The Arab defeat

Hazem Saghieh
11 June 2007

Better that we, Arabs and Muslims, should surrender than continue as we are.

Japan's experience in the aftermath of the second world war offers an example of unusual courage. In the first place, the country had two atomic bombs dropped on it, and then General MacArthur imposed a new constitution which shook Japan's traditional way of life to its very foundations. The reaction of Japanese society was to concede defeat unequivocally, recognising that as the losers they must pay the price for their loss. But the Japanese elite went one step further, arguing that Japan should actually "embrace defeat", reconciling itself to its loss and learning from the occupying power that had vanquished it. For it had to be possible to learn from the causes of America's strength, without necessarily accepting the justice of its cause. And the loser in a conflict as complex and protracted as the second world war surely had much to learn.Among openDemocracy's many articles on the politics of the Arab world:

Stephen Howe, "The death of Arafat and the end of national liberation"
(18 November 2004)

Tarek Osman, "Can the Arabs love their land?" (22 May 2005)

Fred Halliday, "Democractic reform in the Arab world: mirages and realities"

Patrick Seale, "What hope for Arab democracy?"
(7 June 2005)

David Govrin, "Arabs' democracy dialogue: an assessment"
(16 November 2005)

Nadim Shehadi, "Riviera vs Citadel: the battle for Lebanon"
(22 August 2006)

Khaled Hroub, "Hamas's path to reinvention" (10 October 2006)

Fred Halliday, "Palestinians and Israelis: a political impasse" (4 June 2007)

Tony Klug, "Israel-Palestine: how peace broke out"
(5 June 2007)

The lessons the Japanese took from their defeat enabled them to become a global economic power. How different are the conclusions the Arabs have drawn from their own losses. Not one of four Arab-Israeli wars - of 1948, 1967, 1973 or 1982 - was sufficient to convince the Arabs that they had been defeated; nor was even the course of events which led ultimately to the destruction of Iraq, to the jeopardy in which Lebanon finds itself, to the growing tide of fanaticism, to the bland acceptance of bloodshed, to the curtailment of women's freedoms and to widespread economic, academic and institutional decline. None of this has been enough to force an admission of defeat from us or a change in our intellectual mood.

We find ourselves in this bitter predicament largely because we keep trying to overstretch a period that is over. Some people deny this, maintaining that the Arabs have indeed admitted defeat and surrendered. They point to the conciliatory approach to Israel adopted by Yasser Arafat and his successor as president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, despite the lack of positive responses from Israel. The same people argue that the majority of Iraqis welcomed the American invasion of 2003, implying a willingness to engage with the west, and the United States in particular. There is certainly an element of truth to this. Few United States and Israeli policies have been of the kind to encourage a conciliatory attitude on the Arabs' part, and many of their strategies have on the contrary been so coarse, so grasping or simply so stupid that they have served only to harden already negative and inflexible attitudes among the Arabs.

The limit of politics

But there is an overall problem with such narrow political arguments - they risk obscuring the heart of the matter, namely Arab culture and society themselves. The current situation in the Arab world, or at least in the middle east proper (the Mashreq), is the result of a cultural crisis which we will underestimate if we examine it only from a political standpoint. It is no coincidence, for example, that Arab intellectuals in their broadest terms still reject any normalisation of relations with "the Zionist enemy". Nor is it insignificant that the fundamentalist movements are getting stronger and stronger. Take Egypt, which despite having signed the Camp David accords with Israel in 1978, has not budged one inch from its so-called "cold peace" with its neighbour. Or Lebanon, which clings to the rhetoric of "resistance" to Israel, despite the fact that Israeli troops withdrew to the international borders seven years ago. As for Syria, it remains highly doubtful whether it really wants to give up its quasi-imperialist role in the region and recover the Golan Heights, or maintain its current stance and thus ensure the opposite outcome.

This willingness of both the general populace and the intelligentsia to tolerate despotic regimes merely because they claim to stand up to "imperialism and Zionism" is extremely indicative. People, all over the region, are more than ready to excuse blatantly backward and fanatical movements on the flimsy basis that they are the product of "the resistance". Or they refuse to criticise foreign interference in the Arab world - such as Iranian meddling - when they know full well that there is nothing to be gained from such "anti-imperialist" meddling economically or in any other way, and that it can only lead to violent and costly repercussions.

Hazem Saghieh is senior commentator for the London-based Arabic paper al-Hayat

A full list of Hazem Saghieh's articles on openDemocracy:

"Lebanon's election, no solution" (20 June 2005)

"How to make Israel secure"
(26 August 2005)

"The 'Muslim community': a European invention"
(17 October 2005) - (with Saleh Bechir)

"Left and right united: the victory of Maoism" (23 November 2005)

"Syria and Lebanon: keeping it in the family" (14 December 2005)

"The cartoon jihad"
(3 March 2006)

"Iran's politics: constants and variables"
(12 May 2006)

"How the European left supports Lebanon"
(14 August 2006)

"Suez: Arab victory or Arab tragedy?"
(20 October 2006)

"Lebanon's internal struggle: two logics in combat"
(19 December 2006)

"Sunni and Shi'a: coexistence and conflict" (17 April 2007)

"The six-day war, forty years on"
(18 May 2007In addition, there is the Arabs' penchant for claiming "victory" when in reality the reverse is invariably the case. This chronic need for triumph was seen most recently in the conflict between Israel and Hizbollah in July-August 2006, which the latter claimed as a "divine victory" despite the devastation wreaked on Lebanon. It is an eloquent indication of the prevalent attitude in the Arab world which regards war as the only currency that could be squandered in the market of populist politics.

The argument that most Iraqis supported the invasion of their country, while more subtle than the rhetoric associated with the Arab-Israeli conflict, is similarly narrow in its political outlook. For while the majority of Iraqis may have supported the war (a war unworthy of support), the majority of Arabs did not (albeit for the wrong reasons). Moreover, as it subsequently became clear, Iraqis' backing for the war was intimately bound up with their thirst for revenge: what they wanted from the United States was to depose Saddam and eradicate the Ba'ath party, and nothing more. Washington's talk of moulding a new Iraq met with swift and radical opposition that left no room to examine the real intentions of the Americans. In a wider regional context of disintegration and the resurgence of petty chauvinisms, Iraqi nationalism post-Saddam soon splintered into the assertion of contradictory ethnic and sectarian allegiances, all hostile to modernisation and the west.

The evasion of blame

The monuments of US-Israeli brutality stretch from Abu Ghraib prison to Guantánamo Bay, via the Palestinian refugee camp at Jenin in the West Bank (levelled by Israeli bombs and bulldozers) and Qana in southern Lebanon (where scores of Lebanese civilians seeking shelter were killed by Israeli missiles). Once again, this cruelty only strengthens the argument of those who wish to prolong the conflict and legitimises those who seek to rule by dictatorship and protect the interests of their military establishments.

We must stop denying our defeat: the sooner all sections of Arab societies face up to the truth, the sooner we will bring a halt to our agony and humiliation. The rising chorus of those who claim that our predicament is the product of American and Israeli policies is itself another incentive to admit our defeat openly, and the sooner the better. Things cannot go on as they are. True, we cannot transform our situation into a bed of roses overnight, exactly because we are defeated, but at least we can halt the deterioration and open the way to a more modest, more realistic starting-point for honest reflection and self-examination.

The first thing we must do to find a way out of our protracted and deepening decline is to face up to it. And this is something that the democratic agenda cannot bring about. Democracy implicitly means that Arab societies should be given a bonus in the form of freeing them from the burden of dictatorships, but the fundamental question facing the region has to do with the dominant aspects of Arab societies and cultures, and only secondarily with the regimes that govern them.

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