Clovis Maksoud: Phoney wars, fiery crises
Lawyer, journalist and diplomat Clovis Maksoud, former ambassador of the League of Arab States to the United States and the United Nations (1979-90), is no shrinking violet. You cannot accuse Maksoud of skirting prickly issues. He faces them head on. His passion is the Arab world, followed closely by South-South solidarity. He left behind the incessant rivalry of petty chieftains that sparked the Lebanese Civil War in 1975 to charter an international career in diplomacy. Born into a Lebanese Christian family in 1928, Maksoud sees himself first and foremost as a pan-Arabist. He married an American citizen of Lebanese Muslim origins, Hala Salaam Maksoud, an accomplished academic in her own right and a political activist. Maksoud graduated from the American University in Beirut, but he later obtained post-graduate degrees from George Washington University, Washington DC and Oxford University, England. Soon after graduation, he tried his hand in journalism with a stint as senior editor at Al-Ahram. Then, he angled for a plum job: editor-in-chief of the distinguished Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar . Professor of International Relations and director of the Centre for the Global South at the American University in Washington DC, Maksoud's diplomatic career was nurtured when he represented the Arab world at various international solidarity forums. In the international arena, he learnt to speak on behalf of Arabs and later on behalf of the entire developing countries of the South. He remains to this day preoccupied with the aspirations and challenges facing the Arab and developing worlds. He was on a visit recently to Egypt to help compile the United Nations Development Programme's (UNDP) 2007 Arab Human Development Report.
Interview by Gamal Nkrumah
Behind his grey exterior is a shrewd and idiosyncratic diplomat. He has several appealing qualities. The most obvious are a dynamic intellect and a monitoring mind. Then, of course, he is articulate -- and admiringly so. He is, after all, an accomplished academician.
He reflects on the Arab world today. "Men of religion ought not to be excluded from the political process, nor indeed, from the political discourse currently gripping the Arab world," Maksoud explains. "Secularism does not necessarily mean that they should not attempt to consolidate their own political positions -- all clever politicians do so. But religious discourse cannot take the place of political discourse. These are two separate, and not identical, processes. What is unacceptable and untenable is to confuse the two," he stressed.
Nevertheless the direction of change is clear. Religious concerns are assuming greater importance in Arab societies and this is abundantly clear in the political and socio-cultural spheres.
The introduction of the neo-liberal ethos in economics and politics has complicated the social scene. Neo-liberal policies have accentuated the reliance on religious institutions, Islam and democracy are at the core of the debate between secularist Arab regimes and militant Islamist movements in the Arab world.
Cutting social spending, privatisation, economic deregulation and trimming state ownership has become a key feature of modern Arab societies. It is a process that has inevitably led to the heightening of social tensions, and the religious organisations have stepped up their efforts to fill the social vacuum by the provision of health and educational services for the poor and needy. Any serious discussion of the provision of social welfare services and political and religious affiliation should take this into account. It must eschew the "patronising Orientalist premises about the despotic nature of Islam" and its supposed incompatibility with democracy.
Social welfare provision exacerbates the political and economic dynamics currently underfoot. Economic disengagement by the state invariably leads to political disengagement by the masses and the growing influence of religious engagement. "The absence of a firm pan-Arab platform, or context which renders Arab countries incapable of providing basic services for their people inevitably makes this mutually reinforcing".
Maksoud strongly believes that the Arabs are at a critical historical juncture. "Arab societies, especially pluralistic ones like Lebanon or Iraq, are particularly vulnerable to sectarian, ethnic, and tribal schisms. These societies are fracturing along confessional and ethnic lines," he points out.
Maksoud is of the opinion that such fragmentation of Arab societies makes the region especially vulnerable to outside interference, both political intrusion and military intervention." This is an open invitation to all sorts of nihilistic interference," he laments.
If so, this carries great implications for politics in the region. He reminisces about his beloved Lebanon. Crisis-ridden Beirut is one of the most politically-charged capitals of the Arab world. But it is not nearly as chaotic as Baghdad or even as it was barely three decades ago. Its winding streets bustle with gift and clothes boutiques, chic restaurants and small, smart supermarkets. Yet, an uneasy and tentative peace holds it together. It teeters dangerously on the verge of civil war.
The wild men of militant political Islam cannot be pushed aside or barred from the political establishment, not if democratisation is meaningful and not even if militant Islam is deemed incompatible with democracy.
The wind has been at their backs for so long. They were created by the United States for a purpose: to fight communism and combat leftist tendencies in Afghanistan and other predominantly-Muslim countries. "In a new highly- globalised world there is inevitable sequence and different types of intervention -- some inevitable, some indeed necessary, and especially so the specialised ones such as the combined African Union-United Nations forces in Darfur, or (UNIFIL) in Lebanon".
He pauses to catch his breath. "UN-sanctioned multilateral intervention often has a level of legitimacy. However, unwarranted intrusion is illegitimate and constitutes a threat to international security, peace and development".
It is in this context that the problems facing the Arab world take shape.
Maksoud explained that the Arab League with all its shortcomings is the only pan-Arab organisation of consequence on the international scene.
"I suggest that the League of Arab States include civil society and non-governmental organisations. It should not conceive of itself as exclusively Arab governments," Maksoud insists.
"The Arab League defines itself in this manner and retrieves its narrative resonance among people that otherwise will always be looked upon as instruments of governments and regimes whose popularity and credibility are in doubt, or at least problematic."
Another issue that arises in the Arab world is the nature of the Israeli challenge, which remains the central focal point of Arab political discourse. The inability to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli crisis has been a serious cause of much of the instability of the region. "It is not the only reason of instability in the Arab world," Maksoud reasons. He warned, though, that it is accounted for much of the malaise plaguing the Arab world, especially the Mashreq [Egypt, the Levant, Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula]. He added that it delays the fulfilment of many other vital causes such as development and social justice. "The Zionist project has had disastrous consequences for the Arab world," Maksoud stressed.
And rightly so. The political independence of Arab states and their liberation from colonial rule was rendered meaningless by the establishment of the oppressive state of Israel, planted in the geographical heartland of the Arab world.
"The loss of Palestine and the creation of the state of Israel created a sense of collective Arab humiliation". For the Palestinian people the creation of Israel was nothing short of catastrophic. "That is why what has been marketed as the Oslo agreement, after 14 years of its launching, is still regarded as a process without any conclusive end in sight".
Maksoud has no faith in the feigned attempts by the US and other Western powers to bolster the stalled Palestinian-Israeli peace process. "The so- called roadmap is another dead end. It is an exercise in futility," he adds.
On this particular point he does not mince his words. "The trap of Oslo and the road without a map are symbolic of the Arab political impasse," he warns. "In any case, there has never been a timetable or a closer scrutiny of modalities".
At the risk of sounding like a cynic, Maksoud ridicules the "so-called efforts" of Western powers to institute peace in the region. The very premise for their efforts is fundamentally faulty. "In any case, there has never been a vision of an outcome -- why hasn't there been an outcome?
"Israel is an occupying power. Because of Israel the Palestinians were rendered stateless," he stresses. Israel and especially since 1967 and its annexation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, has been a thorn in the flesh of the Arab political establishments, and its military superiority sounded the death-knell to the dream of pan-Arabism.
"As long as Israel doesn't grant legal status to the Palestinians then what is its own status? It perceives of itself as a claimant and that's why they want to create a sense of amnesia about its real intentions as far as the Palestinian Arabs are concerned. And even to their Americans sponsors, Israel states periodically that it is about to make 'painful concessions'. I think it is well known that you concede what you own."
He is equally critical of Arab regimes in a broad sense. They often make conflicting demands that they must struggle to reconcile. "Furthermore, when the Arab summits in Beirut then Riyadh confirmed and reconfirmed their commitment to Arab initiatives, Israel took it as an opening to discuss the initiative rather than to negotiate the outcome which the Arab initiative defined: normalisation versus occupied territories." Maksoud has grasped the central theme of Arab politics in a sophisticated albeit extraordinary way.
"The calamitous triangle: Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq," he stresses is the prime example of the crisis of the region. Arab societies are riddled with feuds and crises.
The absence of a firm pan-Arab context which renders Arab countries in a perpetual state of flux is mutually reinforcing. "At this critical juncture the Arab state is paralysed and inoperative. That has rendered Arab societies sectarian, tribal, and divided along ethnic lines". As far as Maksoud is concerned, "secularism from a nationalist Arab perspective separates the state from the religious discourse." Arab societies especially pluralistic ones are prone to the allure of religious fundamentalism.
So what precisely is the part that religion in general, and Islam in particular, plays in societal development in the Arab world? Does it delay or impede the Arab world's advance and progress?
The vital question is: Does Islam stifle constructive and progressive Arab thought? Those who defy traditions are not only ostracised, but severely punished. These are questions that Maksoud's late wife Hala Salaam Maksoud grappled with. She was an avid activist who, from her Washington DC bedrock, cajoled diplomats' wives into participating at protest rallies in defiance of their government's positions. She headed the American Committee on Jerusalem. Salaam Maksoud was a prominent member of the American-Arab Anti- Discrimination Committee (ADC) and she served as president of the ADC (1990-2001). She was working on her book The Islamic Content of Arab Nationalist Thought, published post- humously, even as she was struggling against the cancer that eventually killed her.
Maksoud remembers her fondly, noting that her memory lives on with the launching of the Hala Salaam Maksoud Foundation for Arab-American Leadership.
Salaam Maksoud had her own perspective on the subject. "Even if Islam did not impose on Muslims any particular form of government, it imposed the Sharia, a set of laws pertaining to questions of marriage, divorce, inheritance and the like, which practising Muslims feel they need to obey to fulfil their Islam," she explains. "Herein lies the main problem between Islam and democracy."
Indeed, according to Salaam Maksoud: "one reason for the rise of fundamentalism is the intellectual laziness and the political self-righteousness of the secular forces in the Arab world."
Maksoud picks up his late wife's pet subject. "Our societies are 98 per cent religious, and therefore religion cannot be ignored". He spoke of the "interaction and interrelation" between the state, society and religion. "The state, any state is composed of people with certain beliefs, cultural traditions and religious affiliations. The state cannot be separated entirely from religion in this part of the world because the people of the region are religious by nature," Maksoud explained.
Gender inequality is a grotesque reality in the Arab world. Does religion play a part in the perpetuation of such an evil? Mosque watchdogs have sprung up all over the Arab world.
Be that as it may, Maksoud is a sanguine personality. He might be considered by some as impetuous, but he does not suffer fools gladly. He was appointed Arab League chief representative of the United States and the United Nations on 1 September 1979. On 15 August 1990, Maksoud promptly submitted his resignation from the Arab League in the aftermath of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. It was yet another grim reminder of the morass that the Arab world had sunk into. He remembered the painful memories of the 1967 debacle, when the Israelis routed Arab armies. He reflected on the real reasons for the Arab military defeat. Arab nationalism has emerged as the main fallout of the crushing 1967 Arab defeat.
The Bush administration has been at pains to explain that the "global war on terror" is not a "war on Islam". He remembers fondly Edward Said. "I miss his phone calls, whether solicitous or admonishing, expressing anger or approval, in all these conversations the clarity of his thoughts, the power of his convictions, the humour that accompanied his self- effacement, the freshness of his views added so much substance to what he sought to convey," he noted at an anniversary of Said's passing.
Maksoud also reminisces about his friendship with other "towering" Arab political and academic figures in his life. Ironically, he recalls an "open letter" he composed to his diminutive friend the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. "I thought long and hard for the sake of our friendship and shared memories, before putting pen to paper. What I want to say today on the second Camp David summit, has already been said many times by the opponents of the Oslo Accords," Maksoud chided Arafat.
The letter outlines Maksoud's ideological standpoint. Indeed, he proceeds to extrapolate his point. "Failing to lay down a legal framework for the whole process has enabled the Israelis to persist in their policies of Judaisation, settlement- building and annexation."
Maksoud maintains that Israel should be recognised as an occupying power. The Israeli body politic is controlled by settler colonialists whose raison d'être is the subjugation of the indigenous people of the land. Decimation of the indigenous population, even genocide is yet another option.
"The Israelis have never considered themselves bound -- an occupying power -- to implement the clauses of the Fourth Geneva Convention". He stresses that Israel flagrantly disregards international law. "Ignoring this legal point is what allowed the Israelis to flout UN resolutions," he concluded.
A country such as Israel can continue to ignore with impunity UN resolutions precisely because of the unjust world order. Indeed, Maksoud's long association with the UN system gave him insights into the inner workings of the world body. His main interest, of course, was furthering Arab interests at the UN. He also championed the aspirations and goals of the developing countries of the South. He has striven to make the UN a more democratic institution. He was, and still is, vehemently against UN budget cuts that he insists come at the expense of the mandate of the Charter of the UN. He upholds a vision of a truly democratic world body, one in which wealthier and militarily mighty nations will not throw their weight about.
For Maksoud, war-mongering, political domination and economic hegemony is an echo of the age of imperialism and colonialism. The time has come for true democracy on the world stage. "The UN should become the mechanism and the instrument to move the world situation from the present equation of dominant and dependent into an interdependent world," Maksoud muses.