Arabs must throw off their shackles

by Edward Said* (30 May 2003, Middle East Times International Edition)

It is of the utmost importance that we recall 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.

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 constitute a nation and not just a collection of states scattered between North Africa and the western boundaries of Iran.

Just as the French, British, Israeli and American campaign against Abdel Nasser was designed to bring down a movement that openly stated as its ambition the unification of the Arabs into a very powerful independent political force, the American goal today is to redraw the map of the Arab world to suit American, and not Arab, interests.

American policy thrives on Arab fragmentation, collective inaction, and military and economic weakness.

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 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 defense 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. 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, 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. Indeed, it is remarkable that the Arab countries have fought each other far more readily than they have the real aggressors outside.

The result today, after the invasion of Iraq, is an Arab nation that is badly demoralized, crushed and beaten down, less able to do anything except acquiesce in announced American plans to gesture and posture in all sorts of efforts to re-draw the Middle East map to suit American and Israeli interests. Even that extraordinarily grandiose scheme has yet to receive the vaguest collective answer from the Arab states.

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 the Americans when it is clear to the youngest child that the road map is designed (a) to stimulate a Palestinian civil war and (b) to gain Palestinian compliance with Israeli-American demands for "reform" in return for nothing much at all.

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 aligning the country with US policy, that is, 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.

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, I find it 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 because there is little that opposes them. Moreover, the idea behind the effort seems to be nothing less than the destruction of the underlying unity of the Arab people once and for all, changing their lives and aspirations forever.

To such a display of power I would have thought that an unprecedented alliance between Arab rulers and people represented the only possible deterrent. 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 repressive security measures in order to provide an organized 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 defense of freedom and self-determination? Why not say we want each and every citizen willing to be mobilized 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 re-design our lives without our consent. Why must resistance be left to extremism and desperate suicide bombers?

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 of 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; it is not because the Arabs have no interest in democracy, but is because democracy has been seen as a threat by several actors in the drama. Besides, why adopt the American formula for democracy (usually just a euphemism for the free market) as the only one?

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.

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. There is a basic fear of democratic participation, as if too much freedom might lose the governing colonial elite some favor with the imperial authority. The result, of course, is not only the absence of real mobilization 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 to the great superpower (and its local surrogate). Not to understand that this is the conflict that will shape our area for decades is willingly to blind oneself.

What is 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 is to realize the scope of the problem, and then go on to overcome that which reduces us to helpless rage and marginalized reaction. The alternative to such an unattractive condition promises a great deal more hope.

* Edward Said is an academic and a political activist. Of Palestinian origin, he lives in the USA.

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