Saturday,19 January, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1215, (25 September - 1 october 2014)
Saturday,19 January, 2019
Issue 1215, (25 September - 1 october 2014)

Ahram Weekly

The barbarians within our minds

Reading the senior journalist Hisham Melhem’s recent obituary of Arab civilization, Youssef Rakha asks when it was ever alive

The barbarians within our minds
The barbarians within our minds
Al-Ahram Weekly

No one paradigm or one theory can explain the jihadi barbarians, not at, but within the Arabs’ gates. So says Hisham Melhem, an older writer, in Politico magazine this week, summing up the failure of modern “Arab civilization” with admirable level-headedness. His point would be too obvious if it wasn’t so uniformly lost on neoliberal analysts and apologists for religious identity: the Islamic State (IS) did not fall from the sky. It grew out of the “rotting, empty hulk” of societies routed no less by the “stagnant, repressive and patriarchal” authoritarianism of military regimes than the politicized religiosity seeking to replace them. Like its ideological archenemy, namely political Islam, Arab nationalism too expresses “atavistic impulses and a regressive outlook on life that is grounded in a mostly mythologized past”.

But who’s to say these two ideologies do not accurately reflect all that the Arab masses hold dear, i.e., what world community leaders would call “the Arab peoples’ legitimate aspirations”? As a younger observer, I cannot help seeing that, since the end of Ottoman times, only a negative sense of collective identity has mobilized a given Arab people at a given point in history. Embodied in revolutionary leaders like Nasser or resistance movements like Hezbollah, such rallying cries rarely pointed to a positive or constructive cause that did not turn out to be part of a propaganda campaign (Hamas’s August “victory” over Israel is a case in point). What Melhem does not say is that, in as much as it exists at all, post-Ottoman Arabic-speaking civilization has only ever operated against others, if not the occupier then non-Muslim or non-Sunni citizens of its own states, if not “Zionists and imperial Crusaders” then infidels at large.

By the time Egypt’s “second republic” dawned in 2011, there remained no untested hypothesis in politics except for mass protest. Now that this too has been essayed, there is no evidence to suggest that the Mubarak regime was less representative or popular than any that could’ve replaced it through even impeccable democratic procedure. If it was undemocratic, so was the political climate in which it operated. If it held onto aspects of the police state, that was in response to perfectly valid threats from Islamic terrorism. And if it was brutally capitalist — well, it was emulating the free world. We could argue about specific faults, not least the president-for-life (and-then-his-son) convention, but there is no reason to think they did not reflect values inherent to the culture. It is simply not true that the failure of Egyptian society was mainly or at all due to its regime lacking ballot-box legitimacy.

This is not to overlook complicated class, economic and regional factors, it is not to absolve any one politician or general of responsibility for any (war) crime. But it is to dispute the notion that it was dictatorships divorced from their people that perpetuated the drawn-out collapse of the last century. The collapse resulting from systematic incompetence, unmerited entitlement and the elimination of difference was the people’s will, the political order merely presided over a delicate balance whereby the complete realization of that will was indefinitely postponed. What lay beneath the fragile crust of the state structure, which the Arab Spring has dramatically uncovered, was not only the prospect of an Islamist takeover. It was also codified idleness, an engrained distrust of law and order and a dogged rejection of civil rights: with economic deprivation, the perfect recipe for prolonged civil strife.

Had the “first republics” caved in earlier — and if not for the bulwark of the armies, they would have — it could hardly have been through a grassroots drive to freedom, equality or civilization. Surely the fact that sectarian fascism remains the only viable alternative to the coup d’etat status quo says less about the juntas in charge than the people they rule?  The pre-Arab Spring regime survived not by repressing or distorting society but by speaking to its sycophancy, its nepotism, its insular and prurient heart. It encouraged the culture’s shying away from the contemporary challenges of individuality, productivity and multiplicity. It endorsed religion’s unwillingness to play any role beyond hawking a dogma unchanged since the ninth century. It embraced oil money that could only make religion susceptible to a far more fanatical version of the same dogma.

In the end it is something of a sophist’s paradox to ask which comes first, social-economic disintegration or political corruption. But had the patriarchs of national independence adopted an inclusive and democratic approach in the middle of the 20th century, it is still not clear how this would have improved the space in which the Arab Spring arrived at the start of the 21st. The deeper question seems to have less to do with politics as such than the absolute lack of a positive value system to contend with obsessive negative identity: an emptiness of civilization that neither authoritarian policy nor democratic procedure has been able to fill. So maybe no paradigm or theory can explain the mess that is the post-Arab Spring Arab world precisely because the Arabs themselves had made no sincere effort to critically, objectively know where they were going or what they would do once they got there.

Whatever else may be said about it, it seems clear by now that what cut short Egypt’s democratic experiment was neither a deep state loyal to the old order nor insufficient “purging” of positions of power. It was not an entrenched regime fighting for dear life, otherwise power would not have passed so smoothly into Islamist hands. It was not “military rule”, which the 25 January revolutionaries fought to bring down on behalf of political Islam only to end up being persecuted by Islamists in power. What cut short Egypt’s democratic experiment was the Egyptians’ inability to picture power beyond the army cap or the mulla’s beard. And it will take more than a battle against Islamic terrorism — it will take a multigenerational war on the Islamist and patriot homunculi that, living in Arab minds, have made us what we are — before politics is in any position to bring back Arab civilization.

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