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A reply to The Angry Arab

Last week, in an article for Comment Is Free, I pointed out that the "Arab problem" is mostly perceived in terms of undemocratic or dictatorial regimes. I suggested it’s a mistake to approach it in this way and that in order to really understand the problem we have to look beyond the regimes to Arab society as a whole. I also suggested that if we wish to identify the forces that can drive change we should look to women, gay people and bloggers rather than opposition parties and “reformist” politicians.

The article brought a vigorous riposte from As'ad AbuKhalil, a Lebanese-American professor at California State University who blogs as The Angry Arab. Having followed his blog for several years, I can’t say I was especially surprised; his reaction was more or less what I would have expected.

I feel I should respond, though, because the article I wrote was not just a one-off. It encapsulated, in a condensed form, several of the key arguments from my new book, What’s Really Wrong with the Middle East, and objections of the kind raised by The Angry Arab may well crop up again in connection with the book.

My purpose in writing the book was to present an alternative view of the “Arab problem”. One that would challenge the neocons’ preoccupation with “regime change” and their tendency to equate freedom with free elections (but little else). And one that would also challenge the popular Arab notion that all the region’s problems are the fault of foreign powers.

It is on this latter point that the book steps into what, for many Arabs, is very sensitive territory. Blame foreigners, even the regimes if you like, but the people are – and must remain – blameless.

This self-absolution from responsibility was something I came across many times, of course, while researching the book. Jehad al-Omari, a businessman in Jordan, described to me his horror some years ago on first reading Hisham Sharabi’s critique of Arab society. 

“When you ask the question whether our culture has anything to do with our level of backwardness or lack of progress or lack of democracy or lack of discipline, you are immediately barked at,” he said. “You cannot say that.”

“This idea of looking inwards and saying ‘Where did we go wrong?’ is not there,” he continued. “Nobody is willing to blame tribalism or the culture or whatever you want to call it … They will always blame the leadership. It’s always externalising the problem, it never internalises the problem. It never says ‘How did I contribute to it?’ “

The image of evil regimes controlling and shaping what would otherwise be blameless societies also appealed to the neocons because it invited a simple solution: get rid of the regimes and everything will be fine. It didn’t work in Iraq, though, because the overthrow of Saddam Hussein lifted the lid on a maelstrom of long pent-up ethnic, sectarian and social tensions. Foreign powers certainly unleashed those tensions and probably exacerbated them, but they didn’t create them: Arab society did that.

Looking at events in Iraq since the invasion, I wrote: "Iraq is emerging as a fairly typical Arab state with most of their usual negative characteristics – a government with authoritarian aspirations, institutionalised corruption and nepotism, pervasive social discrimination and a rentier economy that produces little besides oil – plus, for good measure, resurgent tribalism and sectarianism." 

The Angry Arab is eager to blame this on the machinations of “the Bush administration, Iran and Arab regimes” (which I accept, up to a point) but he’s unwilling to acknowledge any responsibility for it at all by Iraqis themselves.

The trouble with this attitude, apart from its failure to admit painful realities, is that it encourages a sense of fatalism and hopelessness.

Talking more generally about the region’s regimes, The Angry Arab goes so far as to claim that without outside support (“largely American, but some Soviet at one point”), “none of those regimes would have survived”.

The longevity of Arab regimes, and the reasons for it, have been much discussed academically. Support from foreign powers has certainly played a role in sustaining these regimes (some more than others), but to claim that “none” of them would have survived without it is ludicrous: there are multiple factors at work.

One factor affecting regime survival is the comparative weakness of local opposition. In the book, I draw parallels between the character of traditional Arab families – authoritarian and patriarchal – and the character of the regimes, and suggest this may help to explain the apparent docility: in their dealings with the regimes people resign themselves to keeping their heads down and “getting by”, much as they do within their own families.

In my Comment Is Free article (and in the book, too, actually), I wrote that Arab regimes, by and large, “are products of the societies they govern and it is often the society, as much as the government itself, that stands in the way of progress" (to which The Angry Arab replies: “What an insult to the people of the region”). 

But it is true. Time and again, regimes that have no great interest in religion or morality themselves – Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, etc – have bowed to pressure from Islamists and conservative-traditionalists who seek to block progress.

The concept of evil regimes versus “blameless” societies also extends into the field of human rights. "Contrary to popular opinion,” I wrote, “most human rights abuses in the Arab countries are perpetrated by society rather than regimes."

The Angry Arab seems almost apoplectic at this suggestion. “Did you actually think for a second before writing that sentence?” he asks. “Go ahead and believe that Arab parents electrocute the genitals of their children and pull their fingernails when they misbehave.”

That’s not quite what I had in mind but in some respects it’s not far off. In recent years on average, the Jordanian state has executed six or seven people annually, mostly for murder. Meanwhile, the number of extra-judicial executions in Jordan, in the shape of “honour” killings – fathers and brothers stabbing daughters and sisters when they “misbehave” – has been running at two or three times that level. Then there are the vigilante killings in Iraq, of gay men and others for the most trivial of reasons – such as barbers who give customers “un-Islamic” haircuts. And we should not forget the foreign housemaids imprisoned by families, ill-treated and sometimes tortured or driven to suicide (an issue that The Angry Arab himself has often campaigned about).

Those are some extreme examples. But if we’re talking about the extent of human rights abuses (which I was, mainly) rather than sheer brutality, we also have to include all the ordinary, everyday acts of discrimination perpetrated by Arabs against their fellows based on gender, family, tribe, sect and so on.

As I explain in the book:

The problem is no longer a simplistic one of good versus evil, or tyrants versus the rest. Instead, we see people who are not only oppressed and denied rights by their rulers but who also, to varying degrees, are participants in a system of oppression and denial of rights. Thus, the oppressed often become oppressors themselves, victims become victimisers too, and acknowledging that fact is the first step towards a solution.

There are a couple of other points that need rebuttal. One is what The Angry Arab describes as “the oldest trick of western journalists” – by which he means citing “a token native” to voice a “judgmental view against all natives”.

That, essentially, is the Catch-22 for any non-Arab who writes critically about the Arab countries. Either you voice the criticisms yourself – in which case the complaint is “What right have you to say such things?” Or you report the criticisms made by Arabs – in which case you are accused of relying on “native informants” who, almost by definition, are treated as unreliable and untrustworthy.

These complaints are not entirely without foundation. We saw how the neocons promoted their policies by selectively using informants whose views coincided with their own but which actually had very little traction or credibility in an Arab context.
But what I set out to do in the book was rather different. I wanted to identify and explore the most frequently-made criticisms, by thoughtful and progressive-minded Arabs, of their own society. As far as possible, I tried to reflect their concerns accurately – which is one reason why the book says so little about some of the “Middle East” issues most often discussed in the west, such as democracy and terrorism. They simply weren’t uppermost in the minds of the Arabs I spoke to.

One issue they wanted to discuss a lot, especially the younger ones, was “the family” and the way it restricts their freedom. That can’t just be shrugged off by asking, as The Angry Arab does, whether I believe the western family is not “patriarchal and authoritarian” too. It’s a question of degree, and it’s a real issue for many Arabs, not something cooked up in my own imagination. Even al-Jazeera recognised it by making it the subject for a Doha Debate: "This house believes the family is a major obstacle to reform in the Arab world." (The motion, incidentally, was carried by 51% to 49%.)

The final point for rebuttal is where The Angry Arab asks: “Are you aware how you seem to be channelling Raphael Patai?” – which I suppose is a polite way of accusing me of racism.
I have read Patai’s dreadful book, The Arab Mind, and have also written about it, so my answer to the question is no, I don’t see a similarity.

There is nothing racist or illegitimate about pointing to the flaws in a society and discussing how they might be addressed, as I do in the book. That is very different from presenting them as an immutable part of the national character, hard-wired into people’s genes.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 31 October 2009. Comment. Reader's feedback


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What's Really Wrong with the Middle East  
Brian Whitaker, 2009


  

 
 
 
 
 


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Last revised on 03 November, 2009