April can be brutal on those not blessed with forgetfulness.
Forty years ago, on April 13, 1975, the Republic of Lebanon began its descent into chaos and violence, reminiscent of the ongoing carnage gripping Syria today. April 11 of this year also marked the seventieth anniversary of Robert Clary’s liberation from Buchenwald, coinciding almost to the day with Holocaust Remembrance Day. In 1945 Clary was 19. For those not old enough to know him, he was “Frenchie” in the mid-1960s American television sitcom Hogan’s Heroes.
Today he is the last living original cast member of the series.
Clary was a Jew in the role of a POW in a comedy about a World War II German prison camp. As an actor, he embodied the beauty and dignity of the human spirit; a former victim making light of the brutality and inhumanity of his former captor, barely 20 years after Buchenwald.
Likewise this year’s April marked the centenary of the Armenian genocide, and the “Shato d’Sayfo,” “the Year of the Sword” as the mass slaughter of the Assyrian Christian population of the Ottoman empire is known in Aramaic. But our tidy modern world’s memory seems oblivious to telltale signs of an early 21st century mimicking the inaugural brutalities of the twentieth.
Islamic State (IS) has dreams of empire and seeks to reclaim a lost “Golden Age,” to be rebuilt on gallows and skulls. Yet the prevailing assessments in academic circles, and the dominant public and media discourses on IS, dismiss the phenomenon as transient, delusional, anomalous and therefore doomed to failure – a “JV team” in US President Barack Obama’s words, or a “terrorist organization” and “self-declared Islamic state” in media and academic depictions. Some even claim that a brighter “secular” paradigm exists for the Middle East’s future, a “secular nationalism” model winnowed from the region’s early 20th century experiment with modern statehood; a happy alternative and panacea as it were to the current turmoil. This optimism is shortsighted, unwarranted, dangerous and historically baseless.
It is reminiscent of Pollyannas gone astray in 2010, hailing the events formerly known as the “Arab Spring” as the dawn of a new era of freedom and democracy in the Middle East.
To suggest that an exercise such as IS is based on illusion and delusion, and may therefore prove to be ephemeral, ignores the flimsiness of “secular nationalism” and “state,” and the tenacity and resilience of both empire and religion in the Middle East. By osmosis, this attitude also devalues the tenacity, resilience, seriousness and competence of IS itself.
Secular nationalism and the pretense of secular nationalism are not necessarily synonymous.
The former may be secular; the latter only parades secular ostentations. And so, this essay proposes to push back with two combustive suggestions: 1) IS may indeed be the norm in the longue durée of Middle Eastern history, rather than the anomaly or exception; and 2) the secular state, and indeed the current crumbling, Arab-defined “state system” in the Middle East is the exception to the rule, and may not have the staying power once attributed to it. In other words, places like Syria, or Jordan, or Iraq and the rest, are modern inventions that never achieved legitimacy; IS on the other hand reflects and projects both legitimacy and authenticity in the eyes of many Muslim Middle Easterners.
It is true that Muslim majority countries (or some Muslim majority countries) in the Arab-defined Middle East might have trotted out “secular ideals” with great zeal throughout the 20th century. But to suggest that, say, the Baath in Syria and Iraq, Nasserism in Egypt, the Jamaahiriyya (socialist populism) of Gaddafi’s Libya or the monarchies of Morocco and Jordan (who incidentally flaunt their kings’ direct descent from the Prophet Mohammed) somehow draw their political legitimacy and therefore their staying power from secular (as opposed to religious) principles and traditions paints too bright and optimistic a picture of realities that may point into darker corners of Middle Eastern societies history.
Government in places like Iraq, Syria, Egypt and the rest in the Arab-defined Middle East, in spite of their proclaimed “secular” attributes (which may be meaningful more so to Western audiences than to locals) remain governments of deeply religious societies and political cultures, drawing legitimacy chiefly from religion; from Islam to be exact.
It is politically soothing for Westerners – and Western academics in particular – to diminish the centrality of religion in Middle Eastern lives. Yet the political realities of the Middle East remain intimately twined with religion. An illustration from the annals of the secular Arab Nationalist Baath Party may be instructive: In the mid-1970s, during one of the fitful pinnacles of Arab-nationalist fervor, which was then dismantling the Lebanese state – perhaps the region’s only non-Muslim entity outside of Israel at the time – Syria’s Baathist dictator, Hafez al-Assad, the leading man of “secular” Arabism in those days, had to extort a fatwa edict from Lebanon’s supreme Shi’ite cleric, Musa al-Sadr, confirming the Alawites’ Shi’ite Muslim pedigree.
Alawites were incidentally members of an esoteric sect whose beliefs wedded Phoenician paganism, metempsychosis, Christian Trinitarianism and Greek and Gnostic conceptions of divinity to what traditional Muslims considered nominal dubious Islamic practices.
A question worth asking is why would Assad seek a religious affidavit shoring up his Muslim credentials if his prerogatives as a ruler stemmed from secular sources in a secular Arab nationalist Syria. Of course the anwer is that in multi-ethnic, multi-religious, polyglot Syria, the “secular” Baathist state constitution still demanded that the president of the republic be a Muslim – and Assad was not considered a Muslim.
This is one example that confirms the rule in the Middle East. A Coptic Christian would be hard pressed even imagining himself a president of Egypt – “Egypt” is incidentally a toponym derived from the Copts’ ethno-religious cognomen, Aigyptos.
It may be true that the Arab nationalism trotted out by Syria’s Assad, and his Baathist clone in Iraq, and others elsewhere, had initially been a secular creed at its inception in the early 20th century. But this early “secular” Arab nationalism was in the main the creed of Arabophone Christians, intelligible only to them and other non-Muslim minorities at the time. Indeed, secular nationalism was the doctrine of non-Muslims preoccupied with building a post-Ottoman polity for themselves where they would no longer be second-class dhimmi peoples living on sufferance in a Muslim state, often enduring persecution, discrimination and the indignity of a devalued existence.
And so, a “secular” Arabism denuded of Muslim content remained incomprehensible and therefore unattractive to the bulk of the Muslims of the late Ottoman period.
Even Michel Aflaq, the Damascene Greek Orthodox Christian founder of the Arab Baath Party – a committed secularist by all accounts, but nevertheless a Christian secularist – even he could not escape the centrality of Islam in his neighborhood and the centrality of Islam to the secular Arab nationalism that he promoted. He conceded that being an “Arab” and being a “Muslim” were complementary if not synonymous.
From the time of the Prophet Mohammed during the 7th century, to the time of the prophet of Arab nationalism in the early 20th century, little has changed in the sense that identity and self-awareness under Islam had always been religious.
So, in a sense, not only is there no opposition between Islam and the so-called secular Arab nationalism of the modern Middle Eastern state-system; indeed there may be a great deal of conflation, harmony, cooperation and synonymity.
Secular Baathist doctrine, noted one observer, as articulated by Michel Aflaq, held that the Prophet Mohammed was also ipso facto the founder of the Arab nation, and was to be venerated as such by every Arab nationalist, whether Muslim or not. Indeed, Aflaq himself, the committed secular Christian, practiced what he preached and is believed to have converted to Islam so as to better earn his Arabness.
There are many vignettes and adages in the literature of Arab nationalism that confirm the fact that “secularism” as a source of legitimacy in the post-Ottoman Arab-defined Middle East is at best a pipedream that defies the region’s “laws of nature,” which remain overwhelmingly religiously-defined, not to say Islamically defined.
A leading Iraqi Arab nationalist writer, for instance, Adurrahman al-Bazzaz, noted that Islam is the religion of the Arabs (and by the Arabs) par excellence. “There could in no way be a contradiction between Islam and Arabism,” he claimed. Another writer chimed in, maintaining that “Islam is the other face of Arabism.” Munah al-Solh, a prominent Lebanese Arab-nationalist theorist, echoed his cohorts’ attitudes, suggesting that “Islam is another name for Arab nationalism.” Aflaq himself is noted to have said repeatedly that “Islam is to Arabism what bones are to the flesh.”
And perhaps most significantly, the logo of the Arab League is adorned with a fragment of a verse from the Koranic Surat Al ’Umran: 110, which reads, “You are the finest nation [Umma] that was brought forth to Mankind.”
For the record, this is the Koranic slogan of the “Arab League,” not the “Muslim League.”
So, in conclusion: 1) IS may indeed be dreaming of reviving a lost golden age, but its nostalgia stands on solid historical ground; a nostalgia that is to many more real than reality itself.
2) The brief “secular” interlude in the Middle East of the early 20th century was exactly that: it was brief, and it was an interlude. It was also the exception to the Middle Eastern rule, where “state” and “secularism” are outliers, and where “empire” and “religion” still carry the day.
3) Secularism remains an absurdity in the Middle East.
4) Empire (and indeed, theocratic empire) can be said to be a Middle Eastern invention; from the times of the Sumerians 5,000 years ago to our times’ IS, the pattern has been one of discontinuity and change and imbrications of cultures and rulers – but empire, in varied incarnations, has remained unchanged, and Islam as a badge and rationale for empire has endured. IS is in line with that time-honored pattern. Islam, after all, to the majority of Middle Easterners is the pinnacle of human existence; whatever came before Islam is not worth remembering, let alone preserving (and IS is making good on that principle), and whatever may come after Islam can never measure up.
5) And lastly, whether IS lasts or not is not the question. What matters is that IS is here. Perhaps not here for long, but it’s been here long enough: it is demolishing cultures and peoples and monuments that stood the test of time. The work of IS is not that of delusional amateurs doomed to failure as some have suggested; rather, it is the expert performance of a sophisticated outfit with vision, conviction and clarity.
THIS APRIL, as we commemorate Holocaust Day and the 100th anniversary of Sayfo and the Armenian genocide, we may be rightly concerned with the fate of millions of Middle Easterners under the gun, Muslims and non-Muslims alike; we may be concerned with the fate of thousands of Middle Eastern migrants escaping the violence of their homelands, strewn about in rickety vessels adrift around the Mediterranean.
These are moving images, and compelling causes for concern.
Yet another genocide seems to be in the forecast, and the collapse of the Middle East with the destruction of Near Eastern Christianity and Christendom go on unabated. Academics and pundits debate with zeal, clarity and alacrity about IS and its causes and life expectancy, while Christians in the Middle East, (others as well, of course others, but Christians in the main) are stalked by a looming gruesome end, wondering how much longer they will be able to hold out.
Conferences and academic papers and attempts at understanding, and all the jeremiads, condemnations, righteous indignations and analyses that follow are all well and good, but little else is done. Little else perhaps can be done. And the breviaries of the victims and the hunted grow longer. All we offer them is a form of voyeurism; looking at the atrocities, flinching with horror, getting offended, and then moving along our social media circles, scrolling further down Twitter feeds.
Crucifixions, beheadings, victims burned alive, others buried alive, and on and on and on.
This is not the 8th century, it is the 21st. We all know it. But we all live in a post-religious, post-empire Western bubble, and assume the rest of the world does too, or ought to.
At the behest of France, the United Nations Security Council recently debated the possibility of a UN “Action Charter” aiming at protecting Near Eastern Christians (and other endangered species) from the cruelty of IS.
Some think this is a fantastic initiative. Better than nothing, they say.
In reality, this initiative is sadder and more ominous than the reality itself. It marks the last chapter in a long saga of destruction, signaling a sort of resignation to the looming extinction of one of the founding elements of our human civilization – the Native Americans of the Near East.
IS may indeed be building a state based on delusions of grandeur and yearnings for a lost golden age. But so are the yearned-for “secular” alternatives to IS also a cross between Candide and Pollyanna, bereft of historical bases. We may indeed be living in “the best of all possible worlds,” where bloodshed, brutality, evil and Candide’s age of anarchy are cast out and wished away with all manners of talisman, euphemism and misplaced optimism.The author is associate professor of Near Eastern Studies in the Dept. of Slavic and Eastern Languages and Literatures, and the senior editor in chief of
The Levantine Review.