Cynicism and Passion

The longstanding notion many Arabs were contemplating that if the USA wanted something done, at any time in any part of the world, it would simply get it done, has apparently resisted the September 11’s events. This vision while being to some degree emphasized by the “victory” of the USA in the cold war and extensively in the contest with the ex-USSR since the collapse of the latter, as well as by the henceforth prevailing role of the US in the search for peace in the Middle East during the last decade, has also its roots anchored in the Arab mind. Habituated to what the French political thought traditionally call clientélisme d’état é which we may possibly translate as: State’s customary or State’s reliance-, the Arabs expect everything from the USA, in the same measure that they are relying on their own states for almost all the necessities of their life. The fact that theses states have a thousand times failed to meet their expectations or to fulfill their promises does not matter. The point is that the Arabs project their own feelings vis-é-vis their rulers upon the US government, considering that it is up to the Superpower to take on the responsibility for some insoluble problems in the world. A task that no US government has rejected anyway since the end of the cold war, and more precisely since the collapse of the Soviet Union. For if the world’s leadership has a signification, it is well in this frame that it ought to be sought. The moral responsibility is not something that has been forced on the USA, either. Even before the fall down of the communism in Europe all the US governments have been claiming the leadership of the free world. Now that the wind of freedom has swept off many rotten communist dictatorships in Europe and elsewhere, the USA cannot back away from holding responsibility. That is why it is perhaps not too excessive to say that without that psychical predisposition of the Arab mind, espousing é it is true- an international configuration, Madrid Peace Conference (1991) would have never been possible.

Naturally, it is in the wake of that Conference that the Palestinian-Israeli secret negotiations have been conducted in Oslo. The important events that followed up- i.e. the Oslo accords, and the Jordan-Israeli peace, etc- would not be accurately explained out of this general framework.

The Arab rulers were not dissatisfied with the direction the wind was taking. Many of them relied on the USA for their own survival and, like their peoples though for different reasons, they were expecting and demanding a strong American commitment at the side of the Palestinian people, if not to bring justice to that region, at least to persuade about 250 million Arabs that their governments were right in maintaining a strong relationship with the USA, the main supporter of Israel.

The Arab rulers know to what extent their peoples may feel compassion towards the Palestinians, even despite the long distances that could separate them. The Western observers who thought that such empathy could only be explained by the religious bond are mistaken. Why the Muslims of the ex-Soviet Union, or of China, or of any Asian or African dictatorship did not benefit of such concern although their plight as minority or as community might have been quite appealing to the Arab people? The only exclusion concerns Afghanistan under the yoke of the Soviets. But is it superfluous to recall that the Americans then played on the religious bond (the solidarity between Muslims) and most of all on the Jihad concept, to mobilize an Islamic militia from the four parts of the world to fight the Soviet army? Many years later, the Americans would feign to be surprised while discovering that the international Islamic militia they had helped in recruiting, arming and training, would boomerang not only at its first masters (the Americans) but also at what is believed to be their antennas in the Arab world (i.e. the governments!) So, though the Islamic solidarity exists, to be sure, it does not explain everything concerning the overwhelming compassion towards the Palestinians. Another factor is behind this phenomenon, and it is also as characteristic of the Arab mind as the religious bond. This factor finds its source at the roots of the social system, which means that it is some kind of psychological trait. We can sum it up in the following figure:

Me against my brother.

Me and my brother against our cousin.

Me, my brother and my cousin against the tribe.

Me, my brother, my cousin and our tribe against the other tribes.

Me, my brother, my cousin, our tribe and its allies against the rest of the worldé

Anyway, during the ante-Islamic period, this phenomenon was called ‘Asabiyya Qabaliyya, according to the famous Ibn Khaldun (: tribal fanaticism). Later on, though Islam has softened it while emphasizing that there is no difference between the races and the nations for God, safe for the belief in His unity, whence the universality of the Islamic message, it survived taking several aspects.

The third factor explaining the strong feelings vis-é-vis the Palestinians is to be found in the natural bond between all those who suffer from injustice. In their own countries, the Arab peoples are neither happy nor satisfied with their political systems based on the obedience to the ruler and the exclusion of the opposition. If the majority of the populations have not directly suffered from police harassment, prisons, torture, etc, that does not mean they do not know about it. In some parts of the Arab world, it is not the ruler who run the country, but fear. However, I hasten to add that nobody fears the ruler, but rather the neighbor, or the colleague, or the friend, or even the cousin, and maybe also the brother!

Applied to the modern world, this notion of ‘Asabiyya long and deeply analyzed by Ibn Khaldun since about five centuries, may find its way through the complexity of the political alliances and the common interests. We can discern its track in the internal struggle for power inside each Arab country as well as on the regional scale. For example, the Arab world has never been considered as a single entity despite the fact that from the shores of the Atlantic westward to the coast of the Gulf eastward, the populations not only speak and write the same language, but also enjoy the same culture (films, plays, books, music, etcé) Inside this map we can still discern varied blocks of interests: On the west, there is the Maghreb Union (a dead-born myth initially triggered by the French to separate North Africa from the rest of the Arab world, and today consecrated by regimes as different and even contradictory as the kingdom of Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, Mauritania, and Algeria! Not only such pretended union is quite impossible to detecting safe in the schizophrenic official speeches, but it actually functions as a cover for wide and deep divergences and even hostilities between the leaders and the parties in power.) More to the east, Egypt and Sudan stand for what is called the Nile valley. The economic interests are here focused mainly on the common exploitation of the Nile for agriculture and industry. It has always been claimed that Egypt has some kind of upper influence on the Sudanese society, whence a lot of sensitive zones of friction and sometimes confrontation. Yet it is also true that Egypt is present in the rest of the Arab countries through its unmatchable cultural production. Yemen and Djibouti enter in the Egyptian influence zone through the Red Sea, albeit Yemen would insistently look eastward towards the rich Gulf Cooperation Council, which it has never ceased to ask to join, vainly. This is also the case of Iraq prior to the invasion of Kuwait. But the six oil states led by the Saudi Arabia Kingdom (Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Emirates, Oman) have always refused to acknowledge that Iraq is also a Gulf State! And if they rejected the Yemeni candidature, because obviously this state does not match their own pattern of development based mainly on the oil economy, the secular and socialist ideology of the Iraqi Baath party was judged either too restraining or too aggressive to comply with. Traditionally- it is true- Iraq has been rather tied to Syria, while the latter has always considered Lebanon as its own extension. But maybe nothing could be more expressive of the Arab contradictions é and precisely of that famous ‘Asabiyya é than the case of Iraq and Syria. Here, we find two countries tied by almost everything (geography, history, culture, and ideology), where a unique party (the Baath) founded by Michel Aflak (a Syrian born secular Christian, who died in Iraq), until recently unable not only to coexist but also even to talk to each other! Both countries were propagating the same ideology, and supported by the ex-Soviet Union. Yet, unlike the communists, the Baath party which was standing for socialism and unity of the whole Arab world, has never been able to put order at home: either in Syria or in Iraq, the baathists were merely enemies. They were preaching unity, but the borders between them were shut during years. If an Arab traveler would need a visa to visit Iraq from, say a country in North Africa (the visa itself is neither the sign of unity nor even of trust between the Arab countries), he would get the permission to visit the Pope in the Vatican more easily than a permission to enter Iraq from Syria, or Syria from Iraq, some years ago. As to Jordan, maybe is it too little to say that it is tied to Palestine: the majority of the Jordanian people is said to be Palestinian.

Anyway, what is Jordanian and what is Palestinian or Iraqi or Syrian? Ask T. E. Lawrence é or Lawrence of Arabia, as he is known! Without the Sykes-Picot accords, without the intervention of the British and French imperialism in this region of the world, what would have been the Arab world today? Would unviable, little, undemocratic states ever have existed? Where was Tunisia or Mauritania before the French colonization? They have never existed. The same thing could be said about the modern Sudan, Jordan, Lebanon, the Gulf States, etc.

These countries are fictitious. Their rulers had been vassals to the High Gate (: the Ottoman Empire). They have been made out of nothing in such a hurry that it is a miracle that they did not explode with all the contradictions that undermine them many years ago. If they succeeded to pass the thirty years old cap, it is thanks to their communist-like regimes, though some of them were advocating wild liberalism. Now we see plainly the results of the Franco-British unharmonious cut up. Everywhere in their ancient colonies, people are not only suffering from the backward, unfaithful, short viewed policies of their autocratic rulers, but also they are also afflicted with their endless rivalry. Rivalry for influence and power, rivalry for leadership, rivalry for financial interests, rivalry even for courtship with the USA and the other Western powers. How can any economic or political progress be achieved in such conditions of internal and external continual struggle? And it is not always a mute struggle. How can we forget that prior to the Kuwait invasion, Iraq despite eight years long war with Iran, was one of the most powerful countries of the region?

I visited Iraq no less than six times in that period, and I toured the country several times from the south to the north. Indeed, it was not a European State. I am not talking of the political regime, but rather of the level of socio-economical achievement. Compared to many other countries, either in Asia or in Africa or even in Southern America, Iraq was not then the backward, barren, distressed country it has become after the Desert Storm and the embargo. It was usually likened to some east-European states, although the Western observers meant the political side in the comparison, while their Arab peers were taking pride in comparing Iraq to Czechoslovakia or even to the Tito’s Yugoslavia for its opposition to the East and West (what was called Tito’s positive neutrality- a notion also applied to Nasser’s Egypt).

Neither me nor dozens of journalists and writers who visited Iraq in those years, and who almost regularly met in the bars and the coffee-shops of the Meridian, the Melia-Mansur, or the Rasheed hotels in Baghdad, could imagine even in the dream that the Iraqi army was preparing to invade Kuwait. When I heard of the invasion, I was thousands of miles away, in the Mechtel Hotel in Tunis. An Iraqi friend (a writer) announced the event to me. I was so surprised that I could not even imagine the extent of the catastrophe!

Indeed, I was shocked. I could not see the wisdom of invading an Arab neighbor, although Kuwait was certainly not a model of political commonsense. But who was? And who made of the Iraqi government the judge of what is good and right and what is not? Furthermore, if we believe that all those little Arab states, with their stupid policies and their out-of-time national pride, are quite superfluous as a legacy of the colonization period, that does not mean necessarily that the bigger among them must swallow up the smaller. Otherwise, I could see neither George Washington nor Garibaldi in Saddam. It was obvious that his step, far from trying to unify the Arab world, could only divide it. And that was exactly what happened.

The example of the Iraqi-Kuwait conflict contains in itself almost the exact sum of what is being muted in and between the other Arab countries. It contains also the pattern of some ideas widely anchored in the Arab world concerning the USA. For since the Americans were able to intervene on behalf of the Kuwaiti, why shouldn’t they do the same for the Palestinians? Whether true or false, this kind of ideas generated expectations on economical and political levels. Henceforth, the USA would be endowed with almost magical power. Whence, in the absence of an American commitment, the feelings of distress, rejection, unfulfilment, and even despair based on the ambiguous relationship thus psychically settled between those who wait and those who are waited for.

This relationship is a passionate one. Let’s not omit it. To borrow the title of a French philosopher (André Glucksman), I would depict it as: passionate and cynical! Yet, precisely because of that emotive weight it has been loaded with, the relationship is not a model of rationality, which in itself contains the preamble é maybe even é the seeds of some tragic consequences. Thus, what happened on September 11 could also be interpreted in this light.

Hichem Karoui is a writer and journalist living in Paris, France.