May 10, 2007
On the failure of Liberals in the Arab World
I’ll use Liberal in both its classic and modern Anglo-Saxon meaning here. The previous thread’s comments gave me some neuron crunching about this issue. Socialism, from the 50s to the 80s, and Islamism afterwards, are perhaps the two ideologies which mostly shaped Arab thought during the second half of the 20th century.
The socio-economic variables are clearly an indicator on how radical one can be in support of those political lines. But it’s interesting to note that those ideologies enjoy support even among people who otherwise aren’t poor, are educated, and tend to be socially quite loose.
I’ll focus on one reason that has a huge weight in determining political orientations: national causes.
Liberal streams in the Arab World have long been clogged by the perception of being Western opinion followers without regard to the average people’s concerns, sometimes quite justly so. While the defense of national causes in particular was left as a monopoly of Socialists first, then of Islamists, Liberals were associated with Western supported regimes often disconnected from those concerns. And with the packages containing the defense of those causes came the other elements of economically destructive Socialist thought, or the liberticidal elements of Islamist thought.
Shared regional identities are very strong in MENA, quite often at least as strong as the local ones. Liberals can’t hope to be credible and gain momentum if they don’t show enough support for Palestinian refugee’s rights. They can’t hope to be heard if they’re mild on the issues of Iraq’s invasion or the sanctions on other Arab countries – or even Iran. A patronizing approach on those questions, tell them that they should grow up and give up on them is doomed to fail. By doing so, Liberals are simply leaving the political field to Islamists to play freely in it. Just as Liberals are so eager to disassociate themselves from terrorist acts to Western publics, they must be very vocal to Arab publics in disassociating themselves from interventions that are lived as a threat or a violation by most Arabs.
Arabs Liberals would obviously take the risk of losing the little Western support and sympathies they enjoy. But that support in itself is a double edged knife, one which is undermining their credibility among their own. The idea here is not to have to choose between Arab or Western support though. Arab Liberals must not be simple followers of Western ideas and perceptions. They have to be opinion shapers, not just at home, but through their diasporas and their allies in the West. They must patiently invest in conveying the idea that Arab and Western interests are actually not antagonist and ostracize those who have motives to oppose this.
Only then would Western support for Arab Liberals change from a liability to an asset. And only then would Arabs perceive Liberalism as a viable alternative to the radicals that doesn’t threaten their national issues.
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liberticidal - top marks for that word.
Obviously you know more about what moves in the Maghreb sphere than me, but isn't it often a matter of being pro- or con-USA? If you're pro-capitalism and free markets, you're pro-USA, and align with their views on the world, including Israel among other matters. If pro-socialist or islamist, then anti-USA and oppose their policies.
It's bloody crude, but humans are that way. Classic liberals like you, Hogan or Lounsbury that have a balanced or pro-Arab perspective are fucking rare. In fact, I don't know any others. In Europe, sympathy for Palestinians seems exclusive to the left-wing, whereas the islamophobes have nested in the right-wing, connecting nationalism and free markets, both themes that celebrate strength.
In fact, I seem to remember Lounsbury complaining about all the lefties that have found their way to 'Aqoul because of his views on Iraq.
Another issue is that screaming bloody murder and calling for revolutions in abject outrage isn't a liberal thing. It's more often a 'get used to it or die trying' attitude that guides their thinking.
Posted by: Klaus at May 11, 2007 03:31 AM
Socialism is not an ideology but a mode of distribution, one better suited to certain ideologies like pan-Arabism or ba’athism. I think you’re perhaps referring to al ishtirakiya al arabiya, which in any case is also a dead letter these days.
…those ideologies enjoy support even among people who otherwise aren’t poor, are educated, and tend to be socially quite loose.
Correct. Shocking, isn't it? Everything else has failed. Nationalism was first and foremost an anti-colonial strategy. In Europe, nationalism evolved as the political ideology most conducive to capitalism, while Western European socialism is post-nationalist. These are well-known arguments. The question on the table here is the reemergence of Islamic religious nationalism (Islamism) and, if I understand correctly, whether Arabs and/or Muslims should support it.
My answer is yes, at least within the confines of its anti-colonial and anti-Zionist struggles, which seem to be a bit more pressing at the moment. While Islamism didn’t spring into being as a reaction to Zionism, there is no doubt that it is attracting support from even borderline apostate Muslims because it appears to be the only movement with the weight and the will to oppose the non-secular, religious Zionists who have already appropriated a good deal of the West Bank and have their eyes set on a Greater Israel. In my opinion, this alone is sufficient grounds for supporting the Islamists and Hezbollah.
Regarding the rest of your well-intentioned post (and yesterday's), too, I can only say one thing. Palestinians once had Edward Said, as brilliant and articulate an advocate for Palestine, Arab liberalism and, yes, even the Muslims, although he wasn’t one. All those words, all those books and articles, all those appearances achieved nothing.
They must patiently invest in conveying the idea that Arab and Western interests are actually not antagonist and ostracize those who have motives to oppose this.
What Arabs should do this? Apostate Muslims and Christians? Maybe this is why the Arab liberals don't seem to mind too much when thousands of the Muslim Brothers get thrown into Mubarak's dungeons. I don't recall hearing too many complaints after Hama either, for that matter.
Posted by: jr786 at May 11, 2007 09:06 AM
You know, I live in a country where the USSR and Communism at one time enjoyed a lot of support because of their anti-Nazi, anti-German efficacy.
Then of course, they wrecked the country.
Now certain elements are just as blindly pro-USA (and embarassingly so even to a generally patriotic, pro free market etc etc American like myself) because it led the struggle against Communism.
I think that if the best thing you say about somebody is that they're very "anti" somebody else you don't like, they're pretty much worthless. And I am far from convinced that either "Zionism" or "Colonialism" are the major problems the Arab world faces today, as opposed to serious internal social weaknesses. Want an even break? Don't be a sucker.
Posted by: Antiquated Tory at May 11, 2007 10:06 AM
No one will listen to you about gender issues, about market liberalization, etc., if you're telling them they're suckers to believe Israel or Iraq are big deals. You have to be competitive with Islamists on national issues if you want to gain some buy-in on the rest of your liberal/libertarian thinking.
You misunderstand me. I am not saying that the Arabs are suckers for believing that Israel or Iraq are big deals (well, the importance of Israel seems vastly exaggerated, but still...) Rather, the reason the situation is such as it is with Israel, Iraq and Arab-Western relations in general is that the Arabs are suckers and the Western nations have no reason to give them an even break.
Now, I can see that part of the Islamist appeal is in saying "we will be suckers no more!" but substantively this seems to consist of little besides opposing the West combined with some traditional values + social welfare.
Something a bit more positive seems to be needed, something that would actually put Arab countries in a position where they would have to taken more seriously, for reasons beyond an appeal to imaginary standards of international fairness.
Of course, the post-colonial socialist-nationalists attempted just this and were far from successful.
I would like to think that Arab liberals would be able to come up with such a program and sell it as making their countries strong, but I haven't the damnedest idea how they'd go about doing it. Certainly a strong united front against the American invasion of Iraq would help, as would a united, vocal, hardheaded approach to Israel. But beyond PR value I don't see where these things on their own do much good.
(I'm going to try to bow out now and let people who know what they're talking about, talk about what they know.)
Posted by: Antiquated Tory at May 11, 2007 12:17 PM
People tend to be irrational when national issues are perceived as existential threats and overrate them. Telling them it's irrational doesn't solve it. See the US post 9/11.
All I'm saying is, the problem is the Islamist monopoly on being tough and proposing solutions to those issues. Their solutions are more likely to create more problems, but there's no alternative if you care about those.
Let Arab Liberals (or Muslim ones for that matter) break this monopoly by having competitive propositions of their own. Their thinking is indeed more likely to make Arab countries stronger, but what good is it if it's irrelevant because of their perceived weakness when it comes to national issues?
All I'm saying is, the problem is the Islamist monopoly on being tough and proposing solutions to those issues.
Well, of course this was not always the case. Go back and read the original PLO Charter from 1968. It's not only secular it doesn't even mention Islam. In fact, if I recall rightly it has a clause that promises religious pluralism. In those days, there was no difference between the Liberal and Nationalist positions. It was the failure of secular Arab nationalism to achieve anything in Palestine and Iraq that has discredited it. In any case, is it possible to separate religion and politics when dealing with Arab history? Just as the Islamists will eventually need a politics (witness Hezbollah and Hamas) the liberals will eventually need a bit of Islam (witness the show the PLA leaders made in Mecca). Work together.
There simply is nothing left for Arab liberals to say independent of religious people, at least regarding Palestine and Iraq. I was cleaning out my office recently and came across articles and papers from 1982, all certain that the Israeli invasion of Lebanon was sure to change public opinion and end the occupation. That was a generation ago; things are far worse today.
Let Arab Liberals (or Muslim ones for that matter) break this monopoly by having competitive propositions of their own.
Here's a (modest) Muslim proposal. Talk to the Islamists, listen to what they have to say instead of dismissing them outright, as in this:
but substantively this seems to consist of little besides opposing the West combined with some traditional values + social welfare.
It's more than that; in the case of Ikhwan, which nobody could consider Islamist, a lot more. I hear even the Americans are re-considering their positions towards in these matters, why can't the Arab liberals?
Posted by: jr786 at May 11, 2007 02:52 PM
What about Bourguiba, Ben Ali, aren't those liberals* who helped the PLO (even got bombed by Israel for it)?
I've (shortly) tried looking for Ben Ali's stance on Iraq, didn't find any money shot quote but he can't have been in favour of it.
Also, it's difficult to out-pro-Palestine political competitors who want to push Jews into the sea.
* Meaning considerably more liberal economically and in terms of mores than the region.
Posted by: Baal Shem Ra at May 11, 2007 03:08 PM
Absolutely spot on about the national issues, which also helps explain the rise of Arab nationalism in the early 20th century.
Connected to that point is the absence in Arab Liberal(and indeed current Western liberal) discourse about meaning. Say what you will about the obvious failings of "Arab" "Socialist" and Islamist ideologies, they at least provide all of their adherents, down to lowliest laborer, with a purpose in life, a sense that their beliefs and actions are leading towards something meaningful. There seems to be very little of this in Liberal rhetoric; Liberals talk about big, abstract ideas that have very theoretical benefits to the average, non-savvy citizen. Thus, the assumption goes unchallenged that under capitalism a person's meaning in life is merely to make a profit for someone else.
In addition to playing more lipservice to national causes, Liberals should focus their attention first on small but immensely important issues for the common people, like campaigns against bribery/wasta-peddling/state-vampirism/other corruption before demanding the end to consumer subsidies and the deregulation of currency markets, etc. Cutting fuel subsidies may make a lot of sense on the macro level but to Joe Muhammad all he notices is that he has to shell out more of his meager income at the petrol station and that this seems to benefit only the station or the government, not himself. People in general but especially Arabs are so used to being lied to by ideologues that simply saying, "Look at my graphs, isn't it obvious that capitalism is better!?" isn't going to convince anyone. You have to show some concrete benefits before people start to believe.
Then again, as Kefaya has shown, it's very difficult to make any progress whatsoever in the Arab world without militancy. Pretty much all significant change in the Arab world has come about only through revolutions or civil wars. Coincidentally(or not) both Socialism and Islamism have militantly revolutionary components to their ideology while modern Liberalism does not.
Perhaps it's time for Lounsbury to start organizing briefcase-wielding investment banker martyr brigades...
Posted by: Djuha at May 11, 2007 03:13 PM
It strikes me something should be written on the common confusion between securalism, liberalism and rationalism. This is not the first time I sense it in comments.
I have no quarrel with bringing Islam in politics, as long as it's rational and respectful of dissenting views and liberties. Nor am I saying secular Arab nationalism (which most often had socialist tendencies) should be revived.
National issues aside, many Arabs fear Islamists because of gender issues, individual liberties, obscurantism, you name it. Part of it is perception, another part is real. Islamists are not monolithic. But if you think it's only a problem of perception, then Islamists need to work on those perceptions.
The merits of Islamists or the lack of thereof isn't my point anyway.
Plus it's always healthy to have alternatives.
Bourguiba wasn't a liberal, he was what one could call an "enlightened despot", a dirigist as per French influence and a reformer when it comes to Islam.
General Ben Ali's just an Arab version of Pinochet. Pro-Western and iron fist statist with rampant nepotism. Eliminated, often quite litterally so, every kind of dissent to his rule, from all the political spectrum.
His stance on Iraq was pro-Iraq, though it became more discrete with time. This stance was adopted under popular pressure, when his grip on power wasn't strong yet.
So, nothing short of Robert Nozick or John Locke would qualify here?
Are you putting emphasis on negative or positive liberty? Do they concern economic, mores or political areas?
"I’ll use Liberal in both its classic and modern Anglo-Saxon meaning here"
I understand the "classic" part but "Anglo-Saxon"? Perhaps you mean "American" because the US and UK meanings are different. Also, it's difficult to use that term in both the classic and American ways because much of the time they're incompatible (see: Michael Moore vs Milton Friedman, The Nation vs The Economist).
When I said Iraq, I meant the second Iraq war, 16 years after the coup when his grip should have strengthened by then.
Posted by: Baal Shem Ra at May 11, 2007 04:23 PM
right. I meant liberal in a very loose sense indeed, which lumps both left and right's lines on individual liberties.
Granted, Bourguiba's case is arguable. But Ben Ali, unless you consider Pinochet to be a liberal in any sense of the word, there's really little you could find to categorize the General under the label. He sells himself as such abroad, but that's because it sells, not because there's any real basis for it internally.
I think this refers back to Shaheen's previous post, in which he states no one is going to compromise unless they need to. While socialists and islamists might trumpet their pro-Palestinian credentials, the policies that they have and will enact will weaken their own countries socially and economically, and by that also their influence. If Egypt were like, say, Norway, Israel bloody well better would have to compromise.
I have an inkling the Chinese leaders found out how much easier it is to push others around when one's economy is strong, and went for it. They like it.
It's also Antiquated Tory's point, Arabs should stop being suckered into 'meaningful rhetoric'. People are people, though, and it is to the benefit of the Eastern Europeans that Russia is still acting like a turd.
Baal Shem Ra - I don't think anyone has ever seen Tunisia as among the really nationalist states of the Arab world. It's been tightly aligned with the US and France, and I'm sure Israel sent the regime a discreet apology for bombing the PLO headquarters. I'm not saying this attitude has been a bad thing -- but I don't think either of Tunisia's rulers have ever been able to draw much support from radical opposition movements by their foreign policy stances. Rather, they've been handicapped politically by them.
Djuha - Then again, as Kefaya has shown, it's very difficult to make any progress whatsoever in the Arab world without militancy.
Not so sure about this. Their success can't be measured by what happened to the movement itself, or the temporary ups and downs of Mubarakism. Kifaya as a movement may stay or go, depending on the level of repression, but they have undoubtedly struck upon some very good tactics: namely acting exactly as the mainstream Islamist movements have been acting, except for other goals. Outflank the government on every nationalist and popular issue you can find, be unspecific and inclusive, say you're the "third force" in politics, be bold, go to jail, and serve to build public profiles that people will trust. Be very militant, in the non-violent way, so that you can retain both western policymaker support and local activists, while never giving the government a good excuse to crack down (they will anyway, of course). Then the day after tomorrow, when the realities of power shift or the political scene opens up (because of an election in Washington, a heart attack, falling gas prices, or whatever), there will be a semi-liberal opposition sentiment ready to cash in on that support. Many in the west seem to forget that early western liberalism was joined to the hip with nationalism, and was spearheaded by an unruly bunch of ideologues, extremists and crazies -- yet they expect Arab liberals to emerge as clean-shaven, moderate, atheist, suit-&-tie, pro-gay, two-state, pacifist San Francisco intellectuals.
A minor promising sign I think is Egypt's El Ghad, who are carving out a small niche for populist-nationalist liberalism. I realize they're not going to change the world, that they've mostly been a vehicle for Ayman Nour, and may well splinter into a zillion fractions tomorrow morning, but their rhetoric seems to be right on the mark. That will be a path that will attract more liberals, in other countries too, and it may well work.
(Of course, the main problem of Arab liberals is that before they win and live happily ever after, more or less democratic Islamists will probably already have thrown out the regime and gained power themselves, and so the Liberals will need to change strategy yet again.)
Posted by: alle at May 13, 2007 02:55 PM
I'm sure Israel sent the regime a discreet apology for bombing the PLO headquarters.
Wrong assumption, I know people who were insiders to those events. The Mzali government really had a nationalist streak. Plus Shamir wasn't exactly the kind of guy who would send apologies (nor was it the mood for the era anyway).
Then I stand corrected.
Posted by: alle at May 13, 2007 08:58 PM