Eye of the Storm: New to the Arab world

Deluded glorifiers are now being balanced by self-loathers.

habib bourguiba 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
habib bourguiba 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
So, who won the latest war between Israel and Hizbullah? The question is at the center of a hot debate not only in the Arab media and political circles but also in the informal groupings where much of Arab opinion is shaped. The fact that the question is asked is a novelty in Arab politics. Traditionally, no Arab would admit that any war had ever ended with an Arab defeat. The few Arabs who would disagree would be quickly ostracized if not actually treated as "agents of the enemy." This is what happened to Tunisia's President Habib Bourguiba in 1967, when he politely suggested that the Arabs might have lost the Six Day War. The late Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdul Nasser never used the word hazima (defeat) to describe the result of his 1967 adventure. Syrian despot Hafez Assad also banned the word from his political lexicon. As for Saddam Hussein, the fallen Iraqi tyrant, he was sure that he had won the war against Iran in 1988 and the war against the US-led coalition in 1991. Since he is now in jail, it is hard to know what he thinks of the 2003 war that ended his regime. However, it would be no surprise if he claimed that he had won that round, too. Arab dictators could make their victory claims, without being challenged, largely because they either owned the media or could buy Arab journalists with perks and positions. The few journalists, who dared question the claims, could be murdered, as was the case with Salim al-Lawzi who insisted that the Arabs had lost all of their wars against Israel. Poets, like Nizar Qabbani who wrote a mordant ode on Nasser's victory claims in 1967, would have to run into exile. TODAY, HOWEVER, more and more Arab writers and political figures are prepared to break the consensus of the ummah by pointing to facts that cannot be ignored. The debate that has raged since the start of the Israel-Hizbullah war in July shows that the Arab world is no longer the hermetically sealed magic box of dreams, denials, and delusions. Broadly speaking, four Arab trends could be identified with regard to the latest war and its outcome.
  • The first could be described as traditional. In that trend, we find people who wish to perpetuate the Arab tradition of self-deception. These people have been on satellite television every night claiming that the Israeli army was reeling under Hizbullah attacks and that the whole of Israel was plunged in fear. To underline their belief that Hizbullah was winning the war they dismissed all talk of a cease-fire because, so they claimed, the fight should continue until Israel itself is wiped off the map. The editor of one Arab daily even circulated an editorial calling on Jews to leave Israel and settle in the United States where they would find the peace and security that they shall never enjoy in the "Arab Middle East." These troubadours of imagined Arab glory care little for the sufferings of the Lebanese people, let alone the miseries that war imposed on the Israelis. What matters to them are such abstract concepts as "the honor of the ummah and "the judgment of history."
  • The second trend could be described as that of "fence-sitters." In it, one finds people who know that Hizbullah's quixotic strategy could only lead to death and destruction just as the policies of Nasser and Saddam Hussein had done in their time. At the same time, however, they are unwilling or unable to propose an alternative strategy, one that not only reflects the current balance of military power but also the best long-term interests of the Middle East. One Tunisian writer has compared Nasrallah with the Mexican bandit-cum-folk hero Pancho Villa who also defied the United States and managed to get away with it for some time. Pancho Villa, he tells us, achieved nothing worthwhile but managed to make Mexicans feel good about themselves for a while. Another fence sitter admits that the Hizbullah may have lost the war in military and diplomatic terms. However, he claims that the Party of God has restored to Arabs "their lost dignity." In some cases, the fence sitters cannot reveal their true colors simply because they fear that they could be murdered by Hizbullah or its Syrian and Iranian allies, as was the case with Lebanese journalist and parliament member Gibran Tueni earlier this year. Nevertheless, the fact that the fence sitters are not prepared to join the chorus of praise for Hassan Nasrallah is a welcome development.
  • The third trend could be described as that of the self-loathers. In it, we find people who seem to hate their Arab identity and use every opportunity to present Arabs as irrational and violent born-losers. Self-loathing, a frequent feature of life in Western societies, has never had much of a place in the Arab world. Arabs remember the famous last words of Saad Zaghloul, the Egyptian modernizer of the 1920s who was murdered by the Muslim Brotherhood. Trying to comfort him on his deathbed, Zaghloul's wife Safiyyah kept telling him that he should not despair because his ideas of reform and liberty would always remain alive in the Arab world. Zaghloul's response was: "It is no use, Saffiyah! Please cover me!" Arabs remember the episode, possibly apocryphal, as an argument against Zaghloul who, supposedly affected by Western culture, had succumbed to self-loathing. Americans who are familiar with their homegrown self-loathers, people who blame the US for everything wrong under the sun, would be pleased to know that the disease has now spread to the Arabs. THIS MAY well be a salutary development as the self-loathers might counter-balance the deluded crowd of glorifiers. Some of these Arab self-loathers who live in the West, notably in the US, have been on global TV, giving a hand to other professional Arab-bashers. In the final analysis, however, the self-loathers do as much harm, if not more, as the troubadours of imagined Arab glories. For they, in their own way, prevent the Arabs from developing a proper understanding of their situation.
  • Finally, there is good news thanks to a fourth trend that can be spotted in the writings of a dozen or so Arab journalists and, more convincingly, in letters written to the editor in Arab, and in some cases, Iranian newspapers. Here, there is little sympathy for Hizbullah, which is regarded as a band of adventurers controlled by Iran. One Iraqi writer described Hizbullah as "a virus that is threatening the life of the Lebanese nation." A Saudi columnist sees the war triggered by Hizbullah as "a catastrophe" for Lebanon and Arabs in general. A letter-to-the editor published in the Iranian daily Aftab-Yazd criticizes Teheran's support for Hizbullah as "a misguided endorsement of a group that prevents Lebanon from building a modern society." There is no doubt that, with help from the Western media, Hizbullah has won the information battle in Europe and North America. In the Arab world, however, the Party of God is not enjoying the same free ride as it has in the West. Many Arabs appear to have decided to break with the herd mentality. And that may well be the only good news to come out of the latest war.