Books: Disintegration and demise

Veteran journalist Robert Worth has a hopeful but misguided approach to the burning Middle East.

Opposition supporters attend Friday prayer in Tahrir Square in Cairo February 11, 2011 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Opposition supporters attend Friday prayer in Tahrir Square in Cairo February 11, 2011
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I don’t know anything about veteran New York Times journalist Robert F. Worth’s childhood, but I would guess that even as a small boy he was inclined by temperament to look for glimpses of hope amid sadness. Because he does that repeatedly in his extraordinary book, A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, From Tahrir Square to ISIS.
Worth has difficulty understanding the grotesque perversions that can overtake human behavior and finds himself struggling to understand the disintegration and demise of the Arab Spring. Although he has seen too many suicide bombings in Iraq, and assassinations in Lebanon – where he was stationed as the New York Times Beirut bureau chief – we sense that against all odds, he is still rooting for the next generation of Arabs to thrive. We sense his kinship with them.
Worth is a wonderful writer and begins his fine book by describing for us the euphoria he felt spending 18 days in Tahrir Square amid the protesters in 2011. He writes that Tahrir Square was “much more than the sum of its parts. There was an emotion in the air that encompassed all of us, made us feel we’d shed our old skins, and the past was irrelevant. It wasn’t just the slogans and chants, the people want the dictator to fall, the shared poetry of revolution and dignity. It wasn’t just the heart-lifting feeling that was conjured everywhere with the same phrase: the barrier of fear is broken. Larger than all of this was a sudden but vast shift in perspective, as if Earth had tilted on its axis, allowing you to miraculously see truths that had been hidden from you all along.”
Worth brings this tenderness – tinged with melancholy and regret – to his entire narrative, which seems intent upon resisting despair even when it is reflected back to him over and over again.
One of the ways Worth resists is by keeping his lens focused on those extraordinary men and women who defy the status quo. There was one man in particular who impressed Worth during the early days of Egypt’s protests against Mubarak.
He watched Muhammad Beltagy, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, attempt to forge ties with the revolutionary secular youth in Tahrir Square and win their trust. Beltagy went back and forth between the young protesters and his own people and formed a united council to work against Mubarak. He linked hands with liberals and chanted, while trying to hush zealots in his own group.
But soon after the collapse of the protest movement, Worth tracks down Beltagy and is shocked by the man he finds, who has lost all sense of his earlier self. Worth is startled by his transformation from a genial moderate leader to a severe man enshrouded in darkness, spouting paranoid theories about the United States and Israel, and talking incessantly about reliving the days of the Prophet.
Worth seems to fumble as he looks for an explanation and offers one that appears disturbingly naïve. He writes that “the thousands of young men and women flocking to the Islamic State are acting on the same impulse that drove the protesters of Tahrir Square: the need for a state where they are treated like citizens.
It may sound perverse to invoke that word for both a utopian urban space and a violent theocracy where slavery is held sacred. But many young Egyptians traveled from one to the other, and one of their stories is in this book. Those journeys were fueled by a hunger for something they’d always been denied: a place where the conflicts of their identity and history would not be exploited, as they had been in the past, but embraced and reconciled.”
Worth suffers from other blind spots and a fear of condemnation that sometimes hinders his assessments.
He never once mentions the rampant anti-Semitism that runs through the Middle East and how that sentiment has been used by the power structures in Arab countries to shift the blame elsewhere rather than examining the serious flaws of their own systems.
This Jewish amnesia seems to be a disturbing pattern among foreign journalists.
Worth feels that the deck is stacked against the civilian populations who are caught between brutal dictators (as well as their armed forces) and religious fanatics, who often work with one another to keep the power in their hands. We can feel his exhilaration when he comes upon someone who stands up for reconciliation and nonviolence.
He was impressed by the tenacity of Sheikh Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of the Islamic movement in Tunisia, who tried to keep his country from falling apart. The sheikh called for national reconciliation and spoke out repeatedly against civil war.
Worth describes Ghannouchi as “an Islamist, but in a vastly different sense from the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose education consisted mostly of rereading the Koran in prison. He lived abroad for decades, reading widely in three languages and constantly weaving new strands into the fabric of political Islam...He had read Marx, Freud, and Sartre and debated their ideas with the high school students to whom he taught philosophy back in Tunis.
A few years later, after committing himself to political Islam, he was humbled by the courage of left wing activists who risked their lives in protest and suffered torture in jail.
His own Islamist peers abhorred the dictatorships but did nothing about it. He decided to make common cause with the leftists and the trade unions.”
He also has great respect for Mikhif al-Shamari, who has been jailed repeatedly in Saudi Arabia and attacked physically for simply stating his heartfelt belief that his fellow Sunni Muslims should treat Shi’ite Muslims as equals in his homeland. Shi’ite Muslims make up only 10 percent of the population in Saudi Arabia.
But Worth shies away from a question that seems most pressing. He tells us a story about interviewing a 50-yearold Sunni Muslim woman from Syria who is now living in exile with her son in Turkey. She tells Worth how she always maintained genuinely close relationships with the Alawites in her country and seems baffled by how quickly things have spun out of control. But moments later and seemingly without any cognizance of what she has just told him, she blurts out her belief that the Alawites were always a traitor sect without any religion who sided with the French during the French occupation.
Her son tells Worth he will be certain his own children understand the Alawites’ true nature. Worth doesn’t confront them directly or point out to them the irrationality and hatred intrinsic to their thinking, but more importantly, he doesn’t really confront it himself. He keeps looking for less damning explanations for the anarchy and violence that have taken hold.
He offers us some vague ideas about the intellectual void apparent during the student protest movements and mentions that there was no Vaclav Havel-like figure who emerged during the Arab Spring to lead the students in their fight for freedom. And he feels the situation was worsened by the timidity of intellectuals who failed to speak out against the regimes abusing them. As an example, he points to the Syrian poet Adonis who now lives in exile in France. Adonis wrote a mildly critical letter to Assad that did not even mention the brutal crackdown, which has killed hundreds of thousands of Syrians.
But Worth ultimately holds back from directly addressing or condemning the root of the problem, which is the people’s own participation in perpetuating violence, hatred and intolerance, often at the slightest provocation. That is Worth’s only significant oversight in this otherwise spectacular work of literary journalism.