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French Version

One narrative of the Arab world's encounter with modernity

Samir Kassir's 'Being Arab' - last testament of an engaged intellectual

Before he was assassinated in June 2005, columnist and academic Samir Kassir completed a slim book in French called "Considérations sur le malheur arabe." He promised an Arabic edition and in late 2006 "Being Arab," an English-language version of his work, appeared.

Kassir was Lebanon's embodiment of the engaged intellectual, providing the ideological basis of the Democratic Left Movement - the only secular leftist political group to participate in 2005's Beirut Spring.

"Being Arab" is significant as one of the few artifacts of his thought that's been translated into English, all the more since he reassures his readers that it isn't a political program. It's basically a cultural history of the Arab world's encounter with modernity, albeit one told with a forthright political agenda in mind.

In his introduction, Kassir sums up the Arab misfortune in existential terms - the feeling that "Arab" denotes an "ethnic label with overtones of censure, or, at best, a culture that denies everything modernity stands for."

Arabs feel powerless to improve their situation, he observes, because of political realities in the Arab states. From Morocco to the Gulf, Arabs are pinned between authoritarianism, foreign occupation in Iraq and Palestine, and political Islam, which grew out of authoritarianism's repressing all other effective political associations.

Like so many Arab writers and politicians before him, Kassir contrasts the malaise in the contemporary Arab world with the historic accomplishments of Umayyad and Abbasid-era civilization. This nostalgia for the Arab golden age, he argues, is itself part of the problem.

During the nahda, the Arabic intellectual renaissance 19th and early 20th century, he says, that glorious past was the source of a creative tension. With the nahda's perceived failure - with the defeat of the "Palestinian revolution" and the discrediting of the secular-leftist ideologies with which it was associated - that past became "crushingly oppressive."

Today, Kassir argues, the Arab-Muslim world has two distasteful narratives to choose from, one religious the other nationalist. Arab history, he writes, must be stripped of Islamic and nationalist bias. Arab intellectuals must restore the nahda to its "proper place in Arab history," he argues, since "it would allow one to reinterpret this malaise as a moment of history."

After devoting 40 pages to delineating the problem, Kassir sets out to narrate the Arab world's encounter with modernity, which is explicitly Western.

Kassir acknowledges that some scholars argue that political Islam is itself an expres-sion of modernity, but he wants to demonstrate that Arab modernization is Westernization. "If one can show the Arab world adapted to this [Western] model, that Arab modernity was an historical and lived reality, then there cannot be an intrinsic difference between Arab and Western cultures."

Several factors mitigate against a no-holds-barred critique of "Being Arab." Arguably Kassir's most-important late work is his 732-page "Histoire de Beyrouth" (2003), which tells the city's story from its earliest appearance in the historical record to the present and does readers the great service of synthesizing a range of disparate research into one readable narrative.

At 92 pages, "Being Arab" is less a book than an essay. It leaps over swathes of history in a few pages. While individual insights are provocative, the broader argument seems only tentatively developed.

Sometimes tentativeness expresses itself ambivalently. While sketching the pervasive sense of Arab powerlessness, Kassir turns his attention to the US occupation of Iraq. The overthrow of Baathist Iraq split the Arab left, but Kassir sees both sides as equally powerless.

Nationalists against the invasion could do nothing to stop the US from destroying a powerful Arab regime. Those backing the war were equally powerless, since they believed that "the change Arab societies so badly needed will come not from the people of the region: it can only be brought about with foreign assistance ... Only those deluded enough to think that they are influencing events in their capacity as Eastern 'experts' or local informants, can fail to acknowledge that ... it is the victor alone who makes the decisions."

Kassir's narrative of the nahda, a sketch of such "Westernized" Arab intellectuals as Rifaa al-Tahtawi and Butrous al-Bustani, basically reiterates the argument of Albert Hourani's "Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age" (1962). Though a classic in the intellectual history of the Arab Middle East, Hourani himself later distanced himself from his work, acknowledging that he'd read more of "the West" into the thought of his intellectuals than was actually there.

Many scholars have pointed out that - for all its harkening back to an idealized past - political Islam is a creature of modernity, but Kassir rejects the notion that Islamism is a variety of "local modernity."

He objects, for instance, to the fetishism of Islamic resistance to Israeli occupation. "Whether Lebanese or Palestinian, resistance serves only to highlight overall Arab powerlessness," he writes. "The idealization of resistance per se ... prohibits any debate on the means that should be employed and so gives precedence to the most spectacular ...

"[T]he Islamization of the Palestinian struggle, despite yielding sporadic gains that flatter the Arab public's wounded pride, hardly arrests feelings of Arab powerlessness ... the blurring of Palestine and Iraq has ... merely swamped the self-image of the Arabs - and the image the world has of them - in a tide of blood."

He argues that the Arab reflex to fall back on religion after the discrediting of secular ideologies is "itself a sign of the Arab malaise ... Whether [it] is or is no longer a foreign agent, Islamism still reinforces the Other. In justifying, or enacting, the clash of civilizations," he continues, Islamists provide a raison d'etre to their Western antagonists.

Where Western modernism is inclusive, in other words, "Islamist modernism" divides. Kassir also argues that the rise of Islamism is comparable to that of European fascism.

"The societal attitudes of the Islamist movements reveal many similarities with fascist Europe," he writes. "If one is to admit political Islam's claim to be a force for change therefore, one must accept that the democratic deficit is permanent and that the Arab world will never make its appointment with modernity."

There is something affecting in Kassir's argument that the Arab world isn't essentially authoritarian but subject to historical change. He fails to point out, though, that political Islam is hardly the first political movement in the Middle East to resemble European fascism. Lebanon's Phalange Party (and its Lebanese Forces offspring) was explicitly inspired by fascism, as was Misr al-Fatat, the political kindergarten of Gamal Abdel-Nasser and many of his Free Officer colleagues.

Had the author's life not been cut short, he might well have been able to flesh-out the historical skeleton he sketches here and so resolve some of the lapses in his analysis. Such an analysis could have benefited from a broader canvas and a discussion ranging beyond cultural history.

In the latter regard, the fascist-looking leanings of certain political parties in this region seems to reflect the influence of "modern" means of organization, finance and mobilization upon social groups - delineated by sect or region, clan or peer group. In the context of Lebanon's zaim politics, say, these groups would look "traditional."

Looking further afield, increasing religiosity - religiosity armed with the apparatus of modernity - is not eccentric to the Arab-Islamic world. You need only look to the role the Christian fundamentalist right has played in electing and sustaining the Second Bush administration.

A more broad-canvassed discussion might reveal that, as Kassir argues, there is no "intrinsic difference between Arab and Western cultures." Unfortunately - at least for secular leftists like Kassir - the West has demonstrated itself just as likely to "lapse back" into pre-Enlightenment forms as the Arabs.

It would have been interesting indeed to read Kassir going to work on that one.

Marseille,12March2007
Redaction
The Daily Star


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