The Arab Condition

by Edward Said

Dissident Voice

May 24, 2003


My impression is that many Arabs today feel that what has been taking place in Iraq over the last two months is little short of a catastrophe. True, Saddam Hussein's regime was a despicable one in every way and it deserved to be removed. Also true is the sense of anger many feel at how outlandishly cruel and despotic that regime was, and how dreadful has been the suffering of Iraq's people. There seems little doubt that far too many other governments and individuals connived to keep Saddam Hussein in power, looking the other way as they went about their business as usual. Nevertheless, the only thing that gave the US license to bomb the country and destroy its government was neither a moral right nor a rational argument but sheer military power. Having for years supported Ba'athist Iraq and Saddam Hussein himself, the US and Britain arrogated to themselves the right to negate their own complicity in his despotism, and then to state that they were liberating Iraq from his hated tyranny. And what now seems to be emerging in the country both during and after the illegal Anglo-American war against the people and civilisation that is the essence of Iraq represents a very grave threat to the Arab people as a whole.


It is of the utmost importance that we recall in the first instance that, despite their many divisions and disputes, the Arabs are in fact a people, not a collection of random countries passively available for outside intervention and rule. There is a clear line of imperial continuity that begins with Ottoman rule over the Arabs in the 16th century until our own time. After the Ottomans in World War One came the British and the French, and after them, in the period following World War Two, came America and Israel. One of the most insidiously influential strands of thought in recent American and Israeli Orientalism, and evident in American and Israeli policy since the late 1940s, is a virulent, extremely deep-seated hostility to Arab nationalism and a political will to oppose and fight it in every possible way. The basic premise of Arab nationalism in the broad sense is that, with all their diversity and pluralism of substance and style, the people whose language and culture are Arab and Muslim (call them the Arab-speaking peoples, as Albert Hourani did in his last book) constitute a nation and not just a collection of states scattered between North Africa and the western boundaries of Iran. Any independent articulation of that premise was openly attacked, as in the 1956 Suez War, the French colonial war against Algeria, the Israeli wars of occupation and dispossession, and the campaign against Iraq, a war the stated purpose of which was to topple a specific regime but the real goal of which was the devastation of the most powerful Arab country. And just as the French, British, Israeli and American campaign against Abdel-Nasser was designed to bring down a force that openly stated as its ambition the unification of the Arabs into a powerful independent political force, the American goal today is to redraw the map of the Arab world to suit American, and not Arab, interests. US policy thrives on Arab fragmentation, collective inaction, and military and economic weakness.


One would have to be foolish to argue that the nationalism and doctrinaire separateness of individual Arab states, whether the state is Egypt, Syria, Kuwait or Jordan, is a better thing, a more useful political actuality than some scheme of inter-Arab cooperation in economic, political and cultural spheres. Certainly I see no need for total integration, but any form of useful cooperation and planning would be better than the disgraceful summits that have disfigured our national life, say, during the Iraq crisis. Every Arab asks the question, as does every foreigner: why do the Arabs never pool their resources to fight for the causes which officially, at least, they claim to support, and which, in the case of the Palestinians, their people actively, indeed passionately believe in?


I will not spend time arguing that everything that has been done to promote Arab nationalism can be excused for its abuses, its short-sightedness, its wastefulness, repression and folly. The record is not a good one. But I do want to state categorically that, since the early 20th century, the Arabs have never been able to achieve their collective independence as a whole or in part exactly because of the designs on the strategic and cultural importance of their lands by outside powers. Today, no Arab state is free to dispose of its resources as it wishes, nor to take positions that represent that individual state's interests, especially if those interests seem to threaten US policies. In the more than 50 years since America assumed world dominance, and more so after the end of the Cold War, it has run its Middle Eastern policy based on two principles, and two principles alone: the defence of Israel and the free flow of Arab oil, both of which involved direct opposition to Arab nationalism. In all significant ways, with few exceptions, American policy has been contemptuous of and openly hostile to the aspirations of the Arab people, although with surprising success since Nasser's demise it has had few challengers among the Arab rulers who have gone along with everything required of them.


During periods of the most extreme pressure on one or other of them (e.g. the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, or the sanctions against Iraq that were designed to weaken the people and the state as a whole, the bombings of Libya and Sudan, the threats against Syria, the pressure on Saudi Arabia), the collective weakness has been little short of stunning. Neither their enormous collective economic power nor the will of their people has moved the Arab states to even the slightest gesture of defiance. The imperial policy of divide and rule has reigned supreme, since each government seems to fear the possibility that it might damage its bilateral relationship with America. That consideration has taken precedence over any contingency, no matter how urgent. Some countries rely on American economic aid, others on American military protection. All, however, have decided that they do not trust each other any more than they care strongly for the welfare of their own people (which is to say they care very little), preferring the hauteur and contempt of the Americans who have gotten progressively worse in their dealings with the Arab states as the only superpower's arrogance has developed over time. Indeed, it is remarkable that the Arab countries have fought each other far more readily than they have the real aggressors from the outside.


The result today, after the invasion of Iraq, is an Arab nation that is badly demoralised, crushed and beaten down, less able to do anything except acquiesce in announced American plans to redraw the Middle East map to suit American and obviously Israeli interests. Even this extraordinarily grandiose scheme has yet to receive the vaguest collective answer from Arab states who seem to be hanging around waiting for something new to happen as Bush, Rumsfeld, Powell and the others lurch from threat to plan to visit to snub to bombing to unilateral announcement. What makes the whole business especially galling is that whereas the Arabs have totally accepted the American (or Quartet) roadmap that seems to have emerged from George Bush's waking dream, the Israelis have coolly withheld any such acceptance. How does it feel for a Palestinian to watch a second-rank leader like Abu Mazen, who has always been Arafat's faithful subordinate, embrace Colin Powell and the Americans when it is clear to the youngest child that the roadmap is designed a) to stimulate a Palestinian civil war and b) to offer Palestinian compliance with Israeli-American demands for "reform" in return for nothing much at all. How much further can we sink?


And as for American plans in Iraq, it is now absolutely clear that what is going to happen is nothing less than an old-fashioned colonial occupation rather like Israel's since 1967. The idea of bringing in American-style democracy to Iraq means basically aligning the country with US policy, i.e. a peace treaty with Israel, oil markets for American profit, and civil order kept to a minimum that neither permits real opposition nor real institution building. Perhaps even the idea is to turn Iraq into civil war Lebanon. I am not certain. But take one small example of the kind of planning that is being undertaken. It was recently announced in the US press that a 32-year-old assistant professor of law, Noah Feldman, at New York University, would be responsible for producing a new Iraqi constitution. It was mentioned in all the media accounts of this major appointment that Feldman was an extraordinarily brilliant expert in Islamic law, had studied Arabic since he was 15, and grew up as an Orthodox Jew. But he has never practiced law in the Arab world, never been to Iraq, and seems to have no real practical background in the problems of post-war Iraq. What an open-faced snub not only to Iraq itself, but also to the legions of Arab and Muslim legal minds who could have done a perfectly acceptable job in the service of Iraq's future. But no, America wants it done by a fresh young fellow, so as to be able to say, "we have given Iraq its new democracy". The contempt is thick enough to cut with a knife.


The seeming powerlessness of the Arabs in the face of all this is what is so discouraging, and not only because no real effort has been expended on fashioning a collective response to it. To someone who reflects on the situation from the outside as I do, it is amazing that in this moment of crisis there has been no evidence of any sort of appeal from the rulers to their people for support in what needs to be seen as a collective national threat. American military planners have made no secret of the fact that what they plan is radical change for the Arab world, a change that they can impose by force of arms and because there is little that opposes them. Moreover, the idea behind the effort seems to be nothing less than destroying the underlying unity of the Arab people once and for all, changing the bases of their lives and aspirations irremediably.


To such a display of power I would have thought that an unprecedented alliance between Arab rulers and people represented the only possible deterrence. But that, clearly, would require an undertaking by every Arab government to open its society to its people, bring them in so to speak, remove all the repressive security measures in order to provide an organised opposition to the new imperialism. A people coerced into war, or a people silenced and repressed will never rise to such an occasion. What we must have are Arab societies released finally from their self-imposed state of siege between ruler and ruled. Why not instead welcome democracy in the defence of freedom and self- determination? Why not say, we want each and every citizen willing to be mobilised in a common front against a common enemy? We need every intellectual and every political force to pull together with us against the imperial scheme to redesign our lives without our consent. Why must resistance be left to extremism and desperate suicide bombers?


As a digression, I might mention here that when I read last year's United Nations Human Development Report on the Arab World, I was struck by how little appreciation there was in it for imperialist intervention in the Arab world, and how deep and long-standing its effect has been. I certainly don't think that all our problems come from the outside, but I wouldn't want to say that all our problems were of our own making. Historical context and the problems of political fragmentation play a very great role, which the Report itself pays little attention to. The absence of democracy is partially the result of alliances made between Western powers on the one hand, and minority ruling regimes or parties on the other, not because the Arabs have no interest in democracy but because democracy has been seen as a threat by several actors in the drama. Besides, why adopt the American formula for democracy (usually a euphemism for the free market and little attention paid to human entitlement and social services) as the only one? This is a subject that needs considerably more debate than I have time for here. So let me return to my main point.


Consider how much more effective today the Palestinian position might have been under the US-Israeli onslaught had there been a common show of unity instead of an unseemly scramble for positions on the delegation to see Colin Powell. I have not understood over the years why it is that Palestinian leaders have been unable to develop a common unified strategy for opposing the occupation and not getting diverted into one or another Mitchell, Tenet, or Quartet plan. Why not say to all Palestinians, we face one enemy whose design on our lands and lives is well-known and must be fought by us all together? The root problem everywhere, and not just in Palestine, is the fundamental rift between ruler and ruled that is one of the distorted offshoots of imperialism, this basic fear of democratic participation, as if too much freedom might lose the governing colonial elite some favour with the imperial authority. The result, of course, is not only the absence of real mobilisation of everyone in the common struggle, but the perpetuation of fragmentation and petty factionalism. As things now stand, there are too many uninvolved, non- participating Arab citizens in the world today.


Whether they want to or not, the Arab people today face a wholesale attack on their future by an imperial power, America, that acts in concert with Israel, to pacify, subdue, and finally reduce us to a bunch of warring fiefdoms whose first loyalty is not to their people but to the great superpower (and its local surrogate) itself. Not to understand that this is the conflict that will shape our area for decades to come is willingly to blind oneself. What is now needed is a breaking of the iron bands that tie Arab societies into sullen knots of disaffected people, insecure leaders, and alienated intellectuals. This is an unprecedented crisis. Unprecedented means are therefore required to confront it. The first step then is to realise the scope of the problem, and then go on to overcome what reduces us to helpless rage and marginalised reaction, a condition by no means to be accepted willingly. The alternative to such an unattractive condition promises a great deal more hope.


Edward Said is University Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, and is a leading Palestinian intellectual and activist. Among his books are The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After (Pantheon, 2000), Peace and Its Discontents: Essays on Palestine in the Middle East Peace Process (Vintage, 1996), and Out of Place: A Memoir (Knopf, 1999). This article first appeared in Al-Ahram Weekly (Egypt)



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