Across the Bay

Sunday, August 29, 2004

FreundLee Reminder

Here's an addendum to my "Arab Renaissance...Again!?" post.

Charles Paul Freund (see below, "Headless in the ME") recently ran an entry on the new Egyptian liberal party on Reason's Hit and Run. In the comments section, Lee Smith wrote this important reminder:

"I wanted to note that the Wafd's tradition is not a great one to emulate insofar as its leading light, until he died, was Saad Zaghloul, who was in many ways the model for Nasser, though not pan-Arabism. Egypt's liberal phase is probably best represented by the Liberal Constitutionalist party, which was not quite as corrupt and demagogic as the Wafd, largely because they were not as powerful. The moving legacy of the great Egyptian liberals is almost exclusively in the cultural field and represented by guys like Taha Hussein and Ahmed Lutfi al-Sayyid--both of whom attacked Saad as a tyrant in the making. Egypt has had plenty of Wafd-inspired politics the last 80 plus years--popular demagogues who went against the rule of law whenever it was convenient, from Nasser to Hassan al-Banna and any of the more contemporary amirs of Gama'a Islameya and Gama'at al-Jihad, and I am hoping the Ghad doesn't have this in mind.

Incidentally, regarding someone else's question about the Muslim Brotherhood: yes they have been brutally repressed by the Mubarak government and of course they want liberal reforms, especially a revocation of the emergency law and human rights. It's worth noting however that, as someone else pointed out regarding the Islamists throwing acid in women's faces, the MB has never been interested in any one else's human rights or freedom of assembly. They have some members of parliament which they got by collaborating with the current Wafd party, but it is very unlikely that any self-respecting liberal movement would ever cooperate with the Muslim Brotherhood. American liberals may think these guys are "legitimate resistance" movements who just want freedom for their own people, but Arab liberals know better. This is why Arab liberals are not talking about democracy--i.e., free elections--but rather liberalism, rule of law, individual liberities, etc.

The last part ("American liberals... Arab liberals know better.") would serve as a very good counterpoint to the passage by Raymond Hinnebusch quoted by Patrick Seale (see post below):

"To many Arabs and Muslims, the struggle with imperialism, far from being mere history, continues, as imperialism reinvents itself in new forms. The Middle East has become the one world region where anti-imperialist nationalism, obsolete elsewhere, remains alive and where an indigenous ideology, Islam, provides a world view still resistant to West-centric globalization." (Emphasis added.)

This has been a serious problem to the advancement of liberalism in the ME. This, in my view, is the real "Orientalism" (here used in the Saidian sense, not its academic sense), this "Nativism" of the Third-Worldists. Edward Said also fell prey to this deadly trap by essentially espousing Arab nationalism and indirectly defending Islamists. See Christopher Hitchens' latest review of Said:

"In that volume [Covering Islam], published just after the Khomeini revolution in Iran, he undertook to explain something -- Western ignorance of Muslim views -- that certainly needed explication. But he ended up inviting us to take some of those Muslim grievances at their own face value. I remember asking him then how he -- a secular Anglican with a love of political pluralism and of literary diversity -- could hope to find any home, for himself or his principles, in an Islamic republic. He looked at me as if I had mentioned the wrong problem or tried to change the subject."

Malcom Kerr had also critiqued this weakness, that was never convincingly addressed by Said, way back in '80, in his review of Orientalism:

"But can it really be so easily denied out of hand that the Islamic religion has always exerted a pervasive influence on the culture and society of its adherents? Does Said realize how insistently Islamic doctrine in its many variants has traditionally proclaimed the applicability of religious standards to all aspects of human life, and the inseparability of man's secular and spiritual destinies? What does he suppose the Ayatollah Khomeini and the Muslim Brotherhood are all about?

In part, Said's implicit retort is that the Western world all too easily relies on the clerics of the East to define what the East is all about, since it suits Western imperial interests to do so. Khomeini is thus a boon to the Orientalist, who is confirmed in his insistence that the Orient is incorrigibly in the grip of traditional religious fanaticism, and a boon also to the establishment in the West within whose network of influence the Orientalist inescapably if unwittingly falls.

Unfortunately, as Smith pointed out, the liberals in the ME have no friends on either side! The ME environment is hostile against them, and the Western academe is more interested in what it perceives to be more "native" (exotic) and "authentic" voices (e.g., see what Voll wrote on Turabi in Lee Smith's piece on Darfur) thus uncritically accepting the propaganda of the anti-Western purists, that those liberals are nothing but boring misguided consumers of Western ideas.