A reader of the Ibishblog asks me, ?Don?t you think that your opinions are severely disconnected from those of Middle Easterners living in the Middle East?? I think this is the most interesting and complex question anyone has yet to ask me since I started blogging a few weeks ago.
First of all, I think it?s important to note that opinions in the Middle East vary widely. I?m sure that a very large number of people in the Middle East don?t agree with a lot of what I have to say, but given my strong connections to the Middle East, my upbringing in Beirut, my wide range of experiences, etc., I don?t think one can describe them as ?severely disconnected.? To be sure, there is a kind of received wisdom in the region, especially regarding questions about Palestine, that is not only dominant but hegemonic, and might be described as ?The Narrative.? A lot of what I say challenges and deviates from ?The Narrative,? but any form of political discourse that amounts to a regurgitation, in whatever form, of the essential elements of ?The Narrative? might constitute an opinion, but it does not constitute thinking. The reality is that both internally within their own societies, and externally with regard to regional and international dynamics, Arabs generally speaking don?t have a great deal of power, and tend to cling tenaciously to ?The Narrative? in many cases as an alternative to the admittedly painful process of considering what our real situation and our actual options in fact are. However, strict adherence to a rigid and received narrative is the very antithesis of thinking, as it necessitates a kind of fidelity to certain constructs that may be imaginary, anachronistic, no longer relevant or simply mythological. This is a perfect example of the veritable ?box? the hoary cliché urges one to think outside of.
There are, of course, many brave and important voices in the Middle East itself that do deviate from ?The Narrative,? but many more who, in spite of knowing better and speaking sense privately, have exercised self-censorship because of the hegemonic power it wields, and an even larger number who prefer the comfort it provides to the pain of confronting some fairly harsh elements of existing realities. However, since any hegemonic narrative constitutes an insuperable obstacle to clearheaded and imaginative strategic thinking, I believe confronting ?The Narrative,? insofar as its serves to impede rather than enhance Arab national interests and social and economic development, is an overriding and paramount imperative. Obviously, this has already and will continue to annoy a great many people. However, there are many others who are greatly appreciative of the willingness of some of us to begin to think outside the confines of the received wisdom of the contemporary Arab national narrative.
What is fascinating is that there sometimes seems to be more of an appetite for this kind of sincere reconsideration of where the Arabs are, where they are going and what they need, in the Arab world than in the Arab diaspora. Diaspora communities tend to cling more tenaciously to received wisdoms and hegemonic narratives imported in a derivative manner from their countries of origin during the time of their migration. These ideas often get fixed and clung to with an emotional intensity that isn?t necessarily found within the societies of origin themselves. In the Arab world, governments can be relied upon to enforce ?The Narrative,? whereas in the diaspora, social pressure and self-censorship seem to be even more powerful than any mukhabarat. My colleagues and I at the American Task Force on Palestine, for example, have been gratified that the organization is generally very well-regarded and very well-received in Palestine, where the need for a serious Palestinian-American policy organization in Washington that tries to work within the system to advance Palestinian as well as American national interests, is readily understood. It is my very strong impression that there is a great deal more skepticism in the Palestinian and Arab diaspora in the United States about such a project, and considerable hostility in certain quarters to the very idea of working with and within the foreign-policy establishment of our own country to promote both Palestinian and American interests.
Most of my career has been geared towards securing an end to the occupation, the creation of a Palestinian state, improved relations between the US and the Arab world, and challenging and debunking Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism in the West, and I certainly think that the vast majority of Arabs would strongly support these goals. There may be some misunderstanding on the part of some people, whether living in the Middle East or as Arabs in the United States, about how these aims can best be pursued in the United States by Arab Americans. There is no question that I am part of a fairly small group of people within our community that is deliberately and methodically pursuing a new approach to advancing these goals, based on new strategies, new language, and new attitudes. I think it would be quite unreasonable for anyone in the Middle East to suggest that Arab Americans are not well positioned to develop effective strategies for pursuing these common goals that may not be immediately obvious, or even easy to understand, from a strictly Middle Eastern point of view (even one currently residing somewhere in the United States). The point is that we cannot proceed any longer on the basis of a derivative discourse. Arab Americans need their own approach, based on a commitment to the American national interest and to working within the system, to promote these essential goals. Arab Americans who remain strictly committed to various iterations of ?The Narrative,? and who retain an essentially oppositional and hostile attitude towards the American government and political system have guaranteed their own irrelevancy and failure.
On the other hand, when it comes to my own personal deep commitment to secularism and agnosticism, there may indeed be a profound disconnect from generalized attitudes in the Arab world. I believe that Arabs at almost every level of society have tended, over the past 30 years or so, to erroneously and potentially catastrophically conflate the registers of the religious and the political. It is here, I think, that a strong disconnect may actually exist not only in terms of goals and interests, but rather at the level of fundamental beliefs and values. When I was a boy in Beirut in the 1960s and 70s, secularism ? by which I mean the strict neutrality of the state on matters concerning religion ? was certainly not a universal value by any means, but was a highly respected and legitimate position adopted by a great deal of the intelligentsia, political elite and ordinary people. Since the Iranian revolution and the rise of Islamism, a generalized deterioration in the appreciation of the distinction between the political and the religious registers of individual and social life has been positively disastrous. It threatens, if it goes any further, to become absolutely catastrophic, and I will have more to say about this in one of my very next postings.
Sadiq al-Azm and other leading intellectuals continue to bemoan this cultural degeneration, which has promoted a religiosity shorn of spirituality and universal human values, and is instead obsessed with regulating daily activities and restricting the range of choices available to people in a most preposterous, irrational and abusive manner. This has been accompanied by an intellectual deterioration, a lack of sophisticated engagement with much of what is most useful in the intellectual development of the rest of the world (and not just the West by any means), and an intensification of a closing down of what might be called Arab discourse in general. In other words, the Arab world has generally speaking been degenerating rather than progressing over the past few decades. Obviously, there are important exceptions to this, and I wouldn?t want to engage in any reductive stereotyping or fail to acknowledge the (sadly limited) pockets of genuine intellectual, political and artistic dynamism that continue to thrive in spite of a generalized cultural degeneration. There are plenty of inspirational people, groups and institutions in the Arab world, and no reason to be simplistically pessimistic. However, the general trends and the basic realities are, for the most part, getting worse and not better.
If this sounds harsh, that?s because it is. Between the hegemonic political straitjacket of ?The Narrative? and the resurgence of a new, obscurantist and reactionary form of Islam, the Arab world has entered into a period of unprecedented malaise. If many people in the Middle East find all of this somehow comforting or positive, here we certainly disagree. I suppose it?s possible that in this sense, some of my opinions are indeed severely disconnected from those of some Middle Easterners living in the Middle East. Like James Joyce?s Stephen Dedalus ? and with exactly the same spirit and multivalent range of meanings, refuting both teleological fantasies regarding the will of God, and the deterministic and hegemonic primacy of ?The Narrative? ? I wish to tell our own Arab Garrett Abu-Deasys: ?History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.?