed things differently. Pursuing more than the facile “divide and conquer” colonial strategy often attributed to them by classic post-colonialists, the French were avid practitioners of a "minorities policy.” With antecedents in Northern Africa (the Berbers,) and the Levant region (Lebanon and the Maronites,) the French perceived the Middle East for the ethno-religious and linguistic mosaic that it really was. Robert de Caix, secretary to the French High Commissioner in Beirut, wrote in a November 1920 diplomatic telegram to the Quai d’Orsay that:
The entire Middle East has been so poorly packed together [by the British.] The resulting clutter is all the more legitimate reason for [the French] to try and steer the minds clear of unitary political systems and, instead, advance federalist concepts […] Federalism would be a great relief for much of the notables of these lands, and a boon to the bulk of this region’s populations, who remain, to a very large extent, alien to all kinds of [unitary] political life.
Indeed, terms and concepts such as the “Arab world” and the “Arab nation” are modern twentieth century innovations owed in no small part to British colonial genius, not to any distinctly “Arab” group loyalty. History—and certainly “Arab” and Muslim history—makes no mention of a united “Arab world” or a cohesive “Arab nation” antecedent to the modern Middle Eastern state system. Even inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula, prior to the seventh century Muslim conquest of the Levant and the Fertile Crescent, were never a coherent cohesive lot with a unified corporate identity—let alone a distinctively identifiable "Arab" one. Instead, pre-Islamic Arabians were at best a menagerie of warring tribes, vying city-states, and rival families and clans using a multiplicity of idioms and languages that bore little resemblance to what later became the language of Quran, and what is today referred to as “Modern Standard Arabic.” Of course there is much truth to the belief that the Prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam, had united those fickle and inchoate Arabians into a single nation—or Umma. But the resulting Umma was a Muslim, not an Arab nation, and the regions it came to hold in its grip—from Spain to the Indus—continued to be characterized by large swaths of local, indigenous, non-Muslims, and non-Arab ethnic and cultural communities.

This is the Middle East that the French and British inherited in the early twentieth century; a mosaic of ethnic and religious groups that certainly included Arabs, but which was far from being exclusively Arab. De Caix, and by inference the French Foreign Ministry and the League of Nations Mandatory Authorities that he represented, were acutely aware of this ethnic and cultural mosaic. That was one of the main reasons the French turned their Mandatory possessions into five distinct, ethnically coherent, and largely homogenous non-Arab states: The State of Greater Lebanon, the State of Damascus, the State of Aleppo, the Alawite Mountain, and the Druze Mountain. Had the British not dismantled these new creations in 1936, in favor of an artificially united Syria (or a unitary Iraq or Jordan for that matter,) arguably sounder and less fractious entities could have emerged and survived into our times; states that might have remained at peace with themselves and their neighbors.

To this day, with the future of a post-Mubarak Middle East still up in the air, in a region still facing more pivotal changes than the prevalent analyses and projections are willing to entertain, a Christian dominated “Mount Lebanon”, an Alawite dominated “Mount Ansariyya”, and a Druze dominated “Druze Mountain”—as the French had envisioned in 1920—might still make more political, ethnic, and historical sense than the current restive, and still unraveling, Arab nationalist order.

Modern-day Syria became the unitary state that it represents today through British machinations, not by the will and writ of the French Mandatory power, and certainly not in response to the desires of its disparate constitutive elements. But by 1940 France had ceased being the great power that it had once been: Vichy had fallen to the Nazis, and the role of the “Free-French” was relegated to military marginality and political subservience to "The Crown." In the Levant, Britain was now calling the shots and a united “Arab world” resurfaced as its lodestar, even as many of the region’s inhabitants, namely Alawites, Christians, Shi’ites and Druze, remained opposed to the concept. And this opposition stemmed from a long pedigree.

In a November 1, 1923 issue of the monthly El-Alevy (The Alawite), an open letter to French académicien and legislator Maurice Barrès, summed up the Alawites’ desiderata of the time, which to this day, although arguably in occultation, remain largely unchanged:
It is with immense gratitude that we applaud your unfailing defense and advocacy on behalf of our nascent Alawite State; a young State which some seek, unjustly, to attach to a future Syrian Federation, oblivious to the will of the overwhelming majority of our people […] We urge you to take all measures necessary to safeguard our continued and complete autonomy, under the auspices of French protection, and kindly accept our heartfelt appreciation and warmest thanks.
This attitude was validated and reconfirmed some fifteen years later, through a written appeal signed by Suleiman al-Assad no less, the grandfather of Bashar al-Assad, the current Alawite ruler of Syria. In this 1936 letter the elder Assad implores French authorities to protect the freedom and independence of the Alawite people, guarantee their safety against the “spirit of hatred and fanaticism embedded in the hearts of the Arab Muslims,” and prevent the fusion of the State of the Alawi Mountains into any future Syrian union.

Still, British designs prevailed, and new, unitary, Arab-defined creations emerged—bereft of historical precedents and legitimate political bases. Today the foundations of this “Arab” edifice are being shaken, and new states—perhaps even new nations—are beginning to take shape, arguably redeeming the early twentieth century French. What does the future hold for Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Syria, and the rest? Could it be that Arabism as the sole, overarching parameter of selfhood has run its course? Is it a spent force in a Middle East intent on slaying its Arab nationalist heroes of yore; its once adulated Qaddafis, Mubaraks, and their clones?

Clearly, and despite many claims to the contrary, the dismantlement of the anciens régimes of Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, point to a defrocking of the Arab nationalist order, not its “rebirth”; it signals the emergence of new nation-states, not the mending of an old ideology. Much has been written of late about the region’s turmoil bearing the markings of Eastern-Europe-1989. The comparison is tempting. However, it is not unlikely that future historians might revise this parallel and re-christen this year’s momentous events as the early stirrings of a Middle Eastern “Peace of Westphalia”; the breakup of the imperial Arab (dis)order and the birth of new free nations. Eastern-Europe-1989 did not only bring about the fall of the Iron Curtain; it raised a Velvet Curtain to reveal the birthing of new nations. Not Egypt, not Libya, and not Tunisia; Sudan is the glimpse into the future of the Middle East.

In 2003 former Iraqi dissident, Kanan Makiya, wrote that the new Iraqi state he yearned for had to be federal and non-Arab in order for it to be viable. Makiya’s candor angered many Arabist romantics. Yet his remains the only peaceful formula for the mosaic of cultures, languages, and ethnicities that is the Middle East; the best last chance for the region’s “Peace of Westphalia” to pan out; otherwise a Muslim “Thirty Years War” is very likely to be in the offing.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Rebirth of Arab Nationalism? Please, not Again!

This post appeared in The National Interest on February 17, 2011.

Countering close to a century of thoughtful Arabic intellectual output tolling the knell of Arab nationalism, Western “Arabist” romantics still cling to this ideology’s obsolete models, still advance its outdated principles, and still speak its archaic language. And as, at last, Egypt breaks its chains of servitude and ventures to chart a new national course, away from the desolation wrought by Arabism, unreformed Western demagogues dust off their musty old playbooks and defiantly spout the “rebirth” of Arabism. If Arab nationalism is dead, “Egypt is trying to revive it” came recent dispatches from the West. Even the Muslim Brotherhood, suspected by many to soon pounce on Egypt’s burgeoning freedom, was wise and cautious enough to refrain from such indiscretion and curb misplaced celebrations. Yet displaying clumsiness reminiscent of Hosni Mubarak’s own graceless fall from grace—Mubarak himself being one of the last remaining avatars of Arabism—indecent Arab nationalists, still unconvinced of their own multiple past deaths, show no misgivings about rushing to claim the fruits of someone else’s rebirth.

After all, if we are to believe the Arabists, there are no non-Arab “others” in the Middle East, and there are no cultures, languages, or narratives beyond those of Arabs. Turkish-speaking Syrian writer Sati’ al-Husri (1880-1967), the intellectual fountainhead of linguistic Arab nationalism, was adamant in this regard and disquieting in his advocacy for a compulsory Arabism. He wrote that every person who spoke Arabic was an Arab; that every individual associated with an Arabic-speaker was an Arab; and that under no circumstances should conscientious Arabs accept the wishes and narratives of those who cast aside their assigned Arabness. “You are an Arab if I say so!” preached al-Husri.

Ominously negationist as this dictum might be deemed in a Western intellectual context, it causes nary a stir in the consciousness of those friends of Araby still besotted by the Arabist elixir: “one Arab world from the Gulf to the Ocean.” Personal freedoms, freedom of opinion, freedom of conscience, compromise, and respect of others and of the “other’s” narratives and rights seem to matter little, and can be sacrificed on the altar of Arabism. To have the Arab nationalists describe it, Egypt’s February 11, 2011 was not about freedom, food, and finances; it was about redeeming Egypt’s Arab identity and avenging Arab nationalism’s past failings.

Yet in spite of the lip-service and histrionics, Arab nationalism was never the strong suit of Egyptians; at least not the Egyptians outside the gilded gates of the military and the autocrats. For the average Egyptian, Arabism remained extraneous and superficial at best, pragmatically, not ideologically driven. Until his dying day, Taha Husayn (1889-1973), considered by many the doyen of modern Arabic literature—and for some time the Arab nationalists’ and Sati’ al-Husri’s bête noire of choice—scorned the faintest notion of an “Arab Egyptian” identity. He held Egypt’s roots to be Pharaonic, not Arab; maintained Egyptian culture and mentality to be closer to the ways of modern Greeks, Italians and Frenchmen than to those of Arabs; and considered his own use of the Arabic language to be immaterial and irrelevant to his Egyptian authenticity. Husayn even claimed the Arabic language, his own literary medium, to be an exogenous intruder and a foreign speech-form to the majority of his countrymen. No Egyptian speaks Arabic, he wrote; not at home, not at school, and not on the streets: “Egyptians everywhere speak a language that is definitely not Arabic, despite its partial resemblance to it.” And Husayn was hardly the odd man out in this debate. One of his contemporaries, Ahmad Lutfi al-Sayyid (1872-1963), urged Egyptians to hold fast to their Egyptianness; to not dilute their proud identity into the Arabness of their neighborhood; and to never lend allegiance to any other fatherland beside the Egyptian fatherland.”

There were others still, besides Husayn and al-Sayyid, in Lebanon, in Syria, and Iraq; Middle Eastern intellectuals who celebrated diversity, and poured sharp criticism on the Arab nationalist ethos, on its illusions of authenticity, on its imagined particularism, on its fear of diversity, and its lack of introspection. Arab culture, claimed Syrian intellectual Adonis (b. 1930), is one “completely closed on itself,” utterly incompatible with modernity and loath to the Middle East’s richly textured multiple identities. In one of his recent French-language works, Adonis claimed that advocates of Arabism embrace “a closed, resentful, repetitive kind of culture, where there is nary an opening to the outside, where the only ‘other’ is Evil, Hell, Satan […] and where distinctness and plurality are rejected out of hand.” Adonis goes so far as to proclaim the Arabs “in a phase of extinction […], facing a new world with ideas that no longer exist, and in a context that is obsolete and outmoded.”

Embracing the Arab nationalist narrative, to the neglect of other, equally legitimate perspectives, seems so out of touch with the realities of the modern Middle East and so out of step with the aspirations of its ancient rejuvenated peoples; Arabs and non-Arabs alike. Why can’t the emancipation of Egypt be claimed to the Egyptian people? Why should February 11, 2011, this profoundly moving moment in modern Egyptian history, be seized by peddlers of spiteful, domineering, and reductive nationalisms? Why do the friends of Arabism insist on foisting its corpse upon the shoulders of those advancing the cause of life, not legend; Egypt, not Arabia? “He spoke our language, he spoke our language” came the primal cries of young Tunisians taking their despot to task. What they meant was not that Ben Ali had bowed to their demands and renounced his throne, but rather that he had finally addressed them in their native vernacular language: in their spoken Darija as opposed to the atavistic Modern Standard Arabic; a stilted, highly stylized linguistic ornament that had become the emblem of Arabism and a tool of despotism and cultural suppression; the linguistic preserve of a few, in the main intellectuals and demagogues, shut out from the masses who spoke other languages altogether.

A number of stories coming out of Egypt corresponded to the Tunisian narrative. On the eve of Mubarak’s abdication, Egyptian feminist and liberal thinker Nawal Saadawi quoted a Tahrir Square youth complaining about the beleaguered President’s inability to speak the language of young Egyptians. She lambasted him and his retinue for being alien to the language of emails, Tweets, Facebook, and SMS. In addition to being an indictment of the wardens of Arabism and their ossified linguistic norms, this was advocacy on behalf of spontaneous speech forms and nimble modern modes of communication.

In the end, it was this very “linguistic humanism” that became the game changer in Tunisia and Egypt. A game changer that signaled not “the rebirth of the Arab nation” as some ideologically driven commentators rushed to proclaim, but the birth of brave new nations. The autocrats finally surrendered to the will of the people not because they have renounced brutality—Arab nationalism’s stock in trade—but because they could no longer fight new concepts and novel ideas in their midst, with their old, aphasiac, dilapidated language.

In a metaphor borrowed from early 20th century Coptic reformer Salama Musa (1887-1958), Egyptian writer Chérif Choubachi compared the users of Arabic to “ambling cameleers from the past, contesting highways with racecar drivers hurtling toward modernity and progress.” Writing from the vantage point of a post-Mubarak Egypt, Choubachi might have added Twitter, Facebook and SMS to the trope; new languages transforming the Middle East and Middle Eastern identities. The surrealism of the Interior Ministry’s “goon squads” storming Tahrir Square on camelback, armed with swords and slingshots, was not lost irony: the old resisting the new with spent-out ammunition and worn-out notions speaks to the depravity of those who still won’t “go gentle into that Good Night.”

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Egypt's Stillborn Revolution, and the American Media

Pan-Arab news outlet al-Jazeera alleges American coverage of the events in Egypt to have been both “pessimistic and superficial.” “Superficial” because the US media lacked a deep understanding of the Middle East, and “pessimistic” because they stultified the possibility of the Egyptian upheavals resulting in regime change. This, according to al-Jazeera, stunted the Egyptian Revolution’s momentum, and “killed it in its cradle.” This culture of piling onto others the blame for one’s own misfortunes and shortcomings is perhaps not surprising coming from al-Jazeera. A news outlet that thrives on conspiracy theories, and which takes kindly to claims of Zionist tentacles dominating the world, is hardly out of character suggesting an imperialistic American cabal behind Egypt’s “stillborn revolution.” The Middle East’s steady red-meat diet of misinformation—the kind that has many Muslims and Arabophones persuaded that the 9/11 attacks, for instance, were the result of a plot hatched up by the CIA and Mossad—is due in no small part to al-Jazeera’s brand of journalism.

But to its credit, al-Jazeera’s allegations against the American media’s “superficiality” are spot on and well deserved. However, this coverage is far from “pessimistic,” let alone is it biased against Egyptian demonstrators. If anything, American journalists have displayed Pollyannaish credulity in their optimism and in the invigorating approbation they lent the “Egyptian street.” Although inappropriate, this was perhaps not unwarranted. One has to be made from stone to remain unmoved by the inspiring tenacity and energy exuding Tahrir Square. Indeed, eschewing all pretense of journalistic impartiality, seasoned reporters from Christiane Amanpour to Anderson Cooper barely contained their glee at the sight of young idealistic Egyptians braving all barriers of fear, staring their oppressors down, demanding an end to their servitude. At one point during the unrest in Cairo, as pro-Mubarak bands took to engaging demonstrators in open physical confrontations, most American news outlets covering the events, with both conservative and liberal bents, began referring to the pro-government groups as “agitators,” “thugs,” and “goon squads,” whereas the anti-government crowds remained anodyne starry-eyed “demonstrators.”

But what is the reporter’s craft anyway? Should reporters be judged by the level of optimism or pessimism emanating from their news coverage (as the venerable al-Jazeera seemed to advocate,) or by the objective quality of the coverage itself? Indeed, it can be argued that reporters have a responsibility to be neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but to be rather skeptical. A reporter’s job is to “relay,” “present,” and—wait for it—“report” information to the public, not weigh in on peoples and events, or pass value judgment and conjecture on “revolutions,” their trajectories, or their aftermath. Conjecture is for analysts, not news reporters, and not the news media. Dragnet’s “just the facts ma’am, just the facts” is as much an American journalistic aphorism as are the famous five W’s. In the Arabophone media, however, things might be slightly more complicated. The very word “correspondent” or “reporter” in Arabic is rendered “muraasil”; an active participle related to the noun “rassuul” or “apostle”, with the semantic connotation of a person who arguably not only “reports the news,” but who also “proselytizes” and “advocates.”

For all their shortcomings and biases, the American media remain a varied and richly textured lot, shorn from the same cloth as the American public itself. Whether in the mainstream print and audio-visual media, or in alternative outlets like Twitter, Facebook, and other web-based news sources, the US media are a laissez-faire, open and free marketplace of information and ideas, answerable to no government and no one political tendency. And contrary to their counterparts in the Arab-defined Middle East, the American media are not a government mouthpiece, nor a government-sponsored propaganda machine spewing scripted party lines, flattering obscurantist police states, and placating subdued masses.

For the rest, the Egyptian demonstrations, prematurely billed a revolution, were perhaps doomed to failure from the outset. They hardly needed an American media cabal—or calculated American pessimism—to sap their momentum and bring them down. To a great extent, revolutions succeed when the repressive regimes they seek to dismantle begin opening up and liberalizing, long before any sort of rebellions begin taking shape. This was perhaps the case with Tunisia! This was certainly the case with the French Revolution of 1789, the 1917 Russian Revolution, the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and certainly the 1989 Eastern Bloc Revolutions that dismantled the Soviet order—the upheavals to which today’s Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings are being wrongly compared.

Studying Latin for four years might give one access to a Virgil or a Livy, not to the streets of modern Naples or Milan. Similarly, studying Arabic for four years might give access to al-Jazeera but hardly to the streets of Damascus or Cairo. It is depressingly frustrating to watch (well-meaning) US correspondents attempt to translate, by way of their stilted textual Arabic, the raw emotions of young Egyptians shouting years of pent up frustrations in primal vernacular languages. In that sense, al-Jazeera is justified in complaining of America’s “superficial” coverage and understanding of the Middle East. But to complain of some American cabal, or a journalistic “pessimism” meant to snuff out Egypt’s democracy flame not only misses the whole point, and the very role of journalism; it distorts the reality of American reporting, which, albeit imperfect, has been remarkably sympathetic to Egypt’s travails, and to the Egyptians' freedom march.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Coming "Arab Revolution"

Update: This post appeared in The National Interest on February 1, 2011.

With the recent Tunisian uprisings—now termed the “Jasmine Revolution”—and the ensuing giddiness about some impending copycat revolutions soon to be sweeping the “Arab World,” very few voices of reason are being heard. Troubling as this may sound, one is on solid ground suggesting that there are no “coming revolutions” in the Arab World’s horizons, and that there isn't even a distinct uniform "Arab World" to begin with, let alone one gearing up for en masse popular uprisings and regime changes.

Despite many religious, cultural, and linguistic similarities among Middle Easterners, the modern Middle East, like the ancient Near East, lacks the requisite historical uniformity or continuity to warrant the reductive appellation “Arab World”—and by inference, it lacks the conditions justifying all the premature talk of a “coming Arab Revolution.” Instead, like Europe or, say, Latin America, the “Arab World” is a patchwork of varied identities and language-communities that may have a great deal in common, but which can also boast a wealth of distinctive national features honed by different historical experiences. And so, it would be neither presumptuous nor defeatist to suggest that the news of a looming “Arab Revolution” has been grossly exaggerated; what happens in Tunisia or Egypt is very likely to stay in Tunisia and Egypt. As Robert Kaplan aptly put it in a recent New York Times essay "as the situation evolves in Tunis, and as we watch other Arab capitals expectantly, we would do well to focus less on what unites these places than on what divides them... The more we focus on the particularities of each place, the less surprised we will be by political developments."

This revelation is nothing new. It is unorthodox and unfashionable, but it is hardly an earth-shattering discovery about the Middle East. Indeed, Kaplan had been speaking in those same terms since at least the early 1990s. No stranger to the cultural and linguistic complexities of the region, Kaplan’s work underlined the obstinate devotion of America’s Middle East experts to dogmas and archetypes with exclusive Arab biases; faulty standards that depicted tens of millions of autochthonous Middle Eastern minorities as remnants of European (Crusader) intrusions, and the State of Israel as a modern incarnation of that same (Crusader) colonial enterprise; both schemes ostensibly designed to ever keep disrupting Arab consensus and Arab unity.

The conclusion of Kaplan’s remarkable book, The Arabists, spoke ominously of America’s failures of policy, comprehension, and interpretation in the Middle East. He attributed those flops to the vain persistence of an “Arabist” paradigm that underestimated (perhaps even undermined) Middle Eastern diversity, and spoke of (perhaps even concocted) a glamorized Arab uniformity and harmony. Kaplan wrote that traditional State Department bureaucrats have consistently dismissed the Middle East’s ethnic and linguistic heterogeneity in favor of a monochromatic “Arab World.” Arabists—as he dubbed 20th century American experts who defined America’s Middle East policy—have been known to despise Middle Easterners who deviated from the comme il faut Arab-Muslim praxis.

The Arabists’ prescriptive Middle Eastern model as a homogenous “Arab world” was not an honest ideologically neutral depiction of the region; it was a caricature and a chimera reflecting European examples, not Eastern, and certainly not Arab parameters of identity. On this point, Joel Carmichael wrote that:

It was in fact the Western habit of referring to Arabic-speaking Muslims […] as ‘Arabs’ because of their language—on the analogy of German-speakers as Germans, French-speakers as French […]—that imposed itself on an East that had never regarded language as a basic social classifier. It was natural for Europeans to use the word ‘Arab’ about a Muslim […] whose native language was Arabic; they were quite indifferent to the principles of classification in the East.

The oddity of these sorts of typologies is that they induced an illusion of a uniform Arab identity out of a patently European abstraction that had no foundations in a Middle East defined by time-honored polyglot multi-cultural traditions. Yet the European creators of Araby stuck to their guns and worked feverishly to turn their fuzzy fairytale of a mono-cultural “Arab World” into a politically soothing reality. In the process, they stunted and delegitimized pre-Arab Middle Eastern narratives, branding them alien, subversive, isolationist, reactionary.

Arabists “have not liked Middle Eastern minorities,” wrote Kaplan in 1993; they “have been guilty […] of loving the majority and the idea of Uruba, which roughly translates as ‘Arabism’. He mentioned hearing American officials at Foreign Service functions during the 1970s and 1980s refer to the Maronite Christians of Lebanon as fascists. In this same vein, Lebanese commentator Michael Young wrote that “[w]hat pro-Arab Americans couldn’t stomach was that the [Middle East’s] Christians were often estranged from […the Muslims] and from the Arab nationalism the region engendered.” Never mind that those same Christians had been calling that “region” home (in Aramaic, Coptic, Greek, and Hebrew no less) for some seven century prior to the coming of Islam and the Arabic language into the Levant and Northern Africa.

The profoundly flawed assumptions about a monolithic “Arab world” need to be unpacked before rushing to herald a “coming revolution.” The Middle East’s cultural, religious, and linguistic diversity deserve recognition, and the distinctive “micro-climate” that might have given rise to Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution” should not be expected to afford the same conditions for a Cairene Rose, a Lebanese Cedar, or a Damascene Lilac. People with a common literary language do not necessarily share similar values, aspirations, or destinies. Although native English-speakers, Scotsmen, Irishmen, Americans and Nigerians are not Englishmen and are hardly shaped by the same identity and the same historical experience as Englishmen. Similarly, the hundreds of millions of users of Arabic are a vigorously disparate and diverse lot, “divided by the same language,” to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw. The idea of “Arab uniformity” or a coherent “Arab world” throbbing in unison is illusion and folly similar to “English-speaking” unity conceded T.E. Lawrence in his later years. Even Edward Said, one of our times most committed advocates of Arabness dismissed the assumed adequacy of the Arabic language as a definer of some uniform Arab identity. “Var[ying] considerably between one […] country and another,” wrote Said, Arabic is a “written language [that] is quite different” from the bevy of speech forms used in the Middle East; it is a textual, not a spoken language; the equivalent of “Latin for the European colloquial languages […]; i.e. a dead and forbidding language.”

Yet this illusion of Arab harmony, constructed on a presumed linguistic unity, is the sole prism through which the Middle East continues to be viewed today. It is also through this same prism that the hyped, looming, “Arab Revolution” is expected to erupt. Alas, what was lost in all this frenzy of oversimplifications is arguably one of the most moving moments in Tunisia’s march to freedom. The people’s joyful cries “we are happy [the deposed autocrat] spoke our language” were overlooked and drowned in a rush of speculations as to where might the “Arab Revolution” make landfall next. Why should it matter that the tyrant “spoke our language,” the language of the people? Why should it matter that Ben Ali spoke the vernacular speech-form of Tunisia instead of customary textual Arabic, a foreign tongue to most Tunisians and, at best, a second-language to the literates among them?

Why, it matters because Nicholas Sarkozy, David Cameron, Barrack Obama, and Silvio Berlusconi address their people not in Latin, but respectively in vernacular French, English, and Italian; it matters because Christian Reformation was triggered by a Martin Luther hammering his 95 Theses in vernacular German, not in Church Latin; it matters because Dante’s La Divina Commedia, Descartes’ Discours de la Méthode, and John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (among other works that paved the road to the Age of Enlightenment) were, again, written not in elitist inaccessible Latin, but in the languages of illiterate commoners; in vernacular Italian, French, and English. The Middle East is certainly heading in that same direction, and a “coming revolution” is, no doubt, lurking in the Middle East’s future. But the “coming revolution” will remain idle talk and empty speculation so long as the autarchy of Arabic continues to be hallowed, so long as the languages of the people continue to be shunned, and so long as the Middle East’s wealth of Luthers, Dantes, Descartes and Lockes (in-waiting) continue to be muzzled, stunted, and shunted.

Until the “Revolution” comes, and until the people dare begin speaking their languages, they will continue to merit their chains and the whips bruising their backs, to the same extent that Rome was worthy of its Nero. And until the “coming revolution”, G.E Borgese’s words will continue to ring true: “all servitude is voluntary and the slave is more despicable than the tyrant is hateful.”