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.”

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Lebanese Federative Republic

I'm always fascinated at the sight of Lebanese (and experts on Lebanon) tripping over each other to denounce "partition" whenever it is suggested as a solution to Lebanon's ills.

Take for instance this irrational rebuff by the otherwise infinitely sapient and reflective blogger over at Beirut Spring. Mustapha spurns "partition" without really explaining his reasons. Like most Lebanese I know, his knee-jerk premise is that "you can't partition Lebanon", end of story.

What is it that makes Lebanon so special that it can't be partitioned? What now, is Lebanon all of a sudden the Holy Koran? Whole, complete, immutable, eternal? Why can’t Lebanon be partitioned? And why is partition viewed as an abomination by most Lebanese and interpreters of Lebanon?

Even the Catholic Church has come to accept divorce (sure, it’s called it “marriage annulment”, but in the end the difference is in semantics, and an “annulment” is "divorce"--and let's call it by its name, "partition"--in other words, and by other means.)

When gangrene is at the brink of consuming an otherwise salubrious body, amputation becomes the only solution.

Regional autonomy (or "Cantonization" as the Swiss call it), with all that it entails in terms of minority cultural and linguistic rights, is the only system that has maintained national sanity (and civil peace) in places like Switzerland, Canada, Luxembourg, and the Czechoslovak Federative Republic among other places. In the case of a deeply divided society such as Switzerland's, regional autonomy has been the best safeguard of "civil peace" and "national unity" for the past 700 years.

I fail to see how Switzerland can be a composite republic, but not Lebanon.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Dwindling Christians of the Middle East

Next week's Weekly Standard features an excellent piece by Lee Smith on the continued exodus of Near Eastern Christians.

From the outset of his essay, Lee challenges some of the accepted wisdom in Middle East Studies, which traditionally paints Lebanon's Christians as "isolationists" (to use a favored term from the lexicon of Arabism) obsessed with the partition of Lebanon. He writes:
While the Christian community fought to preserve the state’s territorial integrity and avoid war with Israel, the country’s increasingly numerous Sunnis wanted to attach themselves to the great Arab cause—Palestine—and open the border with Israel to the Palestinian resistance.
I would add that until recently Lebanon's Sunni community could care less about a united Lebanon, and had indeed fought tooth and nail, throughout the 1920s and until the birth of the National Pact in 1943, to stunt the new Lebanese state and attach it to a nascent "Syrian Arab Republic", itself a makeshift French concoction patched up together out of the remnants of the Ottoman Vilayets (Provinces) of Aleppo, Beirut, and Damascus.

Furthermore, even at the height of their political and military power, at the time when Bashir Gemayel was elected President, the Maronites still opted for a united multi-ethnic unitary integral Lebanon! Contrary to the claims of the canon of Arabism, had they truly desired a reduced "Marounistan" (to use another beloved term of Arabist advocates of "unity") the Maronites could have sued for (and obtained) one in 1920, 1943, 1958, 1975, AND 1982. In fact, Bashir Gemayel's first official act as President-elect of Lebanon was reconciliation, consensus, and reaching out to those who had for 15 years prior sought the erasure of Lebanon. Indeed, the "10,452" (alluding to the size of modern Lebanon) was a Christian-Lebanese slogan, not an Arabist one, and certainly not a Sunni Lebanese one.

The remainder of Lee's piece offers a glimpse into the resignation of Middle Eastern Christians to their inexorable exodus and disappearance. But the author also breaks ranks with his cohort or Middle East experts by suggesting that the dwindling Near Eastern Christian communities is a phenomenon dating back to the 7th century Arab Conquests. He also questions the concept of "protection" of minorities under Islam, and warns against assuming "protection" to mean "equality". I would add that neither is "tolerance" to be subsumed into a form of "equality" either! Indeed, lost in the simplistic rhetoric about "protection" and "tolerance" of non-Muslim "Peoples of the Book" is the fact that those who are ostensibly being "tolerated" and "protected" are the "Native Americans" of Lebanon, Egypt, and the rest; remnants of venerable civilizations being "tolerated" and "protected" on their own lands, by supposed altruists who are in fact allogeneous conquering colonials and builders of empire..

And lest another minor point be also conveniently swept under the rug, one might want to ask "protection" for what reasons? and "protection" against whom and what?

Friday, January 7, 2011

Please Stop Calling them "Christian Arabs"!

I respect Lebanese journalist Michael Young a great deal, and I find his analyses profoundly clever, responsible, poised, and wise; and that's, all the time, every time. Indeed, I have yet to re-read any of Young's past work that wasn't spot on the day he wrote it, and that isn't still spot on today. But then he comes to us with a tightly argued piece like this one, and proceeds to demolish it entirely with his bromidic use of the inaccurate, and ultimately misleading term "Arab Christian."

What is an Arab-Christian, I ask, Mr. Young? and what is it that makes, say, a Copt, an Assyrian, or a Maronite an Arab in your eyes? There is much that ails the sad lands of the Middle East; but I argue that linguistic wizardry and deception, and semantic negationism--in addition to the Arab nationalist silly need to "Arabize" anything that comes into contact with the Arabic language--are some of the Middle East's major ills. Words have specific functions and specific meanings! I fail to see how a Copt or a Maronite "user of the Arabic language", who doesn't necessarily see herself as an "Arab", I fail to see why she can't be referred to as a "user of Arabic"?

Swiss, Belgian, or Luxembourger "users of French" are referred to as Francophone Swiss, Belgians, or Luxembourgers; yet unrepentant obsolete Arabists (and their epigones in the media and the academy) somehow still feel the urge to pigeon-hole Maronites, Copts, Assyrians, and other members of proud and ancient Near Eastern national churches, as "Christian Arabs". What is a "Christian Arab"?

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Thus Spake Zechariah

Following in the footsteps of a chorus of JohnnyComeLately impostors feigning distress at the Alexandria attacks, Lebanon's President, Michel Sleiman, recently paid a visit to his nation's Coptic community. In a show of solidarity he had the bad sense to say that “Such crime targets the dialogue between religions that distinguishes our Arab world.” A crime that targets the what between whats that distinguishes what? Is he for real?

I have no idea what Sleiman has been smoking, but I'm wondering which "dialogue" that is so distinctive of his "Arab world" was the President of Lebanon referring to? Could it have been the 14 centuries of dispossession, marginalization, expulsion, and ethnic cleansing of indigenous Near Eastern Christians and Jews? If that's "dialogue", I'm afraid to peer into what the opposite of "coexistence" might look like in Sleiman's funky looking-glass!.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

What's another "Seventy Thousand Assyrians"?

Happy New Year, even though this promises to be a year that is neither Happy nor Blessed for the world's Coptic community. The Copts, the ancient Christians of modern Egypt, who can trace their proud roots back to Pharaonic times, have been undergoing a fierce and systematic eradication of their history, memory, and cultural patrimony while the world sits idly by, condeming the frenzies of faceless, nameless "terrorists," issuing hollow patronizing platitudes of sympathy and solidarity with the victims. The destruction of Near Eastern Christians—of which the Copts' latest tragedy is but a recent manifestation—continues unabated, barely stirring so much as a whimper in the world's consciousness.

The Copts—and other Near Eastern Christians facing extinction, in their ancestral homelands no less—should be spared the world’s patronizing wringing of hands and other worthless histrionics of collective sorrow. Something else, of an entirely different nature, needs to take place: politicians, academics, prelates, lay leaderships, Middle East experts, and decent Muslims all over the world could resolve to take a firm and decisive stand against Muslim supremacists. Nothing short of summoning brutally honest Arab and Muslim introspection—by Arabs and Muslims—should be deemed acceptable any longer.

The culture and theology that produce these sorts of genocidal impulses—of which the Copts were the most recent victims—should be put on trial; not the “terrorists”, and not “al-Qaeda.”

The ongoing destruction of Eastern Christians is not a modern phenomenon, nor is it a reaction to Western colonialism, American meddling, the existence of Israel, the war in Iraq, or economic hardships in the Middle East—the standard pretexts flaunted by a biased Middle East scholarship and media.

The deliberate, methodical erasure of the histories, languages, cultures and memories of indigenous non-Muslim Middle Easterners is a phenomenon fourteen centuries in the making. An honest recognition of this horrid legacy is impreative to a sound understanding of the Middle East.

Yet, the LA-Times gave the Copts' plight brief mention in this past Saturday’s edition, concluding with the mind-numbing claim that the shrinking numbers of Middle Eastern Christians were the outcome of economic hardship. This is arguably the saddest chapter in the Near Eastern Christians' exodus saga of the past fourteen centuries; the distortion and dismissal of their plight, and the simplistic reduction of its causes to mere "economic" impulses.

This is the profoundly flawed "right way of thinking" mindset about the Middle East today, validated by an LA-Times claiming that:
authorities worry that Christian communities in relatively safe countries, such as Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Iran, also are shrinking, though driven more by a search for economic opportunities than by fear of violence. [... Middle Eastern Christians] tend to be better educated and more Western-oriented than their Muslim compatriots and often utilize family or religious ties abroad to emigrate.
But the LA-Times is in good company with such misleading clichés. As recently as June, 2009, the apolitical, tax-exempt, and eco-friendly National Geographic magazine deemed it gauche-caviar-stylish to attribute the disappearance of Near Eastern Christians to the establishment of the State of Israel and the 11th century Crusades. Gone from this shoddy history were the 7th century Arab-Muslim conquests and the subjugations, expulsions, massacres, and mass conversions of indigenous non-Arabs. Should our “newspapers of record” and our “scientific and educational journals” tell the Copts’ stories of dispossession, marginalization, persecutions, and impending extinction in light of the savagery that was the 7th century? Should anyone venture to attribute the plight of non-Muslim Middle Easterners to Islamic triumphalism?

There are, however, those who still challenge this re-writing of history. Early 20th century Armenian-American novelist William Saroyan was one such iconoclast. His poignant short story, Seventy Thousand Assyrians was an example of a decent Man’s refusal to commit the aggrieved Near Eastern Christians to oblivion. Seventy Thousand Assyrians can be read like a news item from yesterday’s newspaper. But it was written some 75 years ago, on the heels of the Assyrian Genocide, long before the invention of Political Correctness, at a time when murderers could still be taken to task, and when one could still name names and level a forthright “J’accuse!” without being branded an "Islamophobe."

I do not want to spoil anyone's New Year, but here's how things ended for the Assyrians close to a century ago; and here's how things might still end for the Copts and other remaining Near Eastern minorities in our Orwellian universe of newspeak and Political Correctness:

“Seventy thousand,” said Badal. “That is all. Seventy thousand Assyrians in the world, and the Arabs are still killing us. They killed seventy of us in a little uprising last month. There was a small paragraph in the paper. Seventy more of us destroyed. We’ll be wiped out before long. [...] We are trying to forget Assyria.”
"The rest of the story is pointless" continued Saroyan:

I thought about this whole business: Assyria and the Assyrians, Theodore Badal [...] the sadness of his voice, the hopelessness of his attitude. [...] I have been thinking about Assyria, and I have been wanting to say something about Theodore Badal, a son of an ancient race [...] Seventy thousand Assyrians, a mere seventy thousand of that great people, and all the others quiet in death and all the greatness crumbled and ignored, and a young man in America [...] lamenting bitterly the course of history.
This is what is at stake in the Middle East today; Copts, Maronites, Assyrians, Jews, Armenians, and others still; precious few remaining specimens of some of the most ancient and venerable human civilizations; besieged, forgotten, endangered species, barely clinging to their ancestral homelands, to these first cradles of (our) human history. Yet we remain silent, or emit timid platitudes; complicit and complacent before the images of their etiolated lives.