Across the Bay

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Arabists, Arab Nationalism, and Iraq

Since the involvement of Lakhdar Brahimi in Iraq, there has been a few articles that have suggested that Arab Nationalism (if not the Baath itself) will or even should be back with a vengeance in Iraq.

I have already brought up the dismal piece by Patrick Seale, where he didn’t even mention the non-Arab population of Iraq, and didn’t really seem to care, as he had bought the Arab nationalist propaganda whole and uncritically, as representative of the “authentic” identity of Iraq and the Middle East as a whole (as if such a thing exists). This is consistent with Seale’s anti- and post-colonial attitude, which, as I have argued, has been laid out by the late Edward Said. The main (erroneous) assumption of this argument is that Arab nationalism represents an authentic, “native” narrative that is resistant to the colonial narrative being imposed or “created” for the imperial subjects. For instance, take this quote by Tamim Al-Barghouti:

The geographic severance of Egypt from Asia implied a cultural severance from Arabism and Islam. African Egypt, Pharaonic and Greco-Roman Egypt were recent European inventions, part of an orientalist discourse that often invoked biblical images for colonial use.”

So any non-Arab, non-Islamic aspect is colonial, and therefore fake and not authentic! This essentialist view of identity has been a dangerous constant in the Arabic speaking world.
Furthermore, Arab nationalism is really endorsed more because of its being anti-colonialist than for its actual merits. Paul Berman captured this point in a recent article for Dissent Magazine:

[A] lot of people suppose that any sort of anticolonial movement must be admirable or, at least, acceptable. Or they think that, at minimum, we shouldn't do more than tut-tut-even in the case of a movement that, like the Baath Party, was founded under a Nazi influence. In 1943, no less!”

As such, it has created an equally fake and reductionist discourse as the one post-colonial critics accused the colonial powers of attempting to impose.

Beside Seale’s useless analysis, I will discuss two other pieces: one is a review of Hazem Saghieh’s book The Iraqi Baath by Zaki Chehab, the other is a commentary by Juan Cole that appeared in the Le Monde Diplomatique. Cole’s piece is on the role of nationalism in supposedly uniting Sunni and Shiites insurgents. I will start with Zaki Chehab’s book review.

Chehab begins his review with a condemnation of Saddam’s brutality, and how Iraq was a failed state, and the “humiliation” of the Arab world. This however turns out to be nothing more than an attempt at a disconnect between Saddam and Baathism as a doctrine. Chehab even introduces a qualifier: “Saddamist Baathism.” The point of the dissociation becomes clear when Chehab moves on to discuss, in quite the romantic tone, the history of the Baath, preaching to his readers about the “great idealism” with which it was formed at the hands of “intellectuals” who by the way were both Christian and Muslim (this is the indulgent Arab nationalist propaganda, which is used to shun other --ethnic or sectarian -- identities and narratives). The romantic utopian lure (also found in Nazism) has its hooks deep in Chehab’s heart that he cannot help but reminisce nostalgically about the ideal that never materialized (Ahhhh, if only the real Baathism were implemented!). In fact, this is summarized in the title of the piece which anticipates what Chehab deems to be the corruption of a good thing. That is, the degeneration of a political programme to a personality cult: Saddamism.

This is a textbook case of the deep pathologies that plague the Arabs today, where they cannot leave behind destructive fascist ideologies that have been causes of their ruin for an entire century. These are the “Dream Palaces” that Ajami talks about. The pathologies are further confounded when Chehab basically blames the CIA for the emergence of Saddamism, in an obvious analogy with the Mosaddig coup in Iran. The message: the “West” is inevitably involved in the corruption of an Arab ideal. The Mosaddig myth has become truly powerful in the Middle East as proof of American hypocrisy and malintent. If I may indulge this for a moment, let us assume that the Arabs’ reading of the Mosaddig affair is warranted (and it’s not an obvious assumption), the agent of that coup would be the CIA, i.e. the same people who are now the Arab dictators’ last friends in Washington! The irony (or paradox, which I touched on with the Telhami piece) is that while the Arabs are deploring the old US foreign policy which backed unpopular puppet regimes (which ended up as dictatorships), they are now standing against its ideological rival in Washington, and reverting to the support of the very CIA they blame for the Mosaddig affair! As I mentioned in my comments on the Telhami piece, the Arabs are stuck in between old US foreign policy (see Robert Kaplan’s The Arabists), and the break with that policy exemplified by the war in Iraq.

In the end, Chehab reasserts, or reinvents, the Baath as a future inevitability in Iraq by re-appealing to its anti-colonialism (through the “resistance” prism). I.e. back to square one!!! The sad thing about this, beside the obvious, is that this is argued in a review of a book by Hazem Saghieh. Saghieh is the author of books like Qawmiyyū al-Mashriq al-‘Arabī and Wadā‘ al-‘urūba, books that severely critique Arabism and other Levantine nationalisms that had fascist roots and tendencies, including Nasserism, the Baath and the SSNP. Chehab doesn’t even touch on these problems, or the other great sin of Arabism in its various forms: repression of minorities. To use a quote from Kaplan's The Arabists:

"Arabists have not liked Middle Eastern minorities. Arabists have been guilty in the past of loving the majority and the idea of Uruba, which roughly translates as 'Arabism.' I remember once going to a Foreign Service party and hearing people refer to the Maronite Christians in Lebanon as 'fascists.' ... There are lots of injustices in the world, and self-determination is not something the Arabs want to apply anywhere else in the Middle East." (p. 306).

This is the position reflected in the articles I'm discussing here. Contrast that with Kanan Makiya's view. Makiya concluded that a truly pluralist post-Baathist Iraq should no longer be officially an “Arab” country in respect of its ethnic pluralism. People familiar with pre-Taef Lebanon would understand why this is important. This also is well understood by an Iraq scholar, Yitzhak Nakash who, in a lecture at the Woodrow Wilson Institute (broadcast on C-Span) kept reminding his audience that the ethno-religious identities on the ground in Iraq have to be taken seriously. This type of language is like poison to Arabist ears. It’s not only a matter of ideology either. All the Arabist countries have a major minorities problem. They perceive the acknowledgement of these minorities’ narratives as a threat to their own survival. Chehab is merely reasserting these problems in romantic, but deadly, terms.

Juan Cole’s piece appeared in Le Monde Diplomatique under the super-title: L’occupation américaine de l’Irak en échec (the American occupation of Iraq failing). You can almost smell the French snickers! Juan Cole’s basic thesis is that the American occupation of Irak is realizing what was thought a historical impossibility: a Shiite-Sunni nationalist union (cf. this piece by Christoph Wilcke. But contrast both these positions with this piece in the NYT). Juan Cole seems to be so eager to see what he wants to see that he mistook the trees for the forest. As anyone who is familiar with Lebanon’s war knows, mortal enemies (historically and ideologically) had no problem making alliances with each other in order to achieve limited objectives. In a sense, it was an extension of Lebanon’s politics of compromise of peace time, only this time they were done during war time! These confusing alliances are the subject of the satirical play Film Ameriki Tawīl by Lebanese playwright Ziad Rahbani. As for Iraq, this following quote from the above-mentioned NYT piece serves as an example:

"Several speakers implied that the Sunni minority intended to derail the American-led political process, and thus the prospect of a Shiite majority government. On few occasions, if any, since the American invasion last year, have mainstream Shiite leaders spoken so bluntly in public of the political rivalry with the Sunnis, who were referred to repeatedly by speakers as "they" or "the other side," and barely at all by name."

To take the Fallujan rebels’ and the Sadrists' alliance of convenience as a nationalist-inspired, anti-colonialist historical unification of Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq is almost Hallmark-like in its romanticism! The language too is so typical of Arab nationalist discourse:

... [Irakiens] rassemblés autour d’un nationalisme qu’on croyait moribond, mais qui transcende les divisions confessionnelles.” (... [Iraqis] gathered around a nationalism which we thought was dead, but which transcends the sectarian divisions).

You can take this kind of rhetoric straight out of an Arab nationalist textbook! The analysis is so eager that it’s almost laughable. What’s funnier is Cole’s treatment of the Turkmen and Kurds and Moqtada’s relation to them! Cole doesn’t include in there Moqtada’s famous proclamation of “the end of Kurdistan.” Again, Cole swallows whole the nationalism “from above” which is so characteristic of Arab nationalist movements. Unlike Nakash, he does not take into serious regard the particular group narratives, thereby repeating the same mistake that has plagued Middle Eastern countries for the last century. Perhaps Cole, like Barghouti, feels that those identities are “colonialist” and therefore unauthentic (cf. the reactions to Lebanonism, and Maronitism in Lebanon).

Cole and others would do well to take Paul Berman’s advice: just because a movement is anti-colonialist doesn’t make it “good”! Fascism always comes disguised in nationalist garb. Berman doesn’t define fascism in his piece, but this book by Robert Paxton (The Anatomy of Fascism) defines it as

A form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.”

Cole will find in there an alternative explanation for the Sadrist “collaboration with traditional elites” (i.e. Sunnis) as well as the dreadful nightmare that he, in his excited, “resistance-induced” fervor for Iraqi “nationalism” neglected to address. That is, the “abandonment of democratic liberties” that a Sadrist or Fallujan Sunnis domination of Iraq would bring. That’s the kind of “anti-colonialism” that we can do without. It’s about time we moved beyond masturbatory romanticism, especially when people’s lives are at stake.
N.B. Samantha Power ends her review of Paxton with a statement that would drive Paul Berman crazy. In the end she just couldn’t help but equate fascism with Bush’s policies! What she failed to mention is that it is quite possible that Bush might lose his job this coming fall. If not, he will definitely lose it after four years. Fascism, including Islamofascism (and Moqtada’s dream of a vilayet e faqih system in Iraq, with him as the faqih), has a tendency not to hold elections or relinquish power!