Edward Said on Secular and Religious Trends in the Arab World

Jay Moore research at SPAMneravt.com
Tue Jun 13 17:58:52 MDT 2000

The landscape of opposition
By Edward Said
Al-Ahram Weekly
June 8-14, 2000

 Israel's defeat in south Lebanon, its hasty withdrawal, and the still
turbulent situation created after almost twenty years of a wasteful,
incredibly destructive and, in the end, useless display of military power
requires sober analysis free of the distortions imposed by the US media. The
Israeli military presence in Lebanon was never really about the "defence" of
Israel's northern border, but about political objectives designed originally
to defeat the PLO, then to change Lebanon's political structure to its
advantage, and finally to pressure Syria into accepting its diktats.

The first of these succeeded partially, and in 1993 ended up delivering an
exiled and sidelined Yasser Arafat as a docile partner with Israel in ending
the Intifada, policing the still occupied Palestinian territories, and
attempting (so far unsuccessfully) to conclude the Palestinian quest for
self-determination to Israel's advantage. The other two policy objectives
were abject failures, as witness the crumbling of Israel's mercenary South
Lebanese Army (routinely described by the media as "Christian" whereas it
was equally if not predominantly Shi'ite), the emergence of Hizbullah with a
successful policy of resistance and aggressive counterattack, and Syria's
continued refusal to accept Israel's terms on less than complete withdrawal
before making any peace deals.

The stranglehold on US media perspectives maintained by the supporters of
Israel has produced an astonishingly reductive view of reality. Consider the
use of the word "defence" to describe Israeli tactics, when it has the
Middle East's only offensive air force, nuclear option and
military-political apparatus totally supported by the world's only
superpower. How can it be "defence" when for 22 years Israel has defied the
international community by persisting in its various military occupations,
bombing Arab capital cities at will, destroying civilian infrastructures
and, in Lebanon alone, causing at least 20,000 deaths and uncounted
thousands of wounded, 95 per cent of them civilian? Or take the word "peace"
and its cognate, "peace process." Israel has tried to force "peace" on
subjugated leaderships in the Arab world, and at the same time has continued
aggressive policies of colonisation and annexation that have earned it
opprobrium everywhere -- except in the US media, where its ethnic cleansing
and systematic discrimination against non-Jews are either overlooked or
justified cynically by exploiting Holocaust memories. There is a wider and
wider gap in fact between US supporters of Israel and Israeli citizens, a
sizeable majority of whom know that in the end Israel must acknowledge a
realistic view of its own history and actuality before it can even nominally
be accepted in the Arab and Islamic world. No matter how many times
deflating phrases like "Iranian-backed" or "terrorist" are affixed by Israel
and its media allies to the militias that beat the fabled IDF in Lebanon,
there is no way to explain away that entirely local campaign which Israel so
conclusively lost.

In reality, therefore, Israel's retreat from Lebanon was clearly the result
of a determined popular resistance willing to take punishment and make
sacrifices. Hizbullah was mobile where Israel's huge armoured and air
preponderance were both cumbersome and ineffective (despite the damage they
caused), braver and far more resourceful than the disillusioned and
frightened foreign troops they faced alongside their treacherous local
allies. Since the US media concentrated so one-sidedly on Israeli travails
in Lebanon, it was forgotten that Israel had for over 20 years defied the UN
resolution enjoining it to leave, and had for years and years imposed a
dreadful regime of torture, collaboration and pillage on the long-suffering
Lebanese citizens who were there. Rid of this reign of terror at last,
liberated south Lebanon is the first challenge to the region's future that
neither Israel nor the Arab regimes are likely to meet successfully.

The notion that the Arab-Israeli conflict might be ended has so far been
based exclusively on what Anwar El-Sadat openly expressed and embodied: the
idea that charismatic official leaders could negotiate a new peace between
old enemies. This has been disproved by the examples of Egypt, Jordan, and
the PLO, whose leaders have gone all the way without in fact persuading
their populations to follow suit. With only a tiny and insignificant number
of exceptions, no cultural or political figure of independent national
stature, no popular, syndical or really autonomous non-governmental
organisation among those Arabs whose leaders have made peace with Israel has
in any serious way accepted the peace. Israel has remained "unnormalised,"
and basically isolated at the only level that counts in the long run.
Resistance to its presence (not to its existence: the difference is
important to remark) is still strenuously, not to say vociferously
displayed, which is why the scenes of triumphal jubilation from south
Lebanon have been played unendingly on Arab TV screens. Certainly Arab and
Israeli businessmen continue their rather limited association, and there
seems to be no sign of arresting globalisation, but that is all.

In other words, the conventional wisdom about peace-making in the Middle
East has essentially been disproved, which is not to say that it will now
cease or that present peace tracks will be abandoned. They won't. But an
unexpectedly prominent landscape of opposition and resilience has been
revealed and will not now quickly be re-submerged.

We mustn't forget, secondly, that the present structures of power in Israel
and the Arab countries are the oldest in the post-World War II period; they
are still extremely militarised, largely oligarchic in kind, and therefore
unresponsive to change of the sort the Hizbullah victory represents. The
United States has historically done business with obvious interlocutors and
counterparts in the Middle East, despite occasional attempts either to coopt
the Islamic opposition (as in Afghanistan) or to promote an American-style
civil society (through foundations, business school programmes, and academic
exchange). A vast sector of life sits just beyond the view offered by the
regimes and the US, and, for the first time since the PLO emerged and was
defeated in Jordan in 1970, this unofficial aspect of life geopolitically
threatens the old, mostly frozen structures.

Islamist movements are part of this unofficial sector, of course, and what
they offer is one intellectual and cultural alternative to the conventional
one now in power. Many of these currents contradict each other, but they all
speak of resistance to US-style cultural conformity and consumerism, they
oppose what Israel represents as an arrogantly alien force which must be
de-Zionised and defeated or stopped rather than negotiated with supinely
(e.g. the Oslo model), and they all claim various kinds of connection to
"authentic" popular forms of cultural and civil tradition. But there is a
healthy secular opposition as well, fighting on several fronts (see, for
instance, journalistic opposition to repressive press laws all across the
Arab world; the human rights movement against torture and politicised
judiciary branches; the women's rights and burgeoning environmental
associations -- these exist in every Arab society today. This is not to
mention academic, labour union, writers' and artists' organisations that are
both vocal and active). All told, these secular forces provide stiff
competition to their religious counterparts.

The situation is especially heated now, not only because Hizbullah liberated
south Lebanon without official state support, but because all the front-line
regimes face huge succession problems. Think of most Arab countries, and the
first thing that comes to mind is how the old order cannot easily hand
itself on past a new and ever-changing realignment of forces galvanised into
opposition by the failure of what most people regard as unpopular, isolated,
and ageing leaderships. For the first time since independence, Middle
Eastern politics will be more influenced by how these seething internal
currents play out than by outside powers or prominent figureheads. Whatever
peace arrangements are made will therefore be subject not to what Barak and
his various Arab partners decide between themselves, but to what in the Arab
world and in Israel (to say nothing of Iran and Turkey) will come out on
top, as political parties like Shas, Hizbullah, Hamas, plus a whole slew of
secular opponents battle for a larger say in what has so far been off limits
to them.

It may seem odd to say so now, but I am convinced that the secular
opposition will ultimately win out over its religious opponents. The Middle
East is far too heterogeneous, politically aroused and modernised a region
to submit to what are in effect backward-looking, absurdly anachronistic
visions that aim at establishing Muslim and Jewish theocracies. A rigourous
contest over such matters as citizenship, identity, and political authority
is the one that counts, and it is this that will determine the future in the
long run. Meanwhile, we can expect volatile times ahead.

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