The Arab Barbarians
Hisham Melham, Al-Arabiya‘s Washington bureau chief, pens an essay that is flush with despair. Excerpt:
With his decision to use force against the violent extremists of the Islamic State, President Obama is doing more than to knowingly enter a quagmire. He is doing more than play with the fates of two half-broken countries—Iraq and Syria—whose societies were gutted long before the Americans appeared on the horizon. Obama is stepping once again—and with understandably great reluctance—into the chaos of an entire civilization that has broken down.
Arab civilization, such as we knew it, is all but gone. The Arab world today is more violent, unstable, fragmented and driven by extremism—the extremism of the rulers and those in opposition—than at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago. Every hope of modern Arab history has been betrayed. The promise of political empowerment, the return of politics, the restoration of human dignity heralded by the season of Arab uprisings in their early heydays—all has given way to civil wars, ethnic, sectarian and regional divisions and the reassertion of absolutism, both in its military and atavistic forms. With the dubious exception of the antiquated monarchies and emirates of the Gulf—which for the moment are holding out against the tide of chaos—and possibly Tunisia, there is no recognizable legitimacy left in the Arab world.
Is it any surprise that, like the vermin that take over a ruined city, the heirs to this self-destroyed civilization should be the nihilistic thugs of the Islamic State? And that there is no one else who can clean up the vast mess we Arabs have made of our world but the Americans and Western countries?
Melhem’s piece is a brisk primer on the history of the Arab world in the 20th century, and why everything anybody has tried in terms of government has failed. Here is a brave, bleak point:
At their core, both political currents—Arab nationalism and Islamism—are driven by atavistic impulses and a regressive outlook on life that is grounded in a mostly mythologized past. Many Islamists, including Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (the wellspring of such groups)—whether they say it explicitly or hint at it—are still on a ceaseless quest to resurrect the old Ottoman Caliphate. Still more radical types—the Salafists—yearn for a return to the puritanical days of Prophet Muhammad and his companions. For most Islamists, democracy means only majoritarian rule, and the rule of sharia law, which codifies gender inequality and discrimination against non-Muslims.
And let’s face the grim truth: There is no evidence whatever that Islam in its various political forms is compatible with modern democracy. [Emphasis mine. — RD] From Afghanistan under the Taliban to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and from Iran to Sudan, there is no Islamist entity that can be said to be democratic, just or a practitioner of good governance. The short rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt under the presidency of Mohamed Morsi was no exception. The Brotherhood tried to monopolize power, hound and intimidate the opposition and was driving the country toward a dangerous impasse before a violent military coup ended the brief experimentation with Islamist rule.
Read the whole thing. Melhem says that militant Islam has destroyed or is in the process of destroying any creative life in the Arab world, but that militant Islam owes its genesis to the failed governments of the Arab nationalists. Though there are outside events that contributed to the process (e.g., the second US invasion of Iraq), he says that there is no escaping the conclusion that the Arabs have killed their own civilization.
So, remind me again why the US is throwing itself into this Hobbesian apocalypse? What hubris makes us think we can control anything? Madness.
Melhem’s essay makes me think of what I’m learning in my Russian history class this fall. There is clear continuity between Tsarism, Bolshevism, and Putinism, in that in each case, Russia is governed by a strong state led by a strong man. Though Bolshevism was vastly more totalitarian and evil than its predecessor and its successor, what is striking to a Russian history neophyte like me is the extent to which the Russian people are passive subjects in their own historical development. It’s striking to consider how, in 1861, when Alexander II freed the serfs, most Russians were serfs, meaning that they were living, and had lived for hundreds of years, under a status that made them scarcely more than slaves. But Russia was hurtling towards modernity; the Industrial Revolution transformed Europe, and the Tsar knew that his country had to keep up. He and his ministers faced a situation in which serfdom had left most Russians incapable of living in a modern economy, much less living under a modern form of government. And Russia’s landowning elites were too inflexible to understand how their position had to change if the old order was going to survive the transition.
So, the fight in 19th and early 20th century Russia was mostly a matter of struggle among intellectuals and other elites, all of whom were alienated from the masses for whom they presumed to speak. It was an extraordinarily unstable situation. We all know how it turned out. And now, there is Russia again, under rule by an autocrat, this one quite popular. If I were Russian, I would prefer living under Putin than under the incompetence and chaos of Yeltsinism. Still, there is a lot of plus ça change in modern Russian history.
I bring it up here, in context of the Arab catastrophe, to suggest that the culture of the Arab world, like the culture of Russia, is inimical to liberal democracy. That’s hardly a bold claim, I know, but I bring it up with this in mind: the Arab world, and Russia, cannot live cut off from the rest of the world, no matter how hard they try. Those peoples will see the rest of the world, and how much better people in other civilizations are living, and they will have to account for the discrepancy in some way. Mind you, we in the West have serious problems, and I cannot blame Russians, Arabs, and others for not wanting to import certain aspects of Western civilization. The West is not a universal model.
That said, if you were an artist or intellectual in the Arab world, what hope could you possibly have to remain within your civilization, do your work, and be confident that your children and their children will have a tolerable and stable society in which to live? What hope could you possibly have for economic growth and stability? Things aren’t nearly as bad in Russia, of course, but I imagine a similar dynamic exists there. For that matter, here in Louisiana, our economy in the 1980s was in terrible shape because of the oil price crash. I was in LSU at the time, and there was a lot of talk about how Louisiana’s culture — its political culture, primarily, but its political culture is an expression of the overall culture — had to change if there was going to be any real economic hope for the state. Lots of us college students talked in those days about how we were going to have to leave the state in search of opportunity. Then Gov. Edwin Edwards, when asked in a debate what he would say to those students, replied, more or less, “Let the doorknob hit you where the good Lord split you.” I was in the audience at that debate, and I recall being shocked by the governor’s indifference.
But Edwards knew more about the state he led than I did. Edwards came in second to reform candidate Buddy Roemer in that fall’s open primary, but chose not to contest the election in the runoff. Roemer became governor … and failed. Four years later, Roemer lost his 1991 re-election bid when the top two vote-getters in the first primary were Edwin Edwards and David Duke.
Today, Louisiana is not the same place that it was 20 years ago, and in any event there’s a lot more good here than I was able to see as an undergraduate. Life is not only about economic success. Nevertheless, we could be doing better here, and it seems to me that the greatest barrier to our own success is our culture — that is, not the music and the food, but the attitudes we have toward public life and governance. You can’t in any serious way compare Louisiana to Russia, much less to the rolling disaster that is the Arab world, but I draw the analogy to explain how deep the resistance to ways of doing things that seem to be natural to most Westerners do not appear that way to people in other cultures. Think of how Greece suffers economically and politically from its own corrupt cultural practices. Think of Italy. Hey, I would rather vacation in Greece or Italy than Norway or Sweden, but there’s a reason governments in Greece and Italy are relatively hapless, and their economies are a mess: culture.
All of which is to say that the civilizational apocalypse that Hisham Melhem observes and laments may not be an aberration, but the way things are with Arab peoples in the 21st century. Until there is a cultural revolution among them, the anarchy, sectarian hatred, and religious fanaticism that we see there will be the rule. It is horrifying to think that these passions might simply have to burn themselves out, but aside from permanent Western military occupation and pacification of those countries, which nobody wants, what is the realistic alternative?
It’s like this. Someone told me recently that he was in a poli sci class at an American university not long ago, and the professor asked the students on the first day what they would do if they were in charge of a country and held most of the power. The American students had different ideas about how they would use their power for the common good. But a Russian undergraduate in the classroom said, “Get more power.” She was serious. This was her mindset: the purpose of holding power is to consolidate power and acquire more of it.