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.