The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

In Translation: Western superiority and Arab denial (Part 1)

In a long two-part article, the prominent Saudi commentator and academic Khaled al-Dakheel has written an epic rant about how badly off the Arab world is and how incapable it is of facing its own shortcomings. I'm not sure what triggered the timing, but it is probably related to the collective hand-wringing about the state of the region, and the Syrian calamity in particular, that the picture of Aylan al-Kurdi and thousands of other refugees from Syria has triggered. Much like some segments of the Western press about the West's response, there has been much questioning as to whether enough is being done for Syria by Arabs. (Of course, there has also been much opportunistic blame-shifting by the various sides of the Syrian war.) 

Al-Dakheel's jeremiad, an increasingly common type of article by Arab intellectuals in these dark ages (although one could trace the style, at least, to Sadik al-Azm's Self-Criticism After the Defeat), is about something more general, though. It appears as an exasperated antidote to the widespread strain of fuzzy, conspiratorial, delusional and self-aggrandizing rhetoric that dominates so much of public discourse in the region. It has little interest in focusing on the colonial and neo-imperial roots of the Middle East's troubles, seeing them as a way to deflect responsibility for Arab countries' and societies' faults and choices. Yet in its flattering (and somewhat provocative) assessment of Western superiority, it still remains trapped in the us-versus-them logic that it decries as so poisonous. This is part I of his article published in al-Hayat, part II will be published on Wednesday.

Brought to you, as always, by the excellent professional translation team of Industry Arabic

Western Superiority and Arab Denial

Khaled al-Dakheel, Al-Hayat, 30 August 2015 

Most Arabs and Muslims will not grant that the West’s civilization is superior. They will admit that it is more technologically or materially advanced, but they deny that the West has achieved any cultural or ethical advance or superiority. There is a half-deliberate, half-incidental disregard for the West’s political and legal achievements, which are sometimes dismissed by referring to the contradictions that seem to undermine their foundation. This is abundantly clear when we hear acknowledgements of the West’s tremendous industrial capabilities alongside descriptions of its cultural decadence and lack of moral discipline. Most currents and schools of thought in the Arab world agree on this point, even if they differ in their explanations, descriptions and details. None of them have ever asked themselves: Could a decadent and morally undisciplined culture have provided the basis for tremendous industrial capabilities? Maybe for this reason time will show that the Arab-Islamic attitude toward the West is mistaken in its outlook, justifications and conclusions. This attitude reveals that the Arab-Islamic perspective (with the possible exceptions of Malaysia and Indonesia) continues to be in thrall to a past that could only ever be resurrected through destructive means. But its error is even more dangerous than that, because it expresses a civilizational impotence and exhaustion more than it expresses any coherent political stance, civilizational vision, or alternative civilizational project. The greatest evidence of the incoherence and injustice of this vision is that you find Baathists, Nasserists, Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, Salafis, Muslim Brotherhood, nationalists and leftists all joining together to mock the West, deride its ethical incoherence and despise or disregard its political achievements. This comes at a high cost, because it does not reflect a real consensus as much as it represents an empty opportunism void of political substance and the least amount of moral probity.

This attitude brings together such disparate figures as Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the leader of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, al-Nusra Front leader Abu Muhammed al-Julani, head of the Change and Reform bloc Michel Aoun, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (who is incidentally also the Secretary-General of the Arab Socialist Baath Party – Syria Region). Ranged alongside them are other figures who have since left this world, such as Saddam Hussein, Hafez al-Assad, Abdel Nasser, Abd al-Karim Qasim, Abdul Salam Arif, and many more. They are also joined by Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood sheikhs and sheikhs from various other schools of thought. Lately Houthi leader Abdel Malik al-Houthi has joined the list as well. What is striking – and significant – is that whereas they concur in this coarse opportunism, they disagree on everything else. They are engaged in brutal, bloody clashes on the battlefields of religious wars in Iraq and Syria, fighting on the basis of a sectarianism that they have no shame in avowing.

Consider with me this landscape that has now prevailed for more than a century: political leaders, religious clerics, intellectuals, journalists, religious thinkers, artists, and different schools of thought relentlessly mock the West and downplay its civilizational superiority without offering an alternative. Instead, their own views always lead to infighting and wars between them, or to justifications for endless wars and battles. What is strange is this seeming consensus to disparage the West and its civilizational achievement has never bolstered what they call the “united [Arab-Islamic] front,” but rather has always led to fissures and disintegration. Ironically, it always increases the pretexts for war and strife between these factions, which still never tire of their superior attitude. The more they mock the West, the more their disputes and divisions escalate. How strange is it that the more they mock, the more the mockers have cause to fight one another! What does this mean? Before you answer, consider these three points: first, in most countries, the Arab Spring (which cannot be said to have ended) has turned into a gelid and deadly Arab Autumn or even Winter. This outcome has seemed to many an occasion to revisit conspiratorial thinking about plots to divide the region – as if the Middle East were a dish of chocolate or fruit just waiting to be divvied up from the outside. Was Muammar Gaddafi part of the conspiracy to divide Libya? Is Bashar al-Assad a part of the current conspiracy to divide Syria? Are Ali Abdullah Saleh and Abdullah al-Houthi part of a conspiracy to divide Yemen? You will not find an answer to this among conspiracy theorists. Not because there is not an answer, but because like those who mock, they are preoccupied with pinning the conspiracy on the West. The conspiracy is comforting and it relieves them from the difficulties of analysis, painful self-reflection and accepting responsibility.

The second point is that the people most committed to and loudest in their mockery, disparagement and resistance to the West are the most politically backwards, the most sectarian, and the most brutal against Arabs and Muslims – and in particular, toward the people that they themselves belong to and govern. Leave ISIS aside for the moment, since that is a self-evident example. There is an example older than ISIS that is similar to it and which paved the way for its emergence, an example that combined these qualities of mockery of the West, sectarianism and brutality: the Syrian regime itself. Since 1963, the feature that has most distinguished this regime has been combining brutality with mockery of the West, while claiming to resist the West. It is no surprise then that Syria’s current president led Syria to the most vicious civil war in its history. After the death of 300,000 people, and the displacement of more than half of the Syrian population, Bashar al-Assad has the gall to claim that he is fighting terrorism. In the same context, you find Hezbollah – which is the loudest proponent of “resistance” – to be the most drenched in the blood of Arabs and Muslims in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, while it is trying to do the same in Bahrain and Yemen as well. Who is trying to divide Syria in this case? Russia? The Americans? The EU? Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey? Or is it Iran and its Shiite militias? Or the leadership of the Syrian regime itself and its foreign and domestic allies?

The third point is that the vast majority of Arab migrants who are fleeing Arab civil wars do not go to other Arab countries or to Iran. Could you imagine Syrian refugees going to Iran, especially when most of them are Sunni, not Shiite? In the same way, could you imagine Shiite refugees from Iraq or Alawites from Syria going to Jordan or Saudi Arabia? When some refugees went to Jordan and Lebanon, it was a textbook example of a hostile reception, bad housing and lack of services, alongside a loss of dignity and rights. This is despite the fact that the Arabs talk most of “dignity,” rather than rights, and despite the fact that the “Party of Resistance” – whose supporters found a generous welcome in Syria in 2006 – dominates Lebanon. Do you see the irony (according to the logic of Arab-Islamic mockery of the West) in the fact that Syrian refugees in Turkey, Europe and the US are much better off?

These points clearly show that mockery of the West and disparagement of its superiority are a flight from reality and a shameful self-justification and excuse for an inability to succeed. It is an excuse for bigotry, religious obscurantism and sectarianism – and first and foremost, for authoritarianism. Over time, this mockery and disparagement has turned into a political and ideological mechanism for reproducing an outworn and obsolete culture that props up authoritarianism and incubates authoritarianism’s fellow henchman: sectarianism. What is unclear is how this mockery of the West and disparagement of its superiority turned into a civilizational complex that over time has become an insurmountable obstacle for the Arab themselves. In next week’s article, I will try to answer that question.