Myth laid bare

Why is it that absurd choices are consistently presented as the only ones available? Why are local tyrants manufactured into the only alternative to global tyranny? What if some of us think there is absolutely nothing to choose between imperial hegemony and national humiliation and oppression on the one hand and nationalist/Islamist despotism on the other? Why is it that supporting Hamas and Jihad’s morally abhorrent and politically ruinous suicide bombings is posited as an inescapable expression of our solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for emancipation from the daily horrors of a heartless and brutal Israeli occupation? And why, for that matter, shouldn’t I join millions of Iraqis in celebrating the capture of the murderous thug called Saddam Hussein?

"Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgets to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce."

The celebrated quotation from Marx’s "Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte" has been lingering at the back of my mind ever since Saddam Hussein embarked on his geographically muddled venture to liberate Palestine via Kuwait. Let me explain why.

The Arab people’s experience with Nasserism has been tragic in every sense of the word. Nasser, it can be argued, is the very archetype of the tragic hero.

And it does not take too great a leap of the imagination to see in Saddam Hussein’s 1990-91 invasion and occupation of Kuwait a caricature — a farcical repetition, even — of the crisis that culminated in the June War of 1967. Simply replace American/Israeli baiting and provocation with American/ Israeli/Kuwaiti baiting and provocation. View Saddam’s posturing as a caricature of Nasser’s attempts to use the crisis to enhance his bargaining position vis-à-vis his adversaries on the one hand, and his hegemonic stature at home and within the Arab world on the other. The absence of any genuine preparedness for battle — as evidenced by the swift collapse of both armies — is an obvious point of overlap. Similarly the manner in which the doors to any possible compromise were systematically closed, while the baiting and provocation intensify, making any retreat impossible. The inevitable results follow: war and humiliating defeat. The similarities are obvious, even if superficial, making of the later events a farcical reenactment of the earlier.

The point, however, is that having passed through the tragedy of Nasserism we should have become immunised against the farce that was Saddam in ’90-91. We were not.

Not only that. For more than a decade we have been replaying Marx’s addition to Hegel’s words, insistently repeating the farce as ever greater farce, recasting — in our endless and futile search for a resurrected Salaheddin — our illusions about the heroic figure of Nasser as ever more ridiculous delusions about despicable thugs such as Saddam Hussein, and maniacal criminals such as Osama Bin Laden and Ayman El-Zawahri.

To have been taken in by Saddam in ’90- 91 is folly enough; to be fooled by Bin Laden in 2001, and again, by the very same Saddam, in 2003 suggests a denial of experience that might be explained by an advanced case of Alzheimer’s, or total idiocy.

But the explanation, of course, lies elsewhere. Ideology is a powerful weapon, and our intellectual classes have for almost three decades now been adamant in their refusal to settle accounts with the intellectual heritage bequeathed by June ’67. Interestingly, it’s been a catch-22 situation. The Arab world is blighted by its proximity to Europe, by its strategic geopolitical importance, by its oil wealth and by the fact that even as the Arab countries were embarking on the post-colonial era a Spartan-style, settler colonial state, armed to the teeth, was being implanted in their midst, dispossessing a whole people and eradicating a nation even as it was being born.

It is the intensity of national oppression and degradation to which the Arabs have been exposed in the last half century of "post-colonialism" that provides an explanation for their persistent, and increasingly humiliating, failures to achieve national emancipation and dignity. In our national zeal we have placed our struggle with "the West and Zionism" above every other aspect of our social and spiritual existence — above citizenship, class, gender, and ethnicity. Ever wary of foreign penetration, we are continuously reinforcing those red lines beyond which our thought and practice cannot venture — lest "the enemy" be allowed to enter — reproducing new authoritarianisms and reviving old ones.

The great irony of it all is that it is this very nationalist zeal that, rather than strengthening our ability to fight national oppression and humiliation, has enfeebled it to such a degree that we have become the preferred punching bag of the US as it sets the stage for a new imperial American century.

My initial reaction to the capture of Saddam Hussein was, as I found out later, shared by millions of other Arabs. It was anger, anger at why he not die fighting, at why he did not kill himself? In his degradation the tyrant had degraded us all. Such feelings lasted only a few moments. On second thoughts I found myself delighted at the way the tyrant had fallen — exposed as a coward, as a rat in a hole.

It is time that the myth that gave us Saddam, and continues to give us his like, be similarly exposed.