The young and the old
There's a really remarkable interview with Lebanese writer Pierre Akel (hat tip: Dean's World) that opens a window on the present intellectual conflicts within the Arab and Islamic world. Akel's website, Middle East Transparent gets 50-60K hits per day -- comparable to the largest blogs in the world. It's largely a forum for what may be termed "liberals", a term which has a vastly different meaning from similar words in the West. Here are excerpts from the interview.
Akel: We get our articles by email from practically every Arab country. ... You can find liberals in unexpected places. Ahmad bin Baz, the son of the late mufti of Saudi Arabia, is certainly a liberal. He wrote stunning articles in Al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper, but then was shelved. ...In the Arab world, much more than in the West, we can genuinely talk of a blog revolution. Arab culture has been decimated during the last 50 years. Arab newspapers are mainly under Saudi control. The book market is practically dead. Some of the best authors pay to have their books published in the order of 3,000 copies for a market of 150 million. This is ridiculous. Even when people write, they face censorship at every level—other than their own conscious or unconscious censorship. Meanwhile, professional journalism is rare.
The liberals are frozen out of the Islamic intellectual mainstream. In its place is the propaganda of dictatorship and terrorism. Akel describes something of how that propaganda apparatus works..
Akel: When it comes to satellite television in the region, Al-Jazeera is controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood, while many of the rest are under Saudi control. Al-Arabiya, for example, is owned by the Al-Ibrahim, the brothers-in-law of the late King Fahd. Even the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation cannot cross certain Saudi red lines. Yes, you can hear a liberal point of view here and there. But, to take one example, both Abdul Halim Khaddam, the former Syrian vice president who turned against the regime of President Bashar Assad, and Riad Turk, the Syrian dissident, have been under a Saudi ban from Al-Arabiya for the last month, because the Saudi leadership does not now want to annoy the Assad regime. For once, Al-Jazeera has also banned them, but for Qatari political reasons. Qatar is lobbying on behalf of the Syrian regime in Europe.
But if the liberals are opposed to the dictatorships within the Arab world, their world view is not entirely the same as those of American conservatives. It would be surprising if it were.
Akel: To understand Arab liberalism, one has to understand not only what it now represents but where it emerged from: In Syria, it mostly comes from the remnants of the communist or Marxist left—just like the Eastern European dissidents of 30 years ago. In Saudi Arabia, it comes from the very heart of Islamic fundamentalist culture, but also from the orthodox Sunnis originating in the Hijaz, where the cities of Jeddah, Medina and Mecca are located. Hussein Shobokshi is a good example. It also comes from the Shiite minority in the oil producing Eastern Province. In Tunisia, it comes from the reformed Islamic university Al-Zaitouna. In Egypt, liberals are inspired by the great liberal tradition that was crushed by the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser. ...
Managing relations with the Islamists. They are the liberals' adversaries but also, in certain cases, their necessary partners. To take an example from a completely different context: In the 1980s, French President François Mitterrand co-opted the French Communist Party and accelerated its implosion. Saad Eddine Ibrahim in Egypt and Riad Turk in Syria are wagering on a similar development in the Middle East. You bring Islamists into the open, encourage them to take part in the political life of a country, and they are bound to disintegrate into their various component elements. For example, the leader of the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ali Sadruddin al-Bayanouni, recently opted for peaceful negotiations with Israel and even for a possible recognition of Israel. This would not go down well with other Syrian Islamists. Dissension shall occur over issues like this one and others. It is either this or the Assad and Mubarak regimes will last for a long time. The same applies tto Hamas. Co-opting Islamists is a risky proposal, of course. Where liberals should never make concessions is where Islamists tend to be harshest: the status of women. In that domain no concessions must be made.
T. E. Lawrence's third chapter of the Seven Pillars of Wisdom summarizes his judgment of the Arab mind:
This people was black and white, not only in vision, but by inmost furnishing: black and white not merely in clarity, but in apposition. Their thoughts were at ease only in extremes. They inhabited superlatives by choice. Sometimes inconsistents seemed to possess them at once in joint sway; but they never compromised: they pursued the logic of several incompatible opinions to absurd ends, without perceiving the incongruity. ... The least morbid of peoples, they had accepted the gift of Me unquestioningly, as axiomatic. To them it was a thing inevitable, entailed on man ... Suicide was a thing impossible, and death no grief. ... Their convictions were by instinct, their activities intuitional. Their largest manufacture was of creeds: almost they were monopolists of revealed religions.
The Middle East remains immensely ideological, a place where the age of faith still lives. Daniel Byman's Deadly Connections: States that Sponsor Terrorism, concludes that Middle Eastern governments employ terrorism to attain ideological ends. For many states he says, the spread of their belief system is the most important goal of all.
It is the West that has banished the Dream from its arsenal of weapons. Theordore Darymple writing in Cato Unbound describes the sour Western public's obsession with quiet at any cost.
And always keep a-hold of nurse
For fear of finding something worse.
The dependent population does not like the state and its agents, indeed they hate them, but they soon come to fear the elimination of their good offices even more. They are like drug addicts who know that the drug that they take is not good for them, and hate the drug dealer from whom they obtain their drug, but cannot face the supposed pains of withdrawal.
It is almost a pensioner's mindset. What a change from a 150 years ago, when Tennyson could write with about a West yearning for the future:
Not in vain the distance beacons. Forward, forward let us range.
Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change.
Thro’ the shadow of the globe we sweep into the younger day:
Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay.