Al-Ahram Weekly Online
28 June - 4 July 2001
Issue No.540
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Against the collective good

Why are we so bent on destroying ourselves? Ghada Karmi* comments

The Intifada is now in its ninth month. Some 500 Palestinians have been killed and 14,000 injured, about 2,000 of them maimed for life. Despite Ariel Sharon's recent policy of "restraint," Israeli aggression against the Palestinians continues. Massive poverty, unemployment, ruined farmlands, demolished houses and general hardship have been the consequences. Though it is called an Intifada, there is no doubt that this is a war of liberation from colonialism; and if there ever was a moment in history when the whole Arab people, inside and outside, should unite in this war, it is now.

Western powers do not wish to hear this message. They still cling to the idea that the conflict can be brought under control using the old methods. They speak of "stopping the violence," "confidence-building measures," and re-introducing the (long discredited) peace process. They seem unwilling or unable to learn from the crisis of the past nine months -- that the only confidence-building measure the Palestinians need is a complete end to Israeli occupation and colonialism. The sad truth is that the Palestinians in the territories fighting against a hugely superior military force are on their own. Despite several encouraging postures recently taken by the Arab states -- the Arab foreign ministers' May call in Cairo to sever political ties with Israel, or the Arab League's pledges of financial support for the Palestinian Authority -- none of this is going to alleviate the daily suffering of Palestinians under occupation. Nor is there help from Western states, which are content to utter admonitions to one or both sides or send ineffective envoys to the region.

Given such Palestinian isolation, what should the role of Diaspora Palestinian communities be in this tragedy -- especially those who live in the Western world? These communities have privileges not afforded to others. They live in advanced societies where they lead secure and comfortable lives and, especially in America, potential access to financial prosperity. They can enjoy all the advantages that Western life provides, its democratic and liberal freedoms. Most importantly, they are in a position, if they wish it, to absorb and emulate the political and intellectual sophistication that is the hallmark of advanced, mature societies.

With such advantages, these communities should have been at the forefront of the common struggle. They should have become the indispensable adjunct to the battle of those inside. There is much they could have done abroad -- publicise the Palestine cause, put pressure on the governments of the states where they live, send out money, equipment or volunteers, offer expertise in different fields, and so on. Indeed, something of this has happened, spearheaded by the younger generation of Diaspora Arabs. Internet sites and e-mail networks, special to the Intifada, have appeared. Several activist groups have come into being to promote the cause of Palestinian rights and a number of rallies and demonstrations have taken place in Western cities. But nothing has happened on anything like the scale required, and certainly nothing to compare with the activities of the Jewish communities that support Israel.

Why is this the case? Why are Palestinians in the Diaspora so passive and ineffective? It is relevant to cite here an American experience of Diaspora Arabs, as revealed by a young Arab American called Ragheb Damian. Writing on the Internet last month about what he calls the "shame and failure" of Arab American advocacy organisations, he notes that these operate mainly to promote their presidents and executive officers, rather than to represent the interests of ordinary Arab Americans. That is why, he says, the demonstrations they organise for Arab causes are so poorly attended, and only a fraction of the large Arab American community belongs to any of these organisations. Although they have been operating for 20 years, they have no support from the mainstream American media or from the non-Arab American public. Nor have they devised a list of objectives or any political strategy to influence American decision-makers. He puts this down to in-fighting between the groups, which cannot unite on any issue, and also to the fact that they operate as fronts for various Arab regimes whose interests they exist to promote.

Unfortunately, much of what Damian describes is not unique to the Arab American community. There are common threads running through the behaviour of Arab Diaspora communities everywhere. It is a remarkable fact that none of these, to date, has succeeded in making an impact on the public life of the societies where they live. They have not organised politically or socially to any extent, and still constitute invisible minorities in the host countries. They have formed no alliances with other minorities who could help advance their case and remain powerless to affect the political process, however inimical it is to Arab concerns.

The reason for all this is unpalatable, but not hard to find. It lies in what one might call a widespread, chronic infection with a well-known Arab virus. The symptoms of the disease are all too familiar: disunity, mutual suspicion, envy, competitiveness and the habit of denigrating fellow Arabs who seem to be doing well, sometimes even to the extent that bringing down a successful person overrides any consideration of that person's actual merit. In this quagmire of disunity and personal hostility, the group's greater good is frequently lost.

The Palestinian Diaspora is no less affected by the Arab virus than the rest. No wonder, then, that it makes no effective contribution to the struggle in Palestine. Amidst the destructive preoccupation with factionalism, self-promotion, jealousy and jostling for pre- eminence, there is no room for anything else, and certainly not for the sort of activity needed to help fellow Palestinians in their struggle. For that, very different qualities are needed: discipline, self-denial, hard work, anonymity of effort, and a willingness to do the unglamourous, tiring, routine tasks that bring no instant reward. But most importantly, what is necessary is an ethos of the collective good -- something, it seems, that is remarkably absent from the Palestinian and Arab world view. Arab social scientists are familiar with this notion and never cease to discuss the ill effects of tribalism and individualism on Arab society. But such analyses have become academic exercises that people reiterate like mantras, when it is strategies for tackling the problem that we need.

The truth is that as Palestinians (let alone as Arabs), we cannot afford this behaviour any more. Individualism, caring only about yourself, your family and your friends, is a luxury we can no longer afford. If it was once useful to behave like that in tribal or village societies, it is not so today. We cannot have it both ways -- aspiring to live in advanced societies and yet maintaining traditional habits. Western societies evolved to the point they did through a concept of the public good that overrode narrow considerations of family and tribe. It is a feature of Third World societies that they cannot do the same and carry that behaviour with them wherever they go. So they end up abroad as Arabs, disunited, jealous of each other, and ineffectual.

It would be nice if we could comfort ourselves with the thought that the Palestinian Diaspora is not much worse than these other minority groups. But we are engaged in a war with an enemy that, however internally divided it may seem, and however much we may despise its behaviour, is fundamentally Western in outlook and has a clear concept of its people's collective good. Against that, tribal individualism, in-fighting and the inability to set aside personal rivalries for the sake of the higher good are merely weapons of self-destruction.

* The writer is chair of the Palestine Community Association in the UK.

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