Sunday, February 4, 2007

Bigots and History

Neo-cons, orientalists and Zionists gathered recently in Israel to confirm their fantasies about history, people and politics. Azmi Bishara responds

The seventh annual Herzliya Conference, held in the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Centre, featured a rarefied blend of neo-conservatives and old-guard conservatives who have preserved their "unbounded vitality and eternal youthfulness", as one might hear in the plug for one of our video clip starlets these days. How it warmed the heart to see assembled together in a single conference such illustrious figures as the eternal orientalist Bernard Lewis, the permanently startled Shimon Peres, the notorious Richard Perle and, of the same clique, former CIA director James Woolsey.

Where else in the world could you come across these sorts of people and other leeches upon this part of the world underneath one roof? It could only be in Israel, of course, which has become one of the major centres for provoking the clash of civilisations and cultures, and for glorifying "Western civilisation", in which Israel so unreservedly situates itself, in spite of the "Third Worldness" and corruption that pervade its mass culture and the mindset of its politicians. Israel has made itself a forum for economic liberalism and the politics of globalisation (to be read as Americanisation), without self-criticism inside the conference hall and without demonstrations outside. Herzliya, after all, is not Vancouver where people are mad enough to protest against this type of conference. It is located on the most extreme and most extremist fringe of Western colonialist culture; it is, according to Zionism's self- definition, the West's "spearhead against Eastern barbarianism," as that Zionist hero, Osishkin, put it in order to win the British over to the Zionist enterprise.

Lewis, in his lecture, attempted to summarise Arab history since the Napoleonic invasion in -- as is the want of the totally arrogant or consummately wise -- a handful of terse sentences. For 200 years, the rulers of the Middle East played one great power against the other. But the collapse of the Soviet Union brought an end to that era. Now outside powers are not as interested in the region as they were before. This meant a going back, a reversion to older patterns. The primary identity of Middle Eastern countries is religious, not national or ethnic. It is always Muslims against the rest, and their task is to bring Islam to all mankind. They succeeded in two major attempts, when they conquered Andalusia and, later, under the Ottoman Empire. Today they are preparing themselves for the third attempt. But there has been another major development since the end of the "Bonaparte phase". This is the increased rivalry between the Sunnis and Shia -- the "Protestants" and "Catholics" of the Middle East.

And some accuse the Arabs of mixing fact with their oriental flights of fancy! But Lewis is a respected Princeton professor and a world-renowned orientalist whose works have not only had an impact on the media but on such scholars as Huntington. So, imagine the miles he had to traverse in order to be able to offer this potted history, which illustrates the mood and values of the culture that prevails among all those political luminaries that converged upon Herzliya, as though it were the capital of the Middle East.

Because "outside powers are not as interested in the region as they were before," the US has sent troops to Iraq and is gearing up for Iran. Condoleezza Rice is busily giving the peace process its latest "tune-up" and the Zionist sympathiser Javier Solana is dropping by every two weeks or so, via Israeli television, to reassure Israelis that "we don't meddle in the decisions of our friends in the government of Israel. We will support what you decide. But we advise you to be wary of Syria's intentions for peace. Syria, first, has to demonstrate the sincerity of its intentions in Lebanon and in Iraq and in not providing a base for Palestinian terrorism... And, in Palestine, a Palestinian unity government is not enough; Hamas has to accept the conditions of the Quartet." In Herzliya, Jose-Maria Aznar called upon the EU to set into motion an initiative to include Israel into NATO, Woolsey declared that Israel couldn't negotiate with those who wanted to annihilate it, and the whole crew counselled the Lebanese government to show no flexibility towards the majority opinion in Lebanon and furnished ample evidence of their intent to bring down the majority government in Palestine. Yes, Bernard Lewis must be right: the world has completely lost interest in the Middle East since the collapse of the Soviet order.

He suggests, too, of course, that nothing ever changes under our scorching sun, that Muslims are forever their immutable selves, that to Arabs all other affiliations pale next to their religious ones, and that it was, therefore, only natural that, once they no longer had big powers to play off against each other, they would inevitably revert to their pre-Napoleonic religious squabbling. And who are we to challenge this perspicacious insight? Even so, in the same Herzliya week, Sunni and Shia clergymen gathered in a dialogue conference in which they effectively resolved to "nationalise" Sunni and Shia affiliations. These affiliations should be linked to national identities, they said, and Shia religious and political leaders should commit themselves to not pushing the Shia affiliation upon "Sunni countries" and Sunni leaders should make a similar commitment towards "Shia countries". Apparently, national and ethnic affiliations have come a much longer way than Lewis imagines. Instead of the adherents of different Islamic doctrines, or Muslim "Protestants" and "Christians", at each other's throats, religious rivalries have been subordinated to other rival interests. In other words, religious affiliations have become tools in the service of antagonisms that are cast as national rivalries, because these affiliations sidestep the problem of creating a sovereign nation founded upon the concept of citizenship, because the separation of religion from citizenship and public affairs or even retaining religion as a public concern within the framework of a multi-cultural and multi-denominational nation or state is being kept out of the picture. Lewis is wrong if he cannot see that what appears to be religious conflict is, in fact, an instrument for furthering other brands of interests, attitudes and identity politics.

When some of us, out of despair, disparage the fighting beneath sectarian banners, our intent is a far remove from Lewis's. He sees the resurfacing of Muslim or Islamic atavistic traits whereas we use such terms as the "Sultanate" and "Mameluke kingdoms" to characterise the current disintegration and fragmentation of contemporary Arab states. It is our way of sounding the alarm, of urging caution, of crying out. The crusader state, in its heyday, succeeded marvellously in turning brother ruler against brother ruler and conquering its neighbouring statelets, even without the advantages of state-of-the-art technological superiority and nuclear might. Indeed, they used very much the same instruments of war that the Arabs had and they didn't even enjoy the degree of social and scientific advancement the Arabs had attained at the time. And they certainly didn't have to convene a Herzliya conference. Their ally was the fragmented structure of the surrounding statelets and their mutual rivalries and suspicions. These are the historical circumstances that we cite metaphorically in order to warn of the consequences of failing to build a nation founded upon the concept of citizenship.

Believe it or not, this metaphor is closer to present day realities than Bernard Lewis's theories. The Arabs have made some progress since the Middle Ages -- some considerable progress: Israel can't keep them down or even preserve itself without technological superiority and other forms of superiority, unlike the crusader state which lasted for some 200 years without these advantages. But the unresolved problem of nationalism, Israel, and the failure to build a democratic civil state are definitely among the foremost factors to have stalled this progress. Meanwhile, the folks at Herzliya have their own theories to expound on the Arab condition, because they approach it from a different mindset altogether.

To better understand what I'm getting at, I suggest you read Shimon Peres's amazing Herzliya lecture. Even Peres, himself, seemed amazed, amazed at himself and at scientific and economic progress, all of which he managed to lump together when he observed proudly that he "looked so good" for his age because he was an optimistic type of person and he was optimistic about the power of science and economy. Peres also had certain people to thank for his optimism. He expressed his gratitude to Ahmadinejad whose exaggerations and extremism unified the world behind Israel. And he expressed his gratitude to Hassan Nasrallah who eulogised Israel by saying, "what country, having lost one soldier, ceaselessly searches for him. Even if he was killed, it won't stop searching for his corpse," and who praised the democracy that enabled Israel to "learn a lesson".

Of course, Peres couldn't or wouldn't pick up on the other side of these remarks. Out of all the Arab political forces these days, the undefeated Hizbullah, while certainly no great fan of Israel, has the confidence to praise the strong points of its adversary because, by "pure coincidence" it was the only power capable of inflicting defeats on Israel. Moreover, this party, which demonstrated such superb organisational strengths in battle, is also the political force that, in the wake of a highly destructive war, has the power to get unprecedented numbers of Lebanese out into the streets in peaceful strikes and protest marches as well as the sophistication to address these people rationally, in a language that is far removed from the fascist and populist harangues used to mobilise certain mass movements in Israel, and even in some European countries. But here, the type of mass movement that is capable of modern, rational and institutionalised organisation and that even by the standards of Herzliya should be entitled to govern is regarded as Israel's number one enemy. What Israel prefers is happy Mameluke petit states, allied with Israel against other Mameluke petit states, or against their own internal adversaries. It wants states capable of receiving the Israeli economic and scientific modernising mission with open arms, prepared to heed preacher Peres's advice to shun those forces that are truly modern in spirit and practice.

What else did Peres say at Herzliya VII? He said that Assad, the son, wants to correct the mistakes of his father. But Bashar must realise that the question of war and peace with Syria is a triangle that includes the US, and that the latter, right now, doesn't want negotiations with Syria because the US supports Fouad Al-Siniora's government in Lebanon and because Syria provides shelter for Khaled Meshaal and trains terrorist forces to send into Iraq. On the other hand, if the Syrians turn to war, "they will encounter the triangle, and not just Israel."

Apparently, Peres hadn't attended Lewis's lecture about how little the rest of the world cares about this part of the world and Islam's next encroachment into the West -- he seemed indifferent to that danger. Rather, the impression he left was that Israel did not want peace with Syria, that it was preparing for war against Iran and that the Palestinians had better be ready to accept much less than what was offered to them at Camp David II. On the latter point, he was explicit about what the Palestinians had to accept. Israel, he said, has no intention of letting demographic reasons end its existence as a Jewish state. It would not go the way of Lebanon, which ended as the only Christian state in the region due to the demographic price it paid for its mistakes. Israel, in other words, would never accept the principle of the Palestinian right to return; as to what "mistakes" the Lebanese made, these were left unsaid.

Yes, with or without Bernard Lewis, the analogy to Mameluke petit states is very useful in order to grasp the blindness of an Arab order that supported the occupation of Iraq, that has no idea what stance to take on the current process of partitioning Iraq and on the prospect of an increase in American forces there, and that has a strong inclination towards availing itself of any mechanism, including fuelling sectarian tensions, in order to keep its people mired in backwardness.

And the analogy is particularly apt when it comes to the Arab order's stance, or lack thereof, on the attempt to impose Israeli conditions on the Palestinians by means of economic blockade, while at the same time calling for a Palestinian unity government on the conditions set by the Quartet, without making any demands on Israel, as a preliminary for reviving a negotiating process aimed at securing Israel's conditions for a settlement. This is definitely an Arab order in a muddle and looking for a way out of the awkward and embarrassing position that the resolve, perseverance and skill of the Lebanese resistance have put it in.

True, Israel's military and technological superiority is essential to its survival. However, the gap between Israel and the Arabs is not so much created by its superiority as it is by the Arabs' backwardness. At the root of this backwardness lie the petit states in which, to borrow from Ibn Khaldun, flattery and favouritism are the way to rank and power, rank and power are the route to money, and alliance with Israel and any other power is the way to forestall the rise of any alternative.