Across the Bay

Monday, September 06, 2004

Joshua Landis Replies

What follows is Joshua Landis' reply to my post on identity narratives. Any additions (translations) are marked.

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I am very conflicted about Arabism, like many in the West and Middle East right now. It is at the heart of the identity crises the Middle East has been struggling with since the break up of the Ottoman Empire. I don’t think Seale is wrong, as you do. Seale's 1965 book, The Struggle for Syria, remains a masterpiece of historical interpretation. He may sympathize with Arabism more than I do or defend it in a different way, but we both understand it is a force and intima’ (belonging. T.) or `asabiyya (blood solidarity. T.) that has shaped the region and will continue to shape it in the future. It will not disappear any time soon and should not be thought of like communism. Communism was an ideology that had wed itself to state power. Arabism is larger and more durable as all nationalisms are, a la Anderson’s imagined community. It is more akin to a religious worldview. Moreover, its intellectual architects put a lot of thought and effort into tailoring its most salient features to the contours of Islam. The two share the concept of an over-arching “umma” or community that must be united, of a sacred and eternal mission (risala al-khalida, of the chosenness of the Arabs, and the special role of Muhammad. That is why Arabism and Islam can coexist, even if uncomfortably at times, and why Arabism didn’t die after 1967, despite Ajami’s prediction and despite what common sense would dictate. Arabism would have died after 1948, had Ajami’s thesis that it was just a strategy been correct. But it is like the Hitchcock shower scene. It keeps coming back every time the West believes it has dealt it a mortal blow. Pan Germanism, pan Slavism, pan Turanism, you can argue, have all more or less died. But they fought for a long time.

If Arabism were just a national or ethnic feeling, it might go the way of Pan Turanism, but it is reinforced in an odd way by the anti-otherism of radical Islamism, which is very much alive. As we are seeing in Iraq, Arab nationalism and Islamism among the Sunnis has found a new synthesis. In Syria, Bashar has allied with Hizbullah and is winking at the recent 50 imams who called for struggle in Iraq. Yes, it is a dangerous game for an Alawite, who has sought to keep religion out of politics as much as possible, but he thinks he can ride it, or believes he must ride it, and he may very well be right. He is the only Arab leader who has let Islamists out of prison rather than put them in. Today, Syria holds very few Islamist prisoners – less than 200 according to Syrian human rights groups. Has there been a surge in violence? NO. On the contrary, the UN ranked Syria the third safest country in the world several months ago. Very few other Arab countries are any where close to that. No Islamic group has attacked the government in years. What a difference from Turkey, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, which now holds over 18,000 political prisoners, most of them Islamists. By stressing Arab nationalism, using a light hand with Islamists, and resisting American policies, Bashar has bought Syriaa measure of domestic peace and solidarity enviable by any regional standard.

To get Bashar and his people to convert to some sort of Syrian Nationalist Party or Greek Orthodox notion of Syrianism would be a major conversion and mean dumping everything they and their fathers stood by for 50 years. (The SNP allied itself with the US in the 1950s before it was crushed by the Ba`th Party and the Hashemites were allied with Britain. It would mean joining the West and declaring all that “sumud wa tahadi” --steadfastness and confrontation, T. -- stuff wrongheaded.) No easy undertaking, especially as the Israeli issue is always there threatening and keeping the struggle alive. (If only those border issues could be settled!) Now, of course, there is the added irritant of Iraq, which has added fuel to anti-imperialist fire of the old Ba`th, which had died down to ember form. For Syrians to convert to a smaller Syrian nationalism – which is what they will have to convert to if logic has its way, and they ever want to join the “community of liberal nations,” will take a long time, but there are many Syrians who hope that will happen.

Just because one doesn’t like Arab nationalism, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist or make people respond in a predictable way to events and others around them. That is why Syria does so much of what it does. That is why the Arab League is so messed up. Why Amer Mousa can always go on Al-Jazira and blather and get an audience. That is why Al-Jazira is so popular. It is a worldview that most every Arab subscribes to in part or in whole – and Syria has always seen itself as its beating heart. Its legacy in Syria is large and it has been at the heart of every Syrian constitution whether under the “urban notables” of the French Mandate, the early independence period, the Nasserist experiment with the United Arab Republic from 1958 to 1961, or under the Ba`th. Arab nationalism will not disappear with the Ba`th Party, as many believe. It predated it and will survive it.

It is instructive to recall that Shukri al-Quwwatli, the architect of Syrian independence whom many Syrians look back on today as the epitome of Syria’s liberal democratic experiment, was every bit as much an Arab nationalist as Hafiz al-Asad was. Syria does not celebrate an “Independence Day” because Quwwatli did not consider the withdrawal of French troops from Syrian soil in 1946 the equivalent of independence. He named it “Evacuation Day” instead, claiming Syria was only a region of the Arab nation and would not celebrate independence until all the Arab lands were free of foreign troops and presumably united. In the evacuation day speech he gave on April 17, 1946, President Quwwatli stated that he “would never raise the Syrian flag above that of the Arab nation.” It was the sound bite of the entire three-day proceedings and is still repeated with admiration by Syrians to this day.

The Ba`th Party is the spiritual heir of President Quwwatli’s Nationalist Party of the 1940s and 1950s. The two should not be seen as polar opposites, as they so often are. The Ba`thists, coming from the countryside, added socialism to Arab nationalism in order to push aside the urban notables, who they accused of being corrupt and feudalistic. Their success was guaranteed in part because they were able to steal the banner of Arabism from the older generation and make it their own, not because they were innovators when it came to nationalism. Of course they pumped it up with German and Sufi notions of the magical power of unity, but its basic tenets were already firmly in place before they came on the scene.

VP Khaddam’s recent interview about projected alterations to the Baath party, translated by MEMRI, went like this:

Question: "Will the socialist Arab Ba'th Party become a Syrian party?"

Khaddam: "Under no circumstances. Relinquishing the pan-Arab dimension of the party means relinquishing identity, history, and the future. What is to be discussed is the development of a pan-Arab work formula in the party, while adapting to the demands of the current stage in the pan-Arab area."


I think you have to take him at his word. He means it. Even if the Ba`th Party is demoted or fiddled with, Arab nationalism will remain at the heart of Syrian identity.

So then, if you accept this interpretation, how do you deal with it?

1. I would say, you live with it, all the while trying to diffuse its most virulent and fascistic aspects. What you don’t want to do is confront it with the Bush rhetoric. That only makes it stronger and validates its natural tendency to see the world in black and white. You definitely want to contain where you can – like in Lebanon. But at the same time you want to show a clear road forward for an alternative.

2. You want to make the “Syrian” option look good. You do this by settling the Golan issue – even if it means putting a gazillion American troops in place or paying the Israelis 20 billion dollars as they asked for last time around. A settlement of the border issues would defuse much of the confrontational and conspiratorial logic of Arabism. The Arabs have a right to feel screwed. They may not really understand why they keep getting screwed or what the best way to stop it is, but they do know they are getting screwed.

3. You let Syria build trading relationships with its neighbors so that it Lebanonizes and a class of good capitalists grows up to object to nasty talk and anything that may disturb the amassing of wealth. You let Syria join the Madrid process and trade with Europe on condition that it liberalizes. You encourage it to go the China route – if it is smart enough to do that. You help it expand financial services, build a postal service that can actually deliver a letter to a house, you help it spread the internet service, build a modern system of taxation, and develop a school system that teaches foreign languages competently.

You don’t try to throw every roadblock in the way of economic growth as we are now doing with sanctions and by pressuring Europe to do the same. Keeping Syria poor and ignorant will only reinforce Arabism, in its most blinkered and defensive form. Arabism is so much better that the many forms of radical Islamism abroad now. At least Arabism – in its best manifestation (secular – socialist) is west-oriented in ideology and intellectual borrowings.

Ultimately the xenophobia, paranoia, and confrontationalism that inspires what we don’t like about Arabism, has a cause. We may not see it as a sufficient cause or believe that the present form of Arabism is the correct response, but America must try to erase the cause. That is the only way illiberal Arabism will attenuate. I do not mean to suggest that Arabism was created by foreign forces or that America and the West is responsible for it. Arabism is primarily an attempt to unify the deeply fragmented people of Syria with a common identity. Nevertheless, like all nationalisms, it finds sustenance in resentment and a sense of victimization. The more America can do to reduce those feelings, the better off we will all be.

To get Sykes-Picot accepted as the best option and only realistic future for the Arab world means helping the existing states make something of themselves so they can see that smaller is better and accept their borders as they are and try to mold their national identities to them.

Arabism – the feeling of kinship – will never go away and may even find a form that we like and which can act as a positive, rather than as a negative force in the future – like Europeanism, which has produced peace in Europe, a free trade community, and a form of federalism that is founded on constitutions, law, and mutual respect and recognition. That is what most liberal Arabs want for themselves. They want to be like Europe and to exchange their Bismarkian or Cavourian Arabism that calls for immediate unification based on some mystical an organic notion of wholeness for a more federative Arabism based on liberal values and a gradual build up of trust and association. That kind of Arabist transformation can take place over time. It won’t happen quickly, probably not in our lifetime, but it needs economic growth, stability, and the sense that no monster is trying to eat them.

That is why I disagree with you and disagree with the neocons more generally. They think they can kill Arabism and MUST kill it because it is Hitler. Asad is not Hitler and never was. The neocon medicine is wrong – it will only sustain the xenophobes and promote the Us-Them think, which will fuel another vicious cycle of violence and extremism in the M.E.

Syria is also not Germany because it is not ready for democracy. Germany was at the heart of the enlightenment, liberal movement, nationalism and all the other good things of western development which let to democracy. Syria is only in the early phase of these. It is only beginning to deal with the religious question and getting a feel for secularism and positivism which were so central to promoting liberalism. The West could kill Hitler and destroy the fascist movement and Germany could revert to the developmental path it had been on for a long time. Its default mode was in the modern western trajectory. Destroy the Syrian state and you will get Iraq or Lebanon circa 1976 – a reversion to tribalism, sectarianism, fundamentalism, and caliphism. It will revert to a failed Ottoman situation. That is another reason kicking Middle East states to the breaking point is counterproductive and wrongheaded. There is a lot worse lurking under the Asad regime should it be destroyed.

State building in the Middle East has been a very tricky business. It is common for Westerners to regard the Asads and the politicians they surround themselves with as peasant bumblers, ophthalmologists who can’t see, and the like, but I dare say they read the pulse of their people quite carefully and accurately. They have patched together a system of balancing the various communities and interests of Syrians that could easily be destroyed and could be rebuilt only with the greatest difficulty.

The men in power in Syria today admire much about the West. I would wager that every one of them has sent or will send his kids to study in the West if they can. They want to be cultured like the Lebanese, whom they admire for their mastery of European culture and savoir vivre at one and the same time that they disdain them for their rejection of Arabism. They have zero interest in the Saudi or Iranian examples.

The Syrians have a lot to be proud of. By using Arabism as the central ideology of nation building and centralization, they have avoided civil war and internal collapse as experienced in Lebanon, yet at the same time they have avoided the excessive tyranny and repression of neighboring Iraq. They have kept Arabism’s worst elements in check. It is worth pointing out, once again, that the Syrian government has killed fewer of its own subjects over the last 50 years than any of its five neighbors, except little blessed Jordan. This is an achievement. If Bashar al-Asad can actual maneuver his country toward capitalism and economic growth in the next ten years so that it doesn’t get trapped in the Cuba syndrome, Syrians will be able to look back at the 20thcentury with an element of pride and sense of success. They have paid a high price for stability and state building with curtailed civil liberties and economic stagnation – and we shouldn’t forget Hama – but there has been a lot worse in the neighborhood. The West should assist Bashar in his effort to transform Syria from being an autocracy to becoming a liberal dictatorship, more on a par with Jordan or Egypt. That is his stated goal. He does not aim for democracy, nor does he intend to abandon the Arabism that has guided Syria from its earliest foundation. For America to expect Syria to embrace democracy and abandon Arabism any time soon is folly. To try to bring down the present Syrian state in the belief that something more liberal and pro-Western will naturally emerge is lunacy.