2003 has been described as the worst year in modern Arab history by some pundits — on a par with, or even worse than, the two prime catastrophic events that have largely shaped the contemporary Arab world: the Nakba of 1948 and the equally crushing defeat of the Arabs at Israeli hands in June 1967. Yet as the year drew to a close, such assertions — made in the heat of the fall of Baghdad, the seat of the Abbassids, and birthplace of the glorious reign of Haroun Al- Rashid — appear to have lost much of their force. The anti-climatic capture of Saddam Hussein and the somewhat comic confessions of Muaamar Gaddafi, coming within a week of each other in December 2003, seemed to point to an alternative perspective on the year’s drama. Rather than being measured against 1948 and 1967, it would be more useful perhaps to see 2003 as underlining the fact that, strange as it may seem, contemporary Arabs continue to harvest the bitter fruit of their two "founding" catastrophes — indeed, continue to replay them in forms which are ever more absurd, if not as immediately devastating.
Nowhere else in a post-colonial Third World is the psychological and intellectual legacy of colonial domination as manifestly alive or as compelling as it is in today’s Arab region. Nearly half a century after independence, the nationalist zeal of the 1930s and 1940s seems to sustain the fervor of its vigorous youth. This is no inherent cultural or religious trait, of the facile "why do they hate us?"-type formulae. Rather, it is the perfidies and ravages of the colonial world that have managed to survive in this region long after their demise everywhere else. After all, the Balfour Declaration was issued in 1914, yet the process of Palestinian dispossession continues, unabated, to this day.
There is, nevertheless, something terribly wrong about a nationalistic zeal that has long passed its dotage. Stagnant, easily reneged upon, but rarely subjected to a serious critique, pan-Arab nationalism has been in a state of decay so protracted as to produce something akin to the "living dead" of horror fiction. In different ways, Saddam, Gaddafi, and even Osama Bin Laden have all provided testimony to a pan-Arab nationalism in extreme putrefaction.
If one were to look for symbolic significance in Saddam’s degraded capture and Gaddafi’s droll turnabout at the end of 2003, one might be tempted to see them as crystallising the final demise, the stake through the heart, of decadent pan-Arab nationalism (of which militant Islamism is one particularly virulent form).
Things are never that simple, however, and structures of thought, just like the social structures they both reflect and help shape, tend to remain in place until they’re actually removed by acts of will. The fall of Saddam Hussein will certainly not prove to have been the final nail in decadent pan- Arab nationalism’s coffin in 2003, just as neither 9/11 nor the fall of Kabul signalled the demise of militant Islamism in 2001/2. Indeed, the resilience shown by these two defunct systems of thought and practice over the past decade has been in great degree a function of their ability to merge one with the other, with Islamist militants increasingly adopting nationalist rhetoric and Arab nationalists quoting ever more freely from religious texts.
If anything 2004 will witness even more intense, if ultimately misdirected and futile, nationalist/ Islamist zeal, even as feelings of hopelessness and despondency sink ever deeper into the popular Arab consciousness. (These seemingly contradictory emotional reactions have not proved mutually exclusive in the past and are unlikely to become so any time in the near future.)
Indeed, if the last days of 2003 are anything to go by, there is nothing for the Arab peoples to look forward to in 2004. Doubtlessly, Arab regimes will continue to talk a lot about reform, while doing their utmost to keep any reforms they do enact to as purely a cosmetic level as they can get away with. And they can get away with a lot. Democracy is in the eye of the beholder, and he happens to live in Washington DC., where war criminal Sharon is a man of peace and Colonel Gaddafi, leader of the Libyan Revolution, is even now being awarded his democratic stripes for total transparency — not with the Libyan people, but with secretive Anglo-American weapons inspection and intelligence teams.
In Palestine, it is highly unlikely that 2004 will bring any mitigation of the dreadful reality that continues to unfold there, as Sharon’s Apartheid Wall rises higher and extends further afield, rupturing Palestinian lands and lives. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority, hapless, deeply divided and petty-minded, is clearly inadequate to the Herculean task of uniting the Palestinian nation around an effective strategy of resistance — one that is not satisfied with futile acts of vengeance, but aims at winning genuine liberation.
And the most conspicuous alternative to the PA continues to be Hamas and Jihad, who offer a strategy that parodies, ad nauseum, the sins of the Arab nationalist regimes towards the Palestinian cause — i.e. by manipulating it as an instrument for expanding their domestic hegemony. Three years into the suicide-bombing strategy, it must now be obvious that while it may enhance the ideological and political influence of Islamists among Palestinians and in the Arab world, it does the Palestinian cause itself nothing but harm.
Nor does the picture look any less grim in Iraq. We’ll have an indigenous Iraqi government during 2004, but the prospects for a return to peace and stability under continuing American tutelage and military occupation are less likely there than they have been in Afghanistan, which two years after "liberation" by American forces now seems to be heading straight back into the Taliban’s arms.
Zooming out to the global village, I’ve christened 2004 year two of the second American century. Saddam’s final crime may prove to have been giving the world, through his contemptible capture, another four years of the neo-cons. All in all, and on the basis of today’s available data, it does not look much like a happy new year.
Yet, there is always the unfathomable dynamic of the choices people make. Ultimately that is what it is all about. When and how do people decide that they’ve had enough of a particular historical configuration and choose another? The question has always been a source of perplexity, and the only answers we come by tend to rely heavily on hind sight.
In 2003 Edward Said died. He was mourned by thousands in Palestine, in the Arab world and indeed, in almost every country in the world. In a column I wrote some years ago, I likened Edward Said to John the Baptist, lamenting the fact that his powerful message — combining both unyielding rejection of oppression with the most profound humanism — was that of "a voice crying in the wilderness".
Edward later told me that he liked the article, but disliked the metaphor, protesting that many people agreed with what he had to say. Many people do. But regardless of how many they are, and how much influence they may have, the most significant fact about Edward Said’s legacy is that an alternative, a truly powerful and compelling alternative, does exist. Our options are not as impoverished as to have been reduced to the choice between subjugation and death — between Bushs and Bin Ladens. The alternative is there, all we have to do is choose it. And like every choice, that requires an act of will.