Across the Bay

Friday, October 22, 2004

The O'Arab Factor

Lee Smith addresses the topics raised in my previous post ("Lieven Let Die") in an excellent piece in Slate today.

Smith provides a brief account of the birth of the Arab nationalist and Islamist movements, as well as the reason for the common perception of the opposition between the two:

"[W]hy do people believe that Arab nationalism and Islam are opposed? Kedourie showed that it was the nationalists themselves who spread the idea. Among other things, they were "aware that their Western patrons and protectors looked with fear and aversion on Islam as a political force." The result is that the misunderstanding lives on, which is why analysts have been at great pains to itemize, mistakenly, the differences between, say, Baathism and Islamism."

While Smith defines the basic common grounds, à la Berman, in terms of liberalism and totalitarianism/fascism, he also examines a point that I didn't elaborate on enough, and that is the power struggle (as opposed to the ideological struggle) between Arab nationalist regimes and Islamist movements:

"Of course Saddam persecuted Islamists, just as he went after anyone who challenged him or the legitimacy of his regime. He also butchered Kurds, Shiites, and other Baathists. Syrian Baathist Hafez Assad destroyed the city of Hama, a Muslim Brotherhood stronghold, not because he was picking on the town's fanatical Sunni element, but because the Brotherhood threatened his power and had tried to kill him. Still, like his son Bashar today, Hafez used Islamist terror when it was in his interests, which was only when it was outside his country."

But it's Lee's conclusion that's the major point, which is one that I too tried to raise (less articulately):

"Just as our government has ill-served the American people by habitually failing to explain its reasoning, then it is all the more important that journalists and intellectuals build constructively on each other's work to articulate and understand difficult and complex ideas. Regardless of the historical connections between Islamism and Arab nationalism, it's possible to make a very good argument against the administration's conduct of the war on terror—but it's hard to see the virtue of making one based on a faulty understanding."

Last but not least, Joshua Landis gets his share of quotes in there, as his post on Baathism and Secularism that both Smith and I quote (see post below) is essential reading.

You heard it here first folks!