Can 100 flowers bloom among the Arab Americans?

The other day I was talking with Jim Zogby (a fairly unusual occurrence in and of itself), and he said of differing views, “let 1,000 flowers bloom.” “And 100 schools of thought contend,” I immediately replied (the actual phrase being, “bai hua qífàng, bai jia zhengmíng,” generally translated, “let 100 flowers bloom, and 100 schools of thought contend”). I then reminded him that this invitation in 1956 by Chairman Mao to the Chinese intelligentsia to criticize government policy and propose their own alternatives was, in effect, a trap designed to flush out any potential internal dissidents and that when the program was abruptly canceled in 1957, probably about half a million newly identified “rightists” were fired, imprisoned, tortured or killed. He dryly thanked me for “making his day” and ruining his favorite quotation. I suppose I could have ruined it even further by pointing out that among some Maoists, the image of 100 blooming flowers has served as a grim “black humor” metaphor of the crimson glory of mass executions as the government’s steel axe unceremoniously collides with the tender necks of hundreds of supposed potential dissidents. I decided I had already done enough damage to his mood and didn’t rub it in, but the whole exchange did get me thinking about the state of debate in both the Arab world and, more especially, the Arab-American community.

Grand generalizations are always a dangerous thing, and it’s almost unavoidable to be both reductive and simplistic in talking about attitudes towards a subject as vast as the concept of debate and engagement with ideas among a group as huge and diverse as the Arab-Americans, let alone the Arabs. But I do think there is a very clear pattern in our community here in the United States and in the Middle East as well that suggests that, at this point in our political and cultural history at least, and for whatever reason, the Arabs generally really do have a problem with debate. By debate I mean recognizing that there are multiple respectable, reasonable perspectives that intelligent, well-meaning people can adhere to that should be seriously considered and which should engage with each other in a public exercise designed to elucidate what these varying perspectives have to offer to illuminate our very challenging circumstances on multiple fronts. I mean taking ideas seriously and dealing with them as ideas. I do not know how this complex phenomenon plays out in other societies and among other peoples, and I’m not trying to stigmatize the Arabs or the Arab-Americans as somehow particularly resistant to critical thinking and the interplay of contending ideas, but it seems to me that this is a pronounced feature of our political culture and a debilitating liability of the first order of importance.

This process of debate is not, let me hasten to add, the same thing as factional disputes. Of those, we have plenty. What passes for debate, generally speaking, in the Arab world — for example on Al Jazeera and other Arabic language news channels — are mostly contradictory assertions, competing accusations, and more often than not shouting matches between people who refuse to consider the arguments of the other side on their own merits and instead either denounce the character and motivation of their opponents or appeal strictly to some kind of totally irrational and emotional response in the listeners based on religious or nationalist sentiment. In other words, we may think we have debates, but generally speaking we simply don’t. We have disputes and arguments and shouting matches. In few of these cases are large, meaningful ideas at the heart of the questions or is there really a mutually respectful exchange of views based on ideas. Instead, these televised disputes, not to glorify them with the lofty title of debate, generally simply oppose contending political positions, and not really ideas as such.

I think it’s fair to say that there is a paucity of critical thinking at work here, and a palpable discomfort with the idea that sincere, reasonable and intelligent people can come to very differing conclusions, many if not all of which have some merit, on the same problem and that the best way to deal with this diversity of perspective is to have a discussion in which people actually listen to each other and engage with those ideas. I don’t think it’s particularly unfair to suggest that there is a real absence of this approach to political and cultural ideas among the Arabs at the present moment. The tendency is not to listen critically and to engage but rather to judge ideas based on their supposed provenance, which immediately leads to the pigeonholing of people based on supposed political factions, orientations and whatnot (very frequently erroneous assumptions).

On many subjects, such as Palestine, Iraq, and other issues that are assumed to have national importance to the Arabs as a whole, there is also a hegemonic Narrative which includes not only concepts but also rhetorical formulae, the deviation from which tends to mark both the speaker and the idea as highly suspect if not automatically condemned. The hegemony of The Narrative, and the automatic and emotional resistance to deviations from it, is probably the strongest single factor in the relative absence of meaningful public debate and critical dialogue among the Arabs today, but I think the process extends to almost the entire spectrum of political, cultural, social and religious issues.

The box we are all living and thinking in is unbearably small, and yet the general tendency in our community here in the United States and in much of Middle Eastern societies is to feel more uncomfortable outside of the box than to remain trapped in the narrow but reassuringly familiar confines of this self-imposed dungeon of little ease. It’s even come to the point where people are happy to assert that in the United States, at least, the community is in fact, “not divided” in any meaningful sense on the most pressing issues it faces. Many on the Arab-American far-right and ultra-left deny that there is any split in the community at all. They claim, as radicals invariably will, to speak on behalf of virtually everyone and to suggest that anyone who doesn’t agree with them is simply a bad person motivated by greed, malice or perhaps even mental illness. Others who acknowledge that differences do exist bemoan the fact that there are such deep divisions in our community, and seem to think that any hegemonic orthodoxy, no matter how dysfunctional or removed from fundamental realities it may be, is preferable to division and debate.

Arab-American organizations and political orientations tend to construct and enforce echo chambers in which only approved ideas are given space and attention. During my time at ADC, it was only with the greatest difficulty and overcoming considerable opposition that I was able to occasionally introduce dissenting viewpoints into the panels that occasionally fell under my control at our conventions. This gesture wasn’t generally welcomed (in fact it was almost always heavily criticized), and it certainly hasn’t been continued since I left. I don’t mean to single that organization out, since I think this attitude is absolutely typical and ADC not in the least unusual or egregious in this regard. It’s not that real debates never, ever happen among Arab-Americans, it’s just extremely rare, and thus far at any rate generally unwelcome.

The echo chambers have become even more deafening with the technological innovations in communication in last 20 years, as first e-mail lists and now the new social media, above all Facebook, have created self-selecting, mutually re-enforcing communities of like-minded individuals who bombard each other with “information” that reinforces the conventional wisdom at play and excludes or excoriates any alternative perspective. Thus small factions can even more readily convince themselves that they are representatives of not only vast groupings that in most cases probably don’t exist, but also even to be speaking for the Arab-Americans or the Arabs as a whole (I can hardly describe the relief I felt at joining an organization, ATFP, which purports to speak for no one but its Board of Directors and those who voluntarily choose to affiliate with it — I don’t know what getting out of jail feels like, but there might be some vague similarity). The number of people who purport to speak on behalf of the entirety or at least the overwhelming majority of the Arabs, generally without exhibiting the slightest indication of how preposterous they sound to everyone else, is simply extraordinary. And, of course, everyone who disagrees with them is instantly accused of having bad intentions or ulterior motives.

Governments and other political factions in the Middle East do pretty much the same thing, suggesting that any major deviation from their own point of view is confined to a perverse and tiny minority with highly suspect motivations and no significant public support. It seems to me divisions among the Arabs and the Arab-Americans are pretty clear-cut, and thinking about the problem of a rather glaring lack of real debate and engagement at the level of ideas (as opposed to dispute and mutual recrimination) requires examining the broadest outlines of those divisions.

The Arabs and Arab-Americans are actually split into at least four major factions. First are those who support the governments, or at least one government, out of personal or professional loyalties or convictions, with or without acknowledging in public or in private that these governments are all illiberal and oppressive to one degree or another (not to mention, in many cases, downright incompetent). Second are those on the far religious right who support the large, organized opposition groups, which in all Arab countries now essentially consist of Islamist factions of varying stripes, mainly Muslim Brotherhood and similar Sunni salafist organizations or Shiite Khomeinite factions.

The last two groups are those caught in the middle: the liberals, leftists and reformers. Those Arabs and Arab-Americans who are unabashed in seeing the deficiencies of the current governments and leaderships are themselves split into two opposing camps. First are those that Marwan Muasher has correctly called “the Arab Center,” who seek and promote reform, secularism, liberalism and democratization, but with a keen eye to the even greater dangers posed to these values by Islamist opposition groups than by the illiberal governments themselves. The second are those, mainly on the left and ultra-left who are making what I strongly consider to be the dreadful mistake of imagining that championing, to one extent or another, the Islamist opposition, usually under the rubric of “the resistance,” is the most useful path to a better future in the Middle East.

While the actual struggle for power in the Arab world is taking place between the first two groups — the governments and the Islamist oppositions — the political and intellectual debate that matters in my view, or at least that should matter because it is the arena in which real ideas are actually on the table, is between the second two groups: those reformers who recognize that the religious ultra-right is even more dangerous than the illiberal governments versus those who imagine that charging wildly to the extreme right is somehow going to shift the cultural and political climate in the Middle East towards the center. History, I would note again in passing as I have many times before, is replete with examples of what happens to liberals and centrists, and their agendas, who make the mistake of siding with extreme left-wing or right-wing revolutionaries, most recently illustrated by events surrounding the Iranian revolution of the late 1970s.

In the Arab world, Islamists and their left-wing supporters are promoting a reading of the political situation that characterizes the present Middle East as the scene of a contest between “the martyrs,” i.e. the Islamist revolutionaries, versus “the traitors,” i.e. the existing governments. This discourse has the great danger of channeling understandable and often justified Arab popular anger at certain events, especially wars, into a programmatic corollary of action holding that the necessary corrective for the present unacceptable state of affairs is for “the martyrs” to defeat “the traitors,” seize power and begin to improve the situation (presumably by implementing radical-right wing Islamic policies domestically and, somewhat less plausibly, aggressive confrontationalist policies internationally).

In the United States, among the Arab-Americans this division in perspective is mirrored by a similar dispute between those who believe that our collective interests and agenda can be best pursued through a sincere and dedicated engagement with the government and the political system versus those who hold that the American system is irredeemably corrupt and corrupting, and/or completely closed to the Arab-American perspective. Of course, much of this dispute takes place on emotional rather than intellectual terms, and is often reduced to expressions of outrage on one side or the other. The tendency, especially on the ultra-left to deride centrists as “sellouts,” “collaborators,” or “traitors,” is particularly outrageous as it goes to motivations rather than ideas.

It might be argued that I have done the same thing myself, but in fact I haven’t, even though I have been very critical of some of the people I disagree with. When for example I recently, and I agree rather harshly, described Joseph Massad as a “crackpot” I was not talking about his personality, his motivations or his lifestyle. I was talking about the quality of his ideas, which I consider, with a great deal of evidence on my side, to be frankly bizarre. I think that crackpot is a perfectly reasonable characterization of the preposterous notion he shares with Glenn Beck that President Obama is a racist. I am extremely happy to harshly critique what I consider to be dangerous and even ridiculous ideas, which is in fact the essence of an open, honest debate, but I do not question other people’s motivations or character, which is the antithesis of that same exchange of ideas. It is extremely dangerous to equate or confuse a harsh attack on what one considers bad ideas with an attack on motivations or character. The former is what a real, serious debate looks like (even though it’s not always pretty), while the latter forecloses it entirely.

In a recent interview with me, a radio host began to talk about proponents of the one-state agenda for Israel and the Palestinians, of which I am a leading critic, as participating in some sort of “industry,” designed to advance their careers or accumulate wealth or status. I immediately interrupted him to insist that there is, in fact, no such “industry,” and that getting involved in these arguments on either side is no way to become rich or acquire any really valuable status (although I suppose demagoguery must have its satisfactions). However, it is commonplace for one-state proponents and others to make accusatory statements about a “peace process industry,” in which proponents of ending the occupation and establishing a Palestinian state (which, as it happens, all polls and surveys demonstrate most Palestinians unquestionably want) are supposedly pursuing this agenda out of some kind of self-aggrandizing and avaricious pecuniary interest. Precisely this accusation was leveled by Arab-American ultra-leftists at no less than Mahmoud Darwish.

As a community, we desperately need to get over this phobia about divisions when there is, in fact, a great deal to be divided about, and many important issues that must be thrashed out, and about which no one has a monopoly of wisdom or a simple, self-evident answer. Ever since I started this blog I have been the recipient of a great deal of positive feedback, but I’ve also been bombarded with a smaller amount of extremely vitriolic criticism that almost never challenges the ideas I am discussing (although I do have a few very careful and penetrating readers who disagree with me thoroughly and have engaged respectfully, honestly and in the most helpful manner, and I value them enormously) and almost always engage in the most absurd ad hominem attacks questioning my motivations, my identity and my supposedly pecuniary interests in writing and arguing the positions that I have come to espouse. It must be very comforting to believe that one’s opponents take their positions simply in order to make money or for some other debased reason, but it’s obviously not true. No one has ever gotten rich off of engagement in the Arab American political scene, especially not by writing articles and maintaining blogs.

The fact that I published my last book in-house and provided it for free download on several websites I think plainly demonstrates the complete lack of interest in making a brass farthing out of the project, which I certainly won’t. I don’t believe for a second that any of the Arab-Americans on the extreme religious right or ultra-left with whom I disagree most frequently and vociferously are motivated by personal ambition or private greed either. I know many of them personally, in some cases exceptionally well, and I know them to be fundamentally honorable people who honestly believe what they’re saying and have come by their opinions honestly as well. We can’t have a debate if we don’t take each other’s ideas seriously and engage them no matter how harshly, instead simply assuming that people on the other side are all saying what they do because there is something wrong with their motivations or deeply deficient about their personalities.

The purpose of this blog from its outset was to engage in a critical conversation with my fellow Arab-Americans in order to broaden what has so far generally been, and unfortunately largely remains, an incredibly narrow discourse on the most important issues facing us as a community. We desperately need to have this debate in order to correct what have been manifestly ineffective approaches to politics and culture both in the Middle East and here in the United States. Obviously I don’t claim to have the answers, although I do have quite a bit of professional experience and some knowledge on which to base my views, but I do claim to have some new, or at least unorthodox, opinions and approaches on a number of crucial questions that are worth considering. The angry reaction from some quarters bespeaks a certain horror of debate, this feeling that there is an established Narrative that not only is, but must be, hegemonic and that deviation from this is a form of intolerable disloyalty bordering on the treasonous.

We have got to get over this widespread Arab and Arab American aversion to honestly held, sincere disagreements even about the most fundamental issues. The conventional wisdom among the Arab-Americans is that our biggest liability and the greatest obstacle to our political effectiveness both in the Middle East and in the United States is our supposed “disunity” (ironically, this disunity is often complained about by the people who, in the same breath, will assert that there are no fundamental divisions in the community on the most pressing issues, and that disunity is simply a function of personalities, parochial fiefdoms, and petty rivalries). When applied to the positions of the Arab states, which are certainly disunited, parochial and beset by rivalries, this has been and to some extent remains a perfectly valid criticism. But when it’s applied to civil society, especially among Arab-Americans in the United States, I think it is completely wrong. We suffer from the contrary debilitating symptom, which is the informal enforcement of a very rigid orthodoxy of attitudes and opinions, especially on the subject of Palestine, but also on a whole host of other issues, that essentially shuts down debate and stigmatizes critical thinking. Obviously, we’re just not used to this. But in our own interests, we’re going to have to learn.

Traditionally in our community, solidarity has been a one-way street flowing only from the political center towards the two extremes of the far-right and the ultra-left. Those days are over, and not a moment too soon. There are those who would argue that our community is “under siege” — which I consider to be a gross exaggeration, the serious ongoing post-9/11 problems notwithstanding (and I quite literally wrote the books on these problems) — and that we are therefore simply too vulnerable not to band together with as much solidarity as possible and to ignore our differences and disagreements or keep them discreetly reserved to very private occasions and forums. I think this is a dreadful mistake. It is a formula for paralysis, for groupthink, for cliché and for a lowest common denominator taqlid to always dominate our discourse, and for foreclosing the political ijtihad that will be required if we are to develop a richer, more sophisticated and ultimately more effective political culture.

I’d go so far as to call this aversion to freewheeling debate a phobic symptom, and I’d be the first to agree that the Arabs have come by this honestly given their political history and experiences over at least the past hundred years. But this is one instance in which enjoying our symptom is simply too costly, too debilitating, too disempowering. We are an exceptionally intelligent, well-educated and politically engaged community. We need to start acting like it. Welcoming and participating in a broad-ranging, critical, unabashed and robust internal set of debates on multiple issues must begin to become a regular feature of Arab-American civic and political life. If we continue to shun each other because of disagreements about fundamental ideas, or pretend that there aren’t any serious divisions in our community and in the Arab world, we are likely to continue to languish in the present unenviable situation in which we find ourselves both in the Middle East and here at home.