This is the text of a talk given during at the Eleventh Annual Convention of the Association of Arab-American Graduates (AAUG) in Bloomington, Minnesota, October 27-29, 1978:
It is entirely to be expected that discussions about the Arab world should now be dominated either by anxious questions about what is or is not going to happen next—the fate of Lebanon and the Palestinians sharing the lead in the number of predictions made—or by spellbound accounts, positive or negative, of Camp David. Ever since the Carter administration came to office, events in the Middle East have been disorienting in their dramatic confusion, even if patterns now beginning to emerge with greater and greater clarity seem to set the stage for definitive change. What we can say with confidence, I think, is that by and large the profoundly felt, almost sublime energies of anti-imperialist and liberationist sentiment feeding Arab political life since World War Two have grown weaker. Old lines, respected demarcations, observed pieties, stable communities have disappeared as a result. There is a tighter, less generous nationalism—one might even call it factionalism—in the Arab air. In President Sadat's astonishing overture to and subsequent peace with Israel we watched theatrical action for once outstripping theatrical gesture and rhetoric. The American influence has now become not simply a current but an institution, guaranteed by international agreements signed and sealed so to speak in the Maryland Hills, as far away as possible from the Sinai battlefields, the Palestinian orange groves and plains, the Syrian heights. Lebanon today is scarcely so much as an entity, its cities and villages ravaged, its citizens punished beyond acceptable limits, its ideals a cluster of sarcastic memories. Everywhere else one looks there are the facts of extraordinary Arab wealth, extraordinary Arab confusion, extraordinary Arab repression. They sit beside each other with hardly a transition between them. And yet one also sees the collective potential of a great Arab nation which, even though it seems now to be passing through a phase of disunity, can still mobilize the hearts and minds of its people, provided the vision is a true and authentic one.
But everything I can say along these lines simply brings us back to the real problem: what are we to do about the Arab future? How can we think about it? How do we stop blaming the sins of the past and start thinking not about restoring purity, but about living a collective Arab life to its utmost? What more is there to do beyond saying, as I think we must, that the degree of Arab democratic freedom and social justice could be better than it is now? In the time left to me I should like to reflect on these questions.
I should begin by saying that the Eastern Arab world, unlike China, unlike Cuba, unlike Vietnam, unlike even Algeria, and certainly unlike our fantasies about it, occupies a curiously middle, mixed place in history, geography, and culture. The Arab world is curiously like and unlike many regions of the Third World. There are numerous possible analogies between Vietnamese and Palestinian resistance of course, but ultimately they break down. Similarly while in its treatment of the native Arab population it is true that Israel is a colonial settler-state and resembles South Africa, it is also manifestly the case that any total similarity between Jews and Afrikaaners is simply not a true one. The Arab world is neither like India, China or Japan in its relative capacity for shutting itself off from East or West, nor like those countries in the relative autonomy of some of its institutions. All these things add up to a necessary realization: that we must get used to the idea that the Arab world is both ahead and behind, both like and unlike, both different from and similar to, the rest of the Third World. Thus, because of the disjunctions, the ruptures, the discontinuities of time and space, any grand idea—like the idea of national liberation, for instance—does not and cannot easily apply; we must redefine national liberation not in terms of restoring the past, but in terms of living a future and, therefore, it has, I believe, been a major problem in modern Arab culture to shake off the dreams of the past and to come to terms with our uniqueness and our relationship of affinity to the world at once, to come to terms with this in a complex world of compromises, political impurity, continuing conflict.
Concretely what does this mean? Mainly that although it can be called a separate region of the world with its own historical coherence and cultural identity, the Arab world is still in the world and is a part of Asia and Africa and, in a sense, even of Europe. Yet if you listen to most Arab ideological debate, or if you look at recent Arab sociocultural thought, you will notice that a lot of it is concerned with separating the Arab world from everything in order to re-assert Arab uniqueness, a peculiar Arab type of sin, a peculiar destiny, and so forth. Therefore, we have almost always found ourselves in the position of refusing to deal with any argument or any reality that doesn't conform to our idea of things. As a result our argument and thoughts seem sometimes to be enclosed in hermetic packages. But the irony is that these watertight packages make Arabs less political, less in the world, less independent than one would like. For instead of understanding the precise way in which every national experience or cultural grouping is different from and yet related to the rest of the world, the way in which times change and people change, Arabs have often become vulnerable to facile generalizations that make them seem either like other cultures and nations in ways that are flattering, or that make it possible for them to believe that they can have history on their terms exclusively.
This is especially true of the idea of liberation and, related to it, the ideas of independence, development, revolutionary progress. There is a very good case to be made for the notion that it has been the failure to distinguish between merely borrowed ideas about liberation and genuinely earned ones that has brought the Arabs collectively to their present pass. One purpose of the Sadat initiative, which has culminated in peace with Israel on American terms, is to have asked the question whether talk about liberation, the beating of liberation drums—along with repression at home, failures either to perform well on the battlefield, or to appear on the battlefield at all—are better than openly confessing defeat and incapacity to fight if by so doing one were able to get back occupied territory from Israel. The other alternative to what Sadat did still remains however. For everyone knows what it means to fight a national war: it means full mobilization, it means sacrifice, it means leaders who are genuine leaders with vision and courage. There are very few instances of such leaders and of such national struggles today. Too often they exist only in a watertight rhetoric, in an inflated and, I have always thought, in a melodramatic vocabulary.
The future will impress upon the Arab world a need to ask what sort of liberation it struggles for, as well as what Arabs are to do when they are "liberated." Once again imported answers based on false analogies will not serve. In any case, as Gerard Chaliand has demonstrated in his rather bitter book Revolution in the Third World, most successful liberation struggles in the Third World have produced pretty awful regimes, dominated by state-worship, unproductive bureaucracies, and repressive police forces. Even if we assume that the Arab world at this moment is a considerable distance from achieving liberation, we can still be thinking about what in the future is to be avoided, as well as what is desired. But any such reflection will immediately produce the realization that, surprisingly enough, there has not been enough discussion about human community in Arab contemporary political and social culture. This was dramatically brought home to me by having read recently two very different works—Hisham Sharabi's Muqadimat li Dirasat al-Mujtama al-Arabi, and Murray Bookchin's study of the Spanish anarchist movement between 1868 and 1936. Let me explain now what I am trying to say in terms of these two different books.
Sharabi's book attempts to dissect Arab society in order to show that what is wrong with it is its hopelessly patriarchal, authoritarian and atavistic family structure. Whether or not one agrees with Sharabi's diagnosis one still finds oneself asking at the end of the book what it is that Sharabi proposes to replace this family with. There one comes up against an almost total blankness. True there are vague suggestions about the freedom, democracy and modernity that Arabs would get if the traditional family were destroyed, but no more than a suggestion here and another one there. Why? For the simple reason that Sharabi has not thought about, and alas our own social thought has not provided him with, any specific ideas about what sort of human community we are struggling for. And here Bookchin's moving study of the Spanish anarchist movement from the 60's of the last century until 1936 seems to me to provide an important insight. Anarchism was all about the desire of millions of essentially poor and backward Spanish peasants and workers to provide communities for themselves that were free of repression, centralized bureaucracies, and authoritarian government. No other country in Europe had such a movement, although it was obviously related to all those movements in the West that were influenced by utopianism and Marxism. My point is that with the two exceptions of the now almost forgotten Palestinian attempt to speak about a new form of social organization and the effort of the Lebanese national movement to provoke discussion about new forms for Lebanese society, there have been hardly any concrete social forms for which people, intellectuals, and societies in the Arab world have concretely struggled, except for some very vaguely worded and hermetically sealed pronouncements about liberation and the Arab nation. My other point is that as a result one looks around fruitlessly for terms in which to open a discussion of this sort. Most of all one finds two sorts of rhetoric: the rhetoric of negative criticism, rejection, and denunciation on the one hand, and on the other, the rhetoric of Arab self-glorification, self-admiration, self-approbation. Both of these languages of course have very little in the final analysis to do either with history or with politics; they are too self-enclosed for one or the other. And they simply guarantee that in the future the Arab world will seem to be a place to which things have happened, a place in other words, where its men and women have not done enough to make changes in it according to ideas and values about the human community for which they have struggled.
Given these things, it is possible to argue—as I shall go on to argue—that Camp David is on the whole more beneficial to the future of the Arab nation than not. Let me explain what I mean. Consider as a beginning the history of the loss of Palestine. I believe it is true to say that one important difference between Zionist policy and Palestinian policy was that Zionism concentrated on the detail of matters, whereas Palestinians always stood on general principles. For every inch of land they acquired and still acquire the Zionists had detailed use. They didn't only say, "we are entitled to more land," but they incorporated those inches into a detailed apparatus for consolidating their hold very gradually upon the whole country: we see this policy continuing in the grids and plans for the West Bank that Israel Shahak described for us at last year's A AUG convention. Until the coming of the PLO, Palestinian, and Arab policy generally, was too concerned with satisfying general ideas, with the result that nearly everything was lost. General ideas, no matter how noble and correct they may be, have to be converted into detailed political action, and political action ultimately depends for its effectiveness not only upon how good its ideas are but upon the amount of detail which these ideas can saturate commandingly. During the entire post-war era Arab political life was fueled by general ideas of Arab nationalism whereas on the level of detail we lost more and more to incompetence, to a decreasing level of democratic human rights, to an often losing policy against imperialism and Zionism.
I realize that what I have been saying is a tremendous simplification of a much more complex history. But I think that my main emphasis is a correct one nevertheless. Because of our lack of attention to detail, because of our hermetic but no doubt wonderful and nonnegotiable general ideas about our destiny, our liberation, our uniqueness we are still in full flight from the actualities of politics and of modern history. Arab lands are still occupied, Arabs are still killing Arabs daily, imperialism is stronger than ever, our citizen's democratic rights have shrunk dramatically, the standard of education falls inexorably, the quality of life—unless one measures it by the number of Cadillacs—has degenerated and, worst of all, there still remains that hang-dog air of Arab political hypocrisy after every summit or press conference. Well Camp David symbolically challenges us to put a stop to all that.
On the other hand, I feel it necessary to say that there is a lot to be admired in the extraordinary Palestinian refusal to be sucked into what could be a whole series of very dangerous traps. The Palestinian situation now and in the near future is vastly different from that of every other Arab people. Palestinians are in a state of exile first of all; they are dispersed in many different places; they have no very good chance to acquire a reasonable modicum of self-determination that is not a mockery of the idea. Thus, in the present state of Arab subservience to American blandishments it is something amazing that a whole people, scattered in many countries and situations, should still be unified in its demands for justice, in its noble loyalty to an intelligent representative leadership, to the passion of a cause. Nothing less than Palestinian existence is on the line and as a people the Palestinians have behaved with a full realization of how slim the line is between them and non-existence. The refusal to be discouraged has kept their fighting spirit alive. Now this same spirit must enter the new field of combat proposed by Camp David to the whole Arab world.
Aside from wars, which like the 1967 and 1973 wars we have always managed to rationalize away either into victories or into unfair defeats, we have rarely had to face concrete detailed decisions whose purpose is decisively to determine the future. By "we" here I mean those of us who have the good fortune to be able to think critically at some distance from the confusions of everyday pressure. It will not do, now that Sadat, Begin and Carter have hammered together a political agreement, simply to repeat that Camp David is a great betrayal. A certain amount of adolescent joy is to be gained in repeating the word "betrayal" and I will grant you, there is even a useful political agitational role for such repetitions. But I think it is a very sad comment on our political and intellectual worth if we continue to allow words like conspiracy, betrayal and rejection to be non-negotiable substitutes for political thought about the future. Camp David asks the question, what in detail are you going to do now? And we must answer, not simply on a rhetorical level, but in terms of the future, in terms of the world we really live in, in terms of what objectively and subjectively is possible for us as Arabs to do, in the world, in history, amongst ourselves and others. Now more than ever before, answers cannot be formulated in terms of cliches like "we shall liberate," "we are developing," "we are going to set the Arab masses loose," we are, we will, we must, etc. . . . Nor are there answers adequate to Camp David that say nobly and simply we refuse, we reject, we won't submit.
It is certainly true that the Palestinian problem is the crux of the whole Middle East question. For the first time in Arab or Palestinian history there is a broad Arab and international, as well as Palestinian, consensus that only the PLO can speak for the Palestinians. Yet if we have rallied before in our support for the PLO we must rally to it now in support of the necessity for it to speak for itself internationally, to be heard from, to initiate an independent Palestinian alternative to the narrow lines drawn in the Camp David accords for Palestinian and Arab futures together. And this will happen I believe, because only the Palestinians can do it.
These strike me as indispensable first steps in the course that will help us to think about the future of the Arab nation: I mention them only because in the euphoria or the depression created by peace between Egypt and Israel they tend to be forgotten. As for the other immediate political desirables, I shall leave them for others more qualified than I to discuss.
I would like to conclude more speculatively by mentioning a few problems that must deeply engage us if we are to contribute anything to the future of the Arab nation. One problem derives from some of the things that I said earlier in this talk. The Arab nation is part of the real world in which relations between nations are determined by politics and relative power, as well as by intelligence and knowledge. My feeling is that as Arabs we have not yet begun properly to understand that part of the world—I mean the West generally and the United States in particular—whose reality impinges upon us most dramatically. It is not enough to say, for example, that the U.S. holds 99 percent of the cards, nor it is an adequate policy merely to run blindly in the U.S.'s cultural and political orbit. We owe it to ourselves to deal with the West not from a position of subservience and inferiority but, now that so many of us inhabit the Western mode of discourse, from a position of detailed knowledge and political equality. Here too we must shun generalities and begin to understand the rationality and the particular irrationality of the Western system of society in their concrete detail. Until that happens and is translated into political actuality, the Arab nation will remain an essentially coolie agglomeration with excellent middle-level managers, technocrats, and powerless capitalists.
Capital is the second problem. No emerging region in history has so suddenly and so
enormously been endowed with such astounding capital resources as ours. Yet these resources are surrounded on the one hand with vast stretches of poverty, and on the other, with an incommensurately small degree of political power. One of the major cultural and political problems of the coming years will be for the Arab nation to provide itself with a socio-political cast of mind—a whole body of thought—adequate to the job of understanding the extraordinary implications of that wealth, that poverty, and that powerlessness. In my opinion that problem has not even been posed as a problem yet, much less resolved as one.
Lastly I would like to return to the question of human community and, related to that, to the question of relations between communities in the region. No one needs to be reminded of the consequences of inter-communal strife: Lebanon and Palestine are, despite their differences, sad instances of that. The minority sense in the Arab world has still not been assuaged for reasons that can be ascribed in part to imperialism, to uneven development, and to the nature of minority cultures. On another level though, the difficulties between communities, however they may be defined, raise two other issues—one is the nature of the state in the post-colonial Arab world and the other is the issue of violence, which in so many ways has touched the life of every Arab in the Near East. There is no doubt that as our turbulent history moves on into the last years of this century, impressive changes will take place both in the lives of nation-states and in the nature of violence afflicting every citizen's daily existence. As these changes are beginning to be prefigured in today's Arab world, there is an urgent need to grapple with them intellectually at least. Unthought about, unreflected on, they threaten the Arab future with worse tragedies yet.
Edward W. Said, "The Arab Nation: What Future?" in Faith Zeady, ed., Camp David: A New Balfour Declaration, Special Report No. 3 (Detroit: Association of Arab-American Graduates, February 1979)