The Region: Betrayal of their profession

The Arab Writers' Union has never protested about the censorship or repression of its writers in member countries.

barry rubin 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin 88
(photo credit: )
Among the saddest things about the Middle East is how Arab intellectuals are so overwhelmingly on the side of the dictatorships and extremist ideologies which cause so much suffering in the region. Two shocking recent examples of this problem are revealed by the German-Iraqi Najem Wali and French-Syrian Burhan Ghalioun. Wali tells the story of the Arab Writers Union in an article in the German newspaper S ddeutsche Zeitung. Last December the Iraqi branch was not invited to the Arab League-backed group's convention, allegedly because it was suspected of maintaining relations "with the Zionist enemy." This was better than the Iraqi writers' experience in 2005, when they arrived for the conference in Algiers, then were thrown out of their hotel rooms and banned from the meeting. Iraq, of course, is a member of the Arab League, and the Iraqi branch was created by the government. This has not stopped Iraq from being treated as a pariah within these groups. All Arab writers' unions are controlled by their governments - a strong hint about the limited degree of freedom they enjoy. Culture and intellectual life are state-ruled enterprises. WHILE IRAQI writers should speak to those in Israel, of course they don't. The explicit charges were false; the implicit accusation was that the Iraqi government is not anti-American enough. And even more ironic is that, in Wali's words, "Egypt... Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, all of whose unions took part in the conference - wouldn't survive a day without their American 'friend.'" But even this isn't the worst aspect of the hypocrisy. The Arab Writers' Union has never protested about censorship or any Arab government's repression of its writers. The Saudi poet Ali al-Damini, the Syrian writers Michel Kilo and Arif Dalila, along with many others have been in jail cells without the Writers' Union objecting. For 35 years, the Iraqi branch was under the direct control of the dictatorship. During the regime's last years this meant the supervision of Uday Hussein, son of Saddam. No one ever proposed barring its participation then, even when Shafiq al-Kamali, president of the Iraqi Writers' Union, was executed. On the contrary, Wali writes: "No other Arab land received such high praise - in poems, novels, songs, films, theater works" as did Saddam and his regime. "Hundreds of intellectuals and artists were guests of Saddam Hussein's men and travelled from one festival to the next." Bribes were widely distributed to ensure that "dozens of novels and poems sang praises of the heroism of the Iraqi warriors and swore the fall of the 'Zionist and 'Persian' enemies." CONSIDER EGYPT alone. Film director Tawfiq Saleh directed a film in which Saddam was the hero; author Salah Abu Saif published a book portraying the Iran-Iraq war in racialist terms. Another novelist, Gamal al-Ghitani, wrote a book justifying the killing of Kurds in northern Iraq. A leading Palestinian poet praised the Iraqi minister of propaganda as the minister of poets. Publishers were subsidized by Iraqi book purchases; magazines and newspapers existed largely because of Iraqi funding. Since Saddam's fall, no one has apologized; nobody criticized for these actions. But the only ones punished have been writers who have been able to work in the aftermath of the dictator's fall. Ghalioun was interviewed on Al-Jazeera television suggesting why things might even be worse. It is to Al-Jazeera's credit that it let him appear and say these things - though, ironically, the same station is a prime example of the problem he exposed. What is new, Ghalioun explained, is the growing control of radical Islamist clerics over the media. "Arab societies," he explained, "are held hostage by two authorities." One is "political dictatorship - arrogant dictators, who are inhuman in their oppression of liberties, and in their crushing and humiliation of the individual." The other are the opposition clerics "who tyrannize Arab public opinion nowadays." Ghalioun points out, "There is a kind of undeclared, practical alliance between the political dictatorship and the dictatorship of the religious authority" [translation by MEMRI]. One point on which they are alike is to denounce anyone who has different views "of secularism, which means heresy, or by accusing them of modernism, of having ties with the West, or of collaborating with colonialism." ACTUALLY, this alliance between radical Arab nationalists and Islamists is the most significant trend in the region today. I call the synthesis National Islamism. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallim, speaking on Al-Jazeera last April, explained that conflicts between Arab nationalism and Islamism were "silly" and merely the product of American plots. Of course, that's not true, as can clearly be seen by the inter-Arab fighting in Lebanon, Iraq, and among the Palestinians. But radical Islamists and nationalists at least agree that they oppose human rights and freedom. In doing so, they are supported by intellectuals who enjoy the gifts of money and career promotion even as they betray their supposed avocation. The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center of the Interdisciplinary University and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs.