Across the Bay

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Losing my Religion

Here's a piece by yet another Teacher of Wisdom, Shibley Telhami. The piece serves as a good example of the persistent recycling of Arab nationalist constants. All the major points of that bankrupt narrative are present in the piece.

Telhami starts with what he thinks is a revealing insight:

"One of the most stunning moments after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime was the rush of tens of thousands of celebrating Iraqi Shiites into the streets in response to the call of their most revered leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. It was a stark demonstration of Shiite power, one that may have unnerved those Americans who believe in the possibility of a secular, democratic Iraq."

This is an example of those Sunni Arab nationalist scarecrows. Shiites are presented as hordes of religious fanatics, and the alternative is of course the preservation of the carcass of "secular Arab nationalism." This motif has been used since the Khomeinist revolution to maintain an autocratic Sunni Arab nationalist order in the ME (and I don't mean to dismiss the Shiite issue). It lies behind the US role in the Iraq-Iran war, and behind the decision not to remove Saddam from power at the end of the first Gulf War. In fact, the same line was repeated before this war, as an excuse not to undergo it. But for some reason, Telhami presents it as a bombshell of sorts!

"The moment was also a harbinger of a larger trend across the Middle East, one that poses difficult, long-term challenges for U.S. foreign policy: More and more Arabs identify themselves as Muslims first."

Leaving alone the unaddressed question of why this presents a challenge for the US, and the issue of the options that the US has, my reaction to this supposed news flash is: when did the Muslim Arabs not identify themselves as Muslims first!? Actually, and far more importantly, who says that their identification as Arabs did not carry with it a strong marriage between Arabism and (Sunni) Islam? In other words, who says that for a Muslim, "Arab" precludes or is separate from "Muslim"?

The myth that Telhami embraces is that Arab nationalism is somehow "secular." The two post-Nasserist examples he provides -- Baathist Syria and the PLO -- are in fact proof of the opposite! Again, I refer you to Joshua Landis' paper on religion, politics and society in Syria. As for the PLO, like all the other presumably "secular" Arab nationalist regimes, it walked a very thin rope with religion (because, of course, it has to!) always using religious terminology, imagery and motifs. For instance, the use of the Aqsa Mosque as a symbol is one. The other example, which is ironically used to prove the PLO's secularism, is Arafat's inclusion of the Christians every time he talks about Palestine. But the fact that Arafat has to make that addendum or reminder goes to show that it's not automatic! But more broadly, it was always this way, or at least (for those who still have nostalgia for this stupid ideology) it was certainly doomed to end up with a complete blurring of the lines with regard to religion. For one, all the terminology used in Arab nationalist rhetoric had parallels and predecessors in the Islamic lexicon. A quick browsing of Muslim Arab nationalist writers reveals the close association they had in their mind between Arabism and Islam. Even the Christian Arab nationalists ended up with this inevitable conclusion. After all, the founder of the Baath, Michel Aflaq, ended up converting to Islam. That serves as a perfect analogy to what I'm saying here.

Here's another example of the blurring of the lines between religion and secularism that emanates from Arab nationalist rhetoric. In a recent speech at the "al-Quds conference" held in Beirut on 6/23, the secretary general of the Council of Middle Eastern Churches Gerges Salehrecited the Arabist creed:

"Jerusalem is not the city of one people alone, for it was founded before the (time of the) Jews and it has persisted with an Islamic-Christian character.
...
Therefore, Jerusalem (al-Quds) and its people call on us, Muslims and Christians, to put our hands together to be a source of support and back-up for its inhabitants. The goal is for all of us to work to preserve the Arab Islamic and Christian heritage of the city of Jerusalem (al-Quds) because this is a universal heritage and it is our duty to preserve it. And I find this conference an important step towards that goal and I pray to God, blessed be his name, to help us succeed in this regard out of loyalty to Jerusalem (al-Quds) and its people, and to the cultural-religious heritage that binds us together.

Jerusalem (al-Quds) brings us all together as believers in the one God whom we worship. Jerusalem (al-Quds) is the place of our common witness as Arabs, and the title of our effort (Jihad) for a world of justice, freedom, and right.
"

I'll come back to this speech in my upcoming post on Darfur. It makes clear all the points I talked about, namely the complete unity between the Arab nationalist discourse and the religious discourse used for the Palestine problem (the fact that the speaker is Christian shows you how pathetic those Christians, who are still trying to resurrect the fantasies promised by Arab nationalism, really are. More importantly, and tragically, it shows that for over a hundred years, Christians and true secularists have not found an ideology or discourse that can compete with the Islamic one).

But this has always been the case, so why does Telhami act as if it's a revelation?! In fact, his own statements are proof of the opposite of his claims. Here's a good example (one that naturally follows a shifting of the blame on the American interference in Iraq):

"Once the Baath institutions collapsed, the primary organizations capable of mobilizing large crowds were religious."

Telhami never stops to ask why the masses so readily follow the clerics if, as he claims, they didn't identify themselves first and foremost as Muslims in religious terms.

An additional Arab nationalist constant that finds its way to Telhami's piece is the Palestine issue:

"[I]ts [the embrace of Islam as a primary identifier] accelerated growth today is in part the result of the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in 2000, the subsequent rise of the latest Palestinian intifada and the Israeli response to it. Not only did the breakdown of talks weaken the PLO and empower its Islamist opponents, especially Hamas, but the conflict with Israel also began to be seen increasingly in religious, rather than nationalist, terms."

Apparently, denial isn't just a river in Egypt. But the transference of agency, and the prevalence of the passive continue to dominate Telhami's piece:

"The Iraq war and the way the war on terrorism have been perceived in much of the Islamic world have further intensified identification with being a Muslim. Increasingly, Muslims view the war on terrorism as a war on Islam. Conversely, many Americans now regard Islam as the source of the terrorist problem."

You see, it's only because of the American war on terror that Muslims are identifying themselves more and more in Islamic terms! It doesn't even dawn on Telhami that the US was attacked by people hoisting an Islamic identity, and using an Islamic rationale, framed in a reading of Islamic history and religious texts, and that the Islamic world has yet to produce a counter-narrative to theirs that is as popular and dominant.

Telhami falls back instead on a cliché that is a hallmark of bankrupt Arab nationalist "intellectuals", and that is the role of the despots:

"These trends have provided Islamic groups with increasing grass-roots potential limited only by the operating space allowed them by insecure authoritarian governments."

Well here's a news flash for Telhami: Islamism (in its various forms) has become the mainstream with the help of the regimes, and not just despite of them, as these regimes need the legitimacy of Islam! Some secularist order this is! For examples, read Lee Smith's latest piece in Slate (see below) and Geneive Abdo's book No God but God, both on Egypt. Joshua Landis' paper on Syrian religious education is also helpful.

Here finally Telhami tells why it would be so bad for the US if religion takes over (as if the US can do anything about how Muslims feel and think! It's even funnier since Telhami and his likes are telling the US not to do that!) :

" The hope for a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, one rooted in the idea of two states living side by side in peace, is a nationalist one. If the conflict becomes religious, it's difficult to envision a peaceful solution."

It all comes back to Palestine... How original. Once again, Telhami doesn't address the issue from the point of view of the Muslims and whether they ever saw Israel really divorced from religion. But to put this responsibility on the shoulders of the US is not only infantile, it's paradoxical, and once again exemplifies my point on the bizarre relationship these intellectuals have with the US. While these people express their distaste for the American "empire", they nevertheless are effectively calling on it to, as Bernard Lewis once put it, "fulfill its imperial duties."

This is therefore a perfect piece to demonstrate the complete helplessness and bankruptcy of the secularist intellectual scene in the ME, and how it's stuck with its delusional fantasy of Arab nationalism's alleged Paradise Lost. It still hasn't hit them that this "paradise" promised by Arab nationalism never was nor will it ever come via that ideology. If anything, it was a mirage, or, worse still, one of the gates of the Inferno!