Monthly Archives: February 2010

Was Joseph Stack a terrorist?

Since Joseph Stack flew an airplane into the Austin headquarters of the IRS one of the main questions being asked about the incident is whether or not this should be considered an act of terrorism and Stack himself a terrorist. Many Arab and Muslim Americans, and their allies, have made the point that had Stack been of Arab or Muslim descent, there likely would not be much reticence to apply that label to him, but given his ethnicity there seems to be a much greater reluctance in many quarters to place him in that category. This is not, of course, merely a semantic argument. Especially for Arab and Muslim Americans, the question of the process by, and criteria for, which the terms “terrorist” and “terrorism” are applied to acts of violence in United States is laden with political and social significance.

Arab and Muslim Americans are concerned that all violent acts committed by individuals associated with their communities lead to unfair stigmatization because they are seen as reflective of a “threat” inherent in those communities. Even if it is understood that extremist sentiments reflect a minority, indeed a fringe, sentiment among Muslims worldwide, let alone in the United States, it is still very hard for many Americans not to assign some degree of collective blame or threat to Arabs and Muslims generally when such violent acts are committed. Majority communities, obviously, are by definition immune from this kind of stigmatization and since the white, male, Christian identity is a normative one in American society any distortions of personality or behavior are ascribed strictly to the individual and not the group. Many minorities are vulnerable to this kind of collective blame, as African-Americans and many others have been throughout American history. However, there is a particular stigma that attaches to the terms terrorist and terrorism, understood as an existential threat to our society, so the communities that have to bear this collective stigma are particularly hard hit.

The fear, of course, and a perfectly valid and natural one at that, is that the terms terrorist and terrorism have become ethnically defined, reserved largely for and casually applied to Arabs and Muslims, and only rarely applied to others, especially Christian, European Americans. Certainly in Israel, whose opinion makers, including the current prime minister, have had a huge impact on the way American society views the question of terrorism, this transformation of the terms terrorist and terrorism into simple ethnic pejoratives is well-established. Virtually any Palestinian who commits an act of violence against a Jewish Israeli, under almost any circumstances, is automatically labeled a “terrorist” by most of Israeli society, whereas the application of this term to Jews is generally reserved for only the most extreme and unavoidable cases, such as Baruch Goldstein who murdered 29 Palestinian worshipers at a mosque in Hebron in 1994. The disparity is striking and indefensible. It reflects a simplistic ethnic bias and eliminates any real hope for moral or political clarity. It is extremely troubling that the process by which terrorist and terrorism are virtually synonymous with Arab and Muslim, and only rarely and in extreme cases applied to others, is increasingly reflected in American discourse.

The generalized response of Arab and Muslim American organizations and commentators that have expressed an opinion in this instance has been to insist that Mr. Stack was indeed a terrorist, and that any reticence to label him as such is a reflection of double standards and ethnic bias. Fair enough. The very legitimate question is posed: if his name were Abdullah instead of Stack, would there be any doubt how his action would be perceived by both the society at large and the government? This is an important and reasonable question, but I’m not sure the answer is absolutely as obvious as people tend to think. In the case of the Fort Hood murderer, Maj. Hasan, there was in fact some reticence on the part of the government and some of the media to apply this label to him at first. In fact, there was a similar, although much less developed, conversation to the one we are having now about Stack about whether Hasan should be viewed primarily as a lone psycho or as a representative of a political movement. Of course there was a far greater ease and frequency with which the word terrorist was applied to Hasan and a striking reticence among many political and media figures to identify Stack in this manner. Therefore, the knee-jerk response has been to insist that Stack was as much a terrorist as Hasan, and that both should be considered and publicly labeled as such.

I’m not sure this is the wisest course of action. For purposes of combating discrimination and ensuring equity, two scenarios would serve the Arab and Muslim American objective: either all politically or socially (even in part) motivated acts of violence are to be considered “terrorism,” as in the FBI’s rather elastic definition, or we are going to reserve the term for the actions of organized conspiracies reflecting both political and operational leadership and individuals assigned to carry out the crime. But that doesn’t mean both are equally desirable objectives or that it is irrelevant which corrective to ethnic bias is accomplished.

Both Stack and Hasan seem to have been individuals with considerable emotional difficulties inflected through paranoid and extremist worldviews. Hassan was plainly influenced by “salafist-jihadist” rhetoric of the Al Qaeda variety, although he apparently had no connections to any extremist organization. That he was also mentally and emotionally unbalanced has also become very clear. In the case of Stack, his death-manifesto reflects the wave of popular outrage against the government, especially the IRS, and Wall Street, in this case mixed with strong denunciations of the Catholic Church. He was reportedly a member of the Austin “tea party” movement, although his statement incorporates both familiar tea bagger rhetoric and ultra-left sentiments. There is every indication that he too was mentally and emotionally unbalanced. Both men, then, allowed their mental and emotional difficulties to be refracted through extreme political sentiments resulting in violent actions reflecting both. It’s impossible to decide which element was determinative, and, in fact, I think impossible to really tease the two apart either, although most people with extreme sentiments don’t engage in spontaneous violence. This is the familiar pattern of the outraged lone wolf killer with social or political grievances, the psychological dynamic behind the old expression “going postal,” or that immortal euphemism, “disgruntled former employee.”

Does it make sense, however, to lump these kinds of actions into the same category as carefully planned, ideologically-motivated conspiracies by organizations, no matter how small, to carry out acts of violence and sabotage in order to pursue a broader strategy, no matter how implausible? I doubt it. It seems to me that in order to deal with both problems effectively, distinguishing between the two is essential, since while they appear to share similar characteristics because the nature of the acts seems identical and the rhetoric similarly coincidental, in fact they are produced by very different dynamics and processes. What I’m arguing is that when two different equations produce similar results it does not make sense to deal with them as if they were reflective of the same essential problem. Of course fundamental security measures that would deter or prevent any act of violence, no matter the source or motivation, are essential in combating both of these phenomena and violence by organized criminals, gangs and others. But if we are serious about dealing with the problem of political terrorism it strongly behooves us not to confuse strategic actions by ideologically motivated organizations with the intersection of emotional crisis and political extremism that seems to produce these lone wolf atrocities.

What I’m suggesting is that a case like the so-called underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who was trained and equipped by organized Al Qaeda terrorists in Yemen, reflects a fundamentally different problem than the cases of Stack or Hasan. And I’m further arguing that our society has been prone to making the mistake, especially in the cases of Arabs and Muslims, of conflating lone wolf murders with operatives of terrorist political organizations. And finally, I’m arguing that Arab and Muslim Americans should think very carefully before, in their essential and urgent quest for fairness and clarity, seeking to expand the application of this term as in the FBI’s working definition to include almost any act of violence with any political or social context whatsoever, rather than to restrict the use of the term to reflect the actions of organized conspiracies with clear political motivations and strategic aims.

It wasn’t helpful when many voices and forces in our society rushed to apply the term terrorist to Maj. Hasan after the Fort Hood massacre as it mystified the complex witches’ brew of stresses and influences in his life that drove him to this monstrous deed. It’s an oversimplification and a reductive dodge that serves a number of obvious ideological purposes, including the promotion of generalized fear and hatred of Arabs and Muslims, and is a grave detriment to clear thinking and policies. And, similarly, I don’t think it’s helpful now to try to see Mr. Stack in the same light. It’s true that Hasan was influenced by Al Qaeda’s rhetoric, and Stack seems to have been influenced by tea party and other anti-establishment sentiments as well — his gesture of flying that plane into a federal building had much more of the Turner Diaries about it than any 9/11 redux. But I don’t think it’s reasonable or helpful to see them as expressions or logical conclusions of generalized sentiments shared by large numbers of people, and both of them were obviously not acting on behalf of any larger organization or conspiracy.

The words “terrorism” and “terrorist” are highly charged, overdetermined and politically explosive. Responsible forces in our society should be working towards building a consensus that make senses about what does and does not constitute terrorism. For their own clear and perfectly reasonable reasons the FBI, much of the political right, and now Arab and Muslim American organizations are all pulling for the broadest possible definition, but I don’t think this serves our discourse, security policy or national interests very well. We would be better served by a more precise definition that distinguishes between politically-motivated acts conducted by organizations or broader conspiracies, no matter how small, on the one hand, as opposed to violent outbursts by mentally unbalanced individuals acting spontaneously and solely on their own behalf on the other. As a friend of mine put it, this is the distinction between terrorism by design and terrorism by default.

Of course it’s true that Abdulmutallab and other operatives of broader conspiracies and organizations are frequently in the grip of emotional or mental instability. It’s one of the things that makes them easy to recruit and manipulate. But the fact that they’re acting in behalf of other people who are probably not subject to abnormal emotional or mental instability, but rather are unscrupulous fanatics is, I think, a decisive distinction. A more complicated case would be Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, who was acting on his own but I think could still be considered a terrorist in this context because of the sustained nature of his actions. In other words, Kaczynski reflected a conspiracy of one because of the carefully calculated and ongoing nature of his neo-Luddite bombing spree. I would argue that the most useful way of thinking about terrorism is that it reflects some kind of essentially ideological rather than emotional motivation which can be detected from elements such as its origin in larger organizations or conspiracies, or its sustained, non-spontaneous nature. That is one kind of threat facing society. Violent outbursts by mentally and emotionally unstable individuals such as Stack or Hasan seems to me, quite clearly, to be essentially another kind of threat. Conflating them confuses an issue that demands the maximum achievable clarity, and its doesn’t serve Arab or Muslim Americans any better than our fellow citizens or our society as a whole.

A breath of Iranian fresh air at Rutgers

I’ve given a lot of talks at universities and attended plenty of academic conferences over the years, and very few of them have had the emotional and political impact on me that the conference last weekend at Rutgers University, organized by Prof. Golbarg Bashi and her able students, on Iran and the Arab World: New Horizons seems to have caused. Normally I wouldn’t think twice about these things: just go in, give your talk, be nice and leave. All in a day’s work, and no big deal. Yet I find myself, days later, haunted by this experience in a most unusual way. I think I know why, and it’s worth discussing.

The quality of many of the presentations and the general level of sophistication in the audience were exceptionally impressive. I was blown away by the virtuosity of Said Amir Arjomand’s account of the social forces and cultural trends at work in the development of Iranian politics since the revolution. Both the clips from Shirin Neshat’s visually stunning new film, “Women without Men,” and Hamid Dabashi’s brilliant contextualization and preliminary reading of this mesmerizing piece of cinema art were also extraordinary. Negar Mottahedeh’s multimedia presentation on the role of social media in the green movement and information flow about it is the first thing, ever, to actually get me excited about Facebook and Twitter, which I have heretofore used without any enthusiasm. I was also impressed with Roozbeh Shirazi’s insightful research, and many other useful presentations. There were only a couple of things that struck me as discordant notes, and they were drowned in a sea of excellence.

But that wasn’t it. That wasn’t it at all. The information, analysis and scholarship on offer was first rate, but it wasn’t anything I’d never experienced before; impressive, but not by any means unheard of. Upon reflection, I think what struck me deeply and what’s worth reflecting on was simply the spirit in the room, the ethos and attitude at work. The atmosphere was warm, welcoming, open, tolerant, curious and serious. There was room for the most rigorous scholarship and the most committed activism. People were not judging each other, and I detected few if any litmus tests. In spite of the outrage at the brutality of the Iranian government, behind it was not anger but hope. There was also a real effort to contextualize Iran in its Middle Eastern geopolitical position, and to link the green movement civil liberties campaign with the movement for Palestinian liberation, human and women’s rights movements in the Arab world, and efforts for the Iraqi and Afghan peoples to craft a better future for themselves beyond civil conflict and occupation.

The entire event was forward-looking, positive, bright and purposeful. It did not wallow in how bad things are, it looked forward, seriously, to how they are going to get better. And, in spite of the enthusiasm for the green movement, this hopefulness was not based on fantastical ideas to reshape the geo-political map, or even necessarily eliminate the Islamic Republic, but rather a serious and entirely plausible campaign to restore the civil rights and liberties of the Iranian people and lay the basis for the peaceful development over time of an open, democratic society in Iran. Another of the most striking qualities of the event and most of its participants was the deep commitment to nonviolence, and pride in the resolute refusal of the green movement in Iran to resort to any acts of violence, in contrast to the regime’s use of brutality, beatings, killings, torture and enforced show trial confessions. The moral compass of this conference was in good order, and pointing to true north.

But why should any of that have surprised me? This was, after all, in effect essentially a conference bringing together elements of the Iranian academic left in the United States and some of their allies. Aren’t all of these qualities one would expect from a healthy left-of-center orientation? The answer, of course is the key to my symptomatic surprise: I can’t imagine a similar experience, a similar ethos, a similar attitude coming out of a major meeting of the Arab academic left in the United States. I should know: this is been my natural habitat for the past couple of decades. It was precisely this contrast that was so striking to me. I was suddenly in the presence of American left academics of Middle Eastern origin who were more hopeful than angry, more purposeful than brooding, more forward-looking than backward-looking, more generous than judgmental, more serious than self-indulgent, sincerely committed to nonviolence, and interested in a political agenda tied directly to existing movements on the ground with realistic goals and attainable, limited ambitions along with a healthy appreciation of the pitfalls that may lie ahead.

This was new to me, or if it wasn’t new, it’s certainly been an extraordinarily long time, before the second intifada at least, since I had an experience even remotely similar in an Arab-American academic or activist environment. I’m not talking about Washington events hosted by organizations that perforce have to be, in a way, both more serious and more frivolous than academic or activist conferences. I’m talking about that intersection between scholars, students and grassroots activists in which I have spent so much of my time over the past two decades. I’m sure many of my readers are currently reacting with indignation to these words, feeling that I am giving well-meaning Arab events, activists and academics short shrift, being unfair, or that I simply wasn’t at thus and such uplifting, inspiring event or something like that. But it’s really not possible to argue that I don’t know what I’m talking about, given the degree of my immersion into precisely this world for so many years. Anyone who wasn’t at Rutgers is simply going to have to take my word for it, and I suppose it’s possible for people to have different experiences of the same event, but for me the contrast was not only striking, it’s proven haunting and extremely instructive.

One might say, “Oh, that’s all very well, but look at what these Iranian intellectuals and activists have to work with: the inspiring green movement. What do we have? Hamas versus Fatah, March 8 versus March 14, Qatar versus Saudi Arabia, Iraqi Shiite Islamists versus Iraqi Sunni Islamists, Mubarak versus the Muslim Brotherhood, etc.! Cut us some slack here. If we are angry, brooding and judgmental, we came by it honestly. You’re being too harsh.”

Obviously I don’t think this is a ridiculous response, or it wouldn’t have occurred to me in so much detail without a prompter. There is plainly some truth in it. But even before this event I’ve written many times in the past that I think too much of the Arab and Arab American left has lost its way both in terms of core left values (except nationalism, anti-Zionism and anti-imperialism, which can all be as much or more tribal than principled) and also in terms of the weird and unhealthy appetite to label any disagreement as treason and casually hurl terms like collaborator, neocon and Arab Zionist at all kinds of people who have proven their dedication to numerous Arab causes over many years and at a considerable cost. There seems to be an insatiable appetite to judge and divide rather than to search for common ground and agree to disagree where necessary. If someone wanted to accuse me of being part of that problem, I wouldn’t claim complete innocence, but I’m certainly happy to agree to disagree with lots of people, and to speak and work with almost anybody where we do agree on an important goal.

To me, the contrast is extremely striking insofar as these Iranian left academics and activists were precisely trying to link the green movement to other progressive and liberatory causes in the Middle East, especially in the Arab world, partly in response to the bewildering and dismaying tendency of big chunks of the Arab and Arab American left to side with the Iranian regime against the protesters. The logic no doubt is driven by what I described above, an Arab left attitude that boils down solely to nationalism, anti-Zionism and anti-imperialism, and the mistaken belief that the Iranian regime is an important force in confronting Israel and the United States on behalf of those causes. This is not only a grave error and completely incorrect, it’s a betrayal of core principles that must define any left position worth holding onto.

The contrast in attitudes is illustrated, for example, with regard to the question of Palestine. It would be entirely possible for Iranians, both in Iran and in the United States, opposed to the regime to look at its deep entanglement with the Palestinian question and therefore turn away from the Palestinian cause. At this conference, it was clear the very opposite was at work: they wanted to take the Palestinian cause back from the regime because it does not belong to them and they are only exploiting it for narrow domestic and international political purposes. By contrast, that part of the Arab left sympathetic to the Iranian regime is so in part because it buys into the idea that the regime is useful on the Palestinian issue and places that against and above the civil rights and liberties of the Iranian people. This is, essentially, the distinction between a generosity of spirit and a certain poverty of it, between a principled position and what is essentially and narrowly a selfish one.

Both before and, amazingly, in these mere few days after the conference, one keeps encountering voices from the Arab left publicly dismissive of the green movement and, in the most recent instance, dismissive of concerns raised yesterday by Sec. Clinton that Iran is becoming a military dictatorship in the hands of the Revolutionary Guards and the basij volunteer thugs. Yet the same idea, this fear and belief, is precisely what is animating the green movement and its supporters in the United States. For example, Arjomand’s entire analysis of the present political scene in Iran is predicated on the understanding that these are the forces that dominate the Iranian government, perpetrated the election fraud (a fact denied by way too many people in the Arab left), and now constitute the epicenter of power in Iran waving aside any claims by critics of the regime internal or external to the system. It is they who rigged the election (in Arjomand’s insightful analysis, a smart move by Ahmadinejad since it was the only way for him to stay in office, but a big mistake for Khamenei who created a crisis that could have been avoided by allowing a reformist candidate into office), beat and kill protesters in the street, torture dissidents, repress free speech and assembly and stage elaborate, bizarre show trials. That this regime has all the elements of not only a military dictatorship, but a fascist one at that, seemed, at the Rutgers conference, beyond reasonable debate, and so it is. Denying or dismissing these obvious facts in vain hope that the Iranian regime is actually interested in confronting Israel or ridiculous fear that the opposition represents a ?Western conspiracy? funded by ?Saudi money? or some such tomfoolery is simply unconscionable.

Obviously, there are significant segments of the Arab left that don?t fall into this trap, and they deserve credit. But far too much does. But we not only have to stop thinking about international relations in this narrow, ungenerous, narcissistic and solipsistic way, the real corrective begins much closer to home. The Arab left, and Arabs in general for that matter, have to learn to agree to disagree, to be open to debate and conversation, not to rush to judge the motivations and characters of people saying things we don?t agree with or that we don?t understand. We have to learn the crucial difference between challenging people?s ideas, even harshly, (perfectly okay) and challenging people?s motivations or personalities (unnecessary and counterproductive). Very often we treat these two very distinct behaviors as if they were synonymous, being annoyed by the first when in fact we need much more of it, and turning a blind eye to the second although it?s doing incalculable damage to our Arab-American conversation. We have to stop shunning each other, and even more importantly launching preposterous and dangerous accusations, above all labels of traitor, collaborator, Arab Zionist, or, for that matter, terrorist. From my experience at Rutgers at the weekend, the Iranians of the green movement and their supporters in the Iranian American left have a lot to teach us and we?d better start learning fast.

An overview of contemporary Arab attitudes towards Iran

[NOTE: I delivered a condensed version of this talk at the excellent Iran and the Arab world conference held at Rutgers University yesterday, February 13, 2010.]

An overview of contemporary Arab attitudes towards Iran

At this important conference on Iran and the Arab world, I decided to focus on an overview of contemporary Arab attitudes towards Iran because I think that without understanding the wide range, ambivalence and complexity of these perceptions a full appreciation of the political, strategic and cultural dynamics between these societies is not possible. Obviously, it’s not going to be possible to even begin to tap the depths of this extremely charged and overdetermined relationship, but I do think we can begin to sketch the outlines of its most important features. The present range of attitudes towards Iran in the Arab world can be roughly divided along five obvious axes, and I will consider these in connection and contrast with each other. The first axis is the attitude of the pro-Western Arab states, especially the Gulf states, Jordan and Egypt. The second axis involves mainstream Sunni Arab public opinion. The third axis consists of the Sunni Islamist movements, especially the Muslim Brotherhood and analogous salafist groups throughout the Arab world. The fourth axis is made up of Iran’s allies and clients, in particular Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas and others. The fifth and final axis is the extremely complicated situation defining relations between Iran and constituencies in Iraq. Of course there are dozens, if not hundreds, of more aspects to the relationship, but these five registers of perception of Iran in the Arab world involve a significant proportion of its most significant elements.

1. Iran and the pro-Western Arab regimes

For the most part, the attitude of pro-Western Arab regimes towards Iran at present is one of anxiety. Iran is regarded as a hegemonic power with an agenda that is essentially threatening, if not to the regional order, then at least to the strategic interests of certain states. The nature of this threat is perceived differently in different parts of the Arab world. In Gulf states, the fear of direct forms of Iranian hegemony is quite pronounced. This is exacerbated by Iran’s territorial claims over Bahrain and deep suspicions that it may harbor additional territorial ambitions. Similar concerns have to do with control of the strategic waters of the Gulf, as expressed in the dispute over the proper naming of the Gulf (“Arabian” versus “Persian”). It is among the Gulf states that concern about Iran’s nuclear weapons program is greatest, both because it is seen as a potential element in an Iranian hegemonic program in the Gulf region, but also because either Gulf states have made it clear that they would feel the need individually, or the GCC collectively, for some kind of reliable deterrent of their own in the case of a demonstrated Iranian nuclear capacity. This would involve either an effort to create a Gulf Arab bomb, so to speak, or more formalized relationship with NATO or the United States or some other multilateral military alliance to extend deterrent protection to GCC states. Raghida Dergham has a very instructive article in a recent edition of al-Hayat, the Saudi-owned pan Arab newspaper, that expresses Arab concerns that, in addition to facing increased potential Iranian hegemony, Western states and others might use this increased vulnerability to “blackmail” Arab states and insist on various policy changes favorable to the West but unfavorable to Arabs.

Anxiety about Iranian ambitions and intentions has not dictated simply bad or deteriorating relations, however. Bahrain’s concerns are obvious, but a number of Gulf states have sought to maintain or develop their relations with Iran in spite of their reservations. Saudi Arabia has never closed the door on the relationship, and there has been an interesting and very suggestive tentative rapprochement with Kuwait. Qatar in particular has maintained good relations with Iran, partly motivated by its rivalry with Saudi Arabia and the sense that Iran and its allies in the region are a counterweight to Saudi influence. Gulf state anxieties about Iran tend to be linked to the degree and nature of the Shiite populations in those societies. Concern about Shiite populations in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and to some extent Kuwait, for example, do not have the same impact in the UAE or Qatar. Obviously, the degree of perceived vulnerability to Iranian internal influence within their own countries through local Shiite communities that might develop links to Iran considered unacceptable and threatening by the regimes are essential elements in this pattern of nervousness.

Other pro-Western Arab regimes concerned about Iranian influence include Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority, and possibly Yemen as well. In these cases the concern has do with the internal security and stability of these regimes, linked to the activities of Iran’s allies and clients. Egypt’s increasingly bitter confrontation with Hamas over the question of the Gaza border and its recent purported discovery of a Hezbollah cell operating in Egypt have caused the Egyptian national security establishment to believe that Iran either has or is in the process of acquiring a new strategic front on both sides of the border and into the Sinai Peninsula. In other words, Egypt currently feels it may be losing control over a crucial border area and that this is a direct threat to its national security. The fact that the main opposition group in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, is the parent organization of the de facto ruling entity in Gaza, Hamas, only exacerbates these fears. The nightmare is a scenario in which Iranian clients in Gaza and their allies in Egypt completely subvert Egyptian control over Sinai, leading to a crisis that ultimately undermines or even topples the regime itself. I’ll have more to say about the relationship between Egypt, Gaza and Iran a little later on.

Jordan has similar concerns to Egypt, although its perception of the threat of Iranian allies and clients undermining its regime is more distant than the Egyptian one. As long as the Palestinian Authority and not Hamas remains firmly in the control of the West Bank, Jordan is somewhat insulated from the direct effects of this problem. However, the prospect of an extension of Hamas rule from Gaza to the West Bank or parts of the West Bank could place the Jordanians in a very similar position to that in which the Egyptians find themselves at the present.

Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority have, of course, to deal with Iranian clients as major opposition forces and armed militias that operate their own foreign policies to the point of initiating wars. In the Lebanese case, Hezbollah is the largest and most important political party and the largest and most powerful armed force in the country, although a coalition of almost all other parties in Lebanon is sufficient to offset its power and prevent Hezbollah dominance in the country. It’s also perfectly clear that Hezbollah understands that that it is not in its interests to become the governing party in Lebanon or a dominant force. Its relationship with the non-Shiite population in Lebanon is not such that this would be strategically wise. Moreover, Lebanese history consistently demonstrates that whenever any party or force, whether internal or foreign, maneuvers itself into a dominant position, other forces unite in a coalition to suppress that dominance and restore the Lebanese “balance,” which is invariably, at best, a stability of unstable forces. Thus opinion in Lebanon is sharply divided along sectarian lines as recently demonstrated by a major Pew opinion poll: Hezbollah is deeply popular among Lebanese Shiites, but enjoys very little support among Lebanese Christians and almost no support at all among Lebanese Sunnis. The same sentiments no doubt apply to attitudes towards Iran and its considerable influence in Lebanon.

The PLO and the PA, even more starkly, are in a zero-sum competition for power with Hamas, and attitudes towards Iran among Palestinians, as in Lebanon, are almost entirely based on attitudes towards the internal power struggle. There is also a clear division between the civilian leadership in Gaza, which appears to want more independence of action such as signing the Egyptian-brokered national reconciliation agreement, and the paramilitary leadership and even more significantly the leadership in exile in Damascus, which tend to place much more emphasis on alliances with both Iran and other Muslim Brotherhood parties. In other words, there appears to be a wing of Hamas that sees itself as the political leadership of Gaza with the responsibilities that go with that governing authority, and as primarily a Palestinian organization, but at least two other wings that view the organization more in the context of regional political alliances and agendas, and they have proven dominant.

2. Mainstream Sunni Arab public opinion

It’s very difficult to sum up mainstream public opinion among Sunni Arabs regarding Iran. To some extent it depends on extremely complicated factors such as nationality, class, political orientation, religious sentiment and many other complex factors. Any effort to discuss it is by definition reductive, and possibly even a caricature, but one has to try. Since civil society and human rights organizations have already been covered by one of my colleagues on a previous panel, I will not retread that ground here.

First, there’s no doubt that many Sunni Arabs regard Iran with a great deal of admiration. It successfully carved an independent role for itself in a region that wasn’t assumed to have space for that in the last decades of the 20th century, and confronted both superpowers simultaneously and not only survived but in many ways thrived. Beyond politics, the relative success and sophistication of Iranian society is an object of admiration and envy for many if not most ordinary Arabs. Islamists and some left-wing nationalists are also intoxicated by the idea that the present Iranian regime is a “revolutionary” entity confronting Zionism and imperialism on behalf of either the Muslims or the downtrodden of the world, depending on who you’re listening to. Iran gets a good deal of sympathetic coverage on Qatar’s Al Jazeera network, which is the principle opinion maker in the contemporary Arab world, consistent praise from many Islamists (although certainly not all, and very much depending on the context as we shall see), and even many voices on the left. It’s noteworthy that there was an outpouring of support for Khamenei and Ahmadinejad from many Arab activists, both left and right, following the election fraud scandal last summer and the subsequent crackdown on the ensuing civil rights movement. Left populists like Azmi Bishara presented their audiences with a version of Ahmadinejad as an anti-imperialist hero, man of the people and beloved, popular leader, and denigrated the green movement protesters as elite, effete, westernized, bourgeois troublemakers and crybabies.

However, in other segments of Arab public opinion the protesters and the civil liberties movement in Iran have been regarded with enormous admiration. It has prompted pointed and repeated questions about why the Arabs, who have in most cases even less rights than Iranians do even under the present circumstances, have not reacted in the same way. This reflected both genuine sentiments, reinforcing a commonplace view in the Arab world that Iranians simply have a more sophisticated society than most of the Arabs do, and a certain kind of schadenfreude on the part of Arabs unsympathetic to the Iranian regime. The segment of Arab public opinion and media that is unfriendly to Iran did not disguise its glee in seeing a rival and the pillar of some of the oppositional forces in the Arab world teetering slightly and losing a great deal of its luster as protesters were beaten in the streets.

Along with this basis of admiration for Iran’s political, social, cultural and other achievements (in contrast with the widespread Arab self-perception of relative inadequacy) is a set of countervailing sentiments and indeed prejudices. First, there is a substantial body of Sunni Arab public opinion that shares the concerns and anxieties of the pro-Western regimes, not only in the Gulf but in many states. Iran’s rise as a hegemonic power has caused concern not only among Arab elites, but also among many ordinary people as well. The degree of this sentiment is impossible to measure, but there’s no question that it is substantial and expresses itself in numerous ways. In addition to concerns about Iranian hegemony, ambitions, territorial claims and nuclear program, as well as its sponsorship of armed militias in Lebanon, Iraq, the Palestinian territories and elsewhere, are deep-seated prejudices against Persians ethnically and Shiites religiously. Anti-Persian sentiment and anti-Shiite bigotry (which can be extremely vicious) either stand alone or mix with the other, more legitimate, concerns to produce a potent negative current in Arab public opinion unfavorable to Iran.

3. Sunni Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood

Perhaps the most complex attitudes of all in the Sunni Arab world are those held by Sunni Islamists, salafists and Muslim Brotherhood parties and analogous groups. For the most part over the past few years, relations between Iran and its allies and Sunni Arab Islamists have been exceptionally poor. They found themselves on opposite sides of the war in Iraq, the contest for power in Lebanon, attitudes towards the Syrian regime, and in many other core conflicts, power struggles and disputes in the Arab world. Moreover, Sunni Islamists and Muslim Brothers tend to be among those most likely to harbor deep-seated religious bigotry against Shiites on principle, and paranoid conspiracy theories and fantasies about alleged Iranian efforts to convert large numbers of Arab Sunnis to Shiite Islam were accepted and promoted by many such individuals and organizations.

However, the hegemonic agenda of the Iranian regime and the revolutionary agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood parties finally found common cause in the Gaza war in support of Hamas, the only organization with one foot in each camp. Hamas is a core Muslim Brotherhood party, and its leadership recently made a ritual Pledge of Allegiance (ba’yah) to the new supreme guide of the mother Muslim Brotherhood party in Egypt. However, because its leadership in exile is based in Damascus and it receives direct financial, technical and other support from Iran through Syria, Hamas uniquely is also part of the pro-Iranian alliance in the Arab world. When Israel launched its assault on Gaza in December 2008, within hours pro-Iranian and Muslim Brotherhood commentators, joined by some sympathetic left-nationalists, flooded the airwaves on the Arab TV networks to insist that Egypt was primarily at fault, not Israel, and began the drumbeat of trying to use the war to undermine one of the key pro-western Arab regimes on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood opposition in Egypt.

The one thing both parties could agree on is the usefulness of a narrative that identifies the contemporary Arab world as the scene of a historic struggle between the “culture of resistance” versus the “culture of accommodation,” or as I have referred to it in shorthand, “the martyrs versus the traitors.” Arab allies of Iran and Sunni Islamists have both been using the war and all subsequent developments related to Gaza to try to promote this narrative in the hopes that it will acquire hegemonic status and define the political worldview of an entire generation of young Arabs. While it has gained a good deal of traction, it has not yet become a hegemonic narrative, although it might be reasonable to say it is currently the dominant narrative (that is to say, the most widely credited). To the extent that Sunni Islamists such as Muslim Brothers can make common cause with Iran and its allies over Hamas, Gaza and promoting the myth of the martyrs versus the traitors, Sunni Islamist antipathy towards Iran is greatly attenuated. And, to the extent that this narrative gains ground in Arab public opinion generally, it greatly enhances Iran’s credibility and appeal insofar as it successfully positions itself as a key factor in the “culture of resistance.” Understanding that this narrative is a key to its regional ambitions vis-à-vis Sunni Arab public opinion, the Iranian government has been extremely adroit at exploiting the Palestinian issue, outbidding everyone else with Holocaust denial, issuing frequent obituaries for Israel, and posing as the champions of Al Quds at every possible opportunity.

4. Iran’s allies and clients in the Arab world

Iran’s allies and clients in the Arab world are a decidedly mixed bag, even leaving the incredibly complicated set of forces in Iraq out of the picture for the moment. Perhaps the most uncomplicated relationship is with Hezbollah, an Iranian-inspired and in part created organization that does not have any obvious conflicts of interest with its sponsors. Of course, Hezbollah is also the primary representative of the largest single community in Lebanon, the Shiites, and has its domestic political responsibilities. In this regard, it is a typical Lebanese political party, split in two registers between local and national responsibilities to a constituency on the one hand, and regional and international obligations to a foreign sponsor on the other (there is no such thing as a large, significant and independent Lebanese political party in my opinion — they all have excessive entanglements with foreign powers, and Hezbollah is one of the most obvious examples). So the only real question about Iran’s relationship with Hezbollah is the extent to which that party exercises any fundamental autonomy in the relationship when it comes to the biggest picture issues, especially military and intelligence questions. There’s no doubt Iran is perfectly happy to leave internal Lebanese political calculations to the Hezbollah leadership, but there is a very real question about Iran’s role in Hezbollah’s decisions on military matters, especially with regard to Israel.

Opinion is sharply divided on this subject ranging from a traditional perspective that holds that Hezbollah’s military and intelligence wings are little more than cadres of the pasdaran, to a more nuanced view that holds that Iran has a patron-client relationship with Hezbollah but not unlimited influence even on matters of war and peace, to a most remarkable theory floated on the Internet the other day which held that Hezbollah is the dominant party in its relationship with Iran and that its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, is senior to Ahmadinejad! I think we can safely confirm that this last characterization is completely inaccurate, and, I think, also be dubious about the traditional view that Hezbollah is simply and only a creature of Iran when it comes to military matters. It seems clear that some kind of nuanced evaluation of the degree of Iranian influence over Hezbollah is required, but it’s extremely difficult to determine what its limitations might be.

A practical question that usually springs to mind is, if the United States and/or Israel attacked Iranian nuclear facilities or other targets, would Hezbollah spring into action against Israeli targets as part of a coordinated counterattack by Iran? In other words, when push comes to shove, is Hezbollah at the command of its Iranian patrons? The historical record suggests that it probably is, but at least two factors must give us pause: first, Hezbollah has no choice but to consider not only its patron’s interests but also those of its constituents and the effects of its actions on other Lebanese and its own ability to continue to function as a successful party and state-within-a-state in the south; and second, the fact that Hezbollah has been in continuous evolution since its founding in 1982 and that therefore past precedent does not necessarily dictate current relationships or future behavior.

Iran’s main ally in the Arab world is Syria, a country that welcomed the “Islamic revolution” from the outset, and has maintained and indeed expanded its strategic links with Iran under both Hafez al-Assad and his successor son Bashar. Syria has proven invaluable in providing Iran with a link to the Arab world generally, especially to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza and Damascus, and to facilitating a Sunni Islamist campaign against the American occupation in Iraq that also advanced Iranian interests. However, Syria has made it clear that it is willing to enter into a comprehensive peace agreement with Israel under the right conditions (this would almost certainly involve the return of the Golan Heights, probably some recognition of Syrian hegemony in Lebanon, and no doubt financial inducements among other things). The price that Syria would have to pay in return to Israel and the United States would almost certainly include scaling back or eliminating entirely its alliance with Iran and its support of organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah. Therefore, Iran’s alliance with Syria is threatened by Syria’s own perceptions of its interests as superseding the conditions of the alliance. Under the present circumstances there do not appear to be any reasons for believing that such a peace agreement is imminent or even likely, so the alliance with Iran remains strong, however the prospect that it could end without any change in Iranian behavior or policy means that it is at least somewhat compromised and attenuated.

Iran is frequently accused of supporting insurgent or opposition groups throughout the Arab world by governments facing these insurrections — most recently the Yemeni government, which accuses Iran of directly supporting the Houthi rebels. As frequently happens in these cases, Yemen has not been able to provide any direct evidence to back up his allegations, and most Western intelligence agencies say they don’t have any either. However, the allegation sticks because it’s consistent with Iran strategy for projecting its power by exploiting conflicts and bringing order to chaos through client and proxy groups, and because the Houthis are Zaidi Shiites with a certain degree of religious connection with the Khomeinite government in Tehran. In other words, it’s hard for many Sunni Arabs to imagine Iran passing up this opportunity even if direct evidence has not been discovered.

5. Iraq

The question of Iraq poses an exceptionally difficult problem regarding Arab attitudes towards Iran. The fact that traditionally pro-Iranian Shiite Islamist political parties came to power in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein has been a source of a great deal of concern and anxiety throughout the Sunni Arab world, including inside Iraq itself, in the Gulf and in the region at large. However, this points to the fact that there is a very large Shiite population in Iraq with decidedly pro-Iranian sympathies and political orientations. Other than Lebanon, Iraq is the Arab country in which Iran most easily finds natural and committed political allies in large numbers (Bahrain may have this potential as well). However, at the early stages of the occupation, Iraqi Shiites were split between the mainstream and traditionally pro-Iranian parties like the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution of Iraq (SCIRI), which has been the largest party in parliament, and Al-Dawa, which has had both constitutionally appointed prime ministers, on the one hand, and the insurgent movement led by Muqtada Sadr which was both anti-American and, to some extent at least, anti-Iranian. Since Sadr has both disarmed and personally relocated to Iran, he and his movement have obviously been successfully domesticated by the Iranian regime. But at the same time, there are real questions about where the traditionally pro-Iranian groups that dominate the Iraqi parliament and cabinet now find themselves in the regional context, split between a vital alliance with American forces that undergird the government and long-standing and ideological connections to Tehran.

In other words, traditionally pro-Iranian Iraqi parties now in power in Baghdad find themselves with the responsibilities of running Iraq, a country with complex ethnic and sectarian interests and that is not necessarily a natural ally of Iran but perhaps more obviously a rival. This is further complicated by the fact that the United States and many Sunni Arab nationalists and Islamists in Iraq have formed an alliance (“the awakening,” etc.) that is ostensibly aimed at Al Qaeda but is hard not to interpret as also a joint hedge against complete Shiite, and possibly Iranian-inspired, dominance in the whole country, or at least the non-Kurdish areas, through the Iraqi army and other forces following the withdrawal of American troops.

The Iranian dilemma in Iraq has been that while it is utterly delighted with the principal effects of the invasion and occupation — the removal of the despised Saddam Hussein and the acquisition of power by long-standing allies of Tehran — the overriding fact of the domineering American presence in the country is unacceptable both in terms of Iranian ambitions in Iraq and in terms of a perceived threat from large numbers of American forces being based on both the western border in Iraq and the eastern border in Afghanistan, even if they are bogged down in both cases in ongoing conflicts. Therefore, the delicate task Iran has had to pursue in Iraq has been to do as much as possible to harass the American position, making it uncomfortable and even untenable in order to promote an early US withdrawal, but without bringing about a generalized collapse of the system or a civil war that would undermine the rule of its traditional allies.

Iraq and Iran, I noted above, are probably not natural allies, and are more likely destined for some kind of renewed rivalry in the foreseeable future, but they certainly need not be mortal enemies. The development of what would appear to be more independent and Iraq-centered attitudes on the part of traditionally pro-Iranian parties in the Iraqi government can only be regarded as a healthy development. Thus far, Iran has restricted its ambitions in Iraq to supporting its allies, whether traditional or new-found, and harassing the United States in an effort to get the Americans to leave. As long as Iran continues to believe that a total breakdown or a full-scale civil war in Iraq is not in its interests, its policies in Iraq will continue to inspire anxiety but not complete panic in non-Shiite communities in that country and more generally in the Arab world.

Contemporary attitudes towards Iran among Sunni Arabs are therefore composed of a volatile mix of admiration, anxiety, envy, fear, warmth, hostility and fascination. Such an overdetermined mix of sentiments and policies itself contributes to a certain degree of volatility, laying a framework for either improved or deteriorating relations, in both cases either dramatically or subtly. A vast array of scenarios are plausible. I have tried to demonstrate the complexity of the relationship between the Arab world and Iran from the various Arab points of view, not in order to reach any half-baked conclusions or make any supercilious predictions. It’s a tall enough order to sketch out the lay of the land, not in all but only in some of its myriad complexity. I hope I’ve been able to accomplish that here today.

Joseph Massad, homophobia, gay rights and the structure of modernity

A hostile and no doubt completely garbled account of a talk at UCLA by Joseph Massad on David Horowitz’s website, written by one of the ignoramuses employed by Campus Watch (I will not link to this article, but you can easily find it online), has gone viral on the right wing blogosphere, leading to countless accusations that an “Islamist” has again demonstrated his typical “homophobia.” I’ve made my sharp disagreements with Massad very clear in the past, but I just can’t let this pass without noting how incredibly idiotic and offensive this garbage really is. These cretins neither know nor care that Massad is from a Christian family and is oriented quite far indeed to the left on the political spectrum, meaning that under no circumstances could he be described as an “Islamist.” As for charges of homophobia, they are, shall we say, equally ridiculous. The only thing that these reactionary bloggers have been able to demonstrate in these breathtakingly stupid postings is their own racism, ignorance and irrational hostility, a formula that increasingly holds that Arab equals Islamist by definition (I speak from experience — for at least 10 years I’ve been continuously described as an “Islamist,” a “terrorist,” and a “jihadist” in spite of the fact that I have been politically left of center, outspokenly agnostic and categorically anti-Islamist and against all reactionary religious politics for my entire adult life).

Having dispensed with this noxious rubbish, I think it is important to look at where the confusion, if you can grace it with so gentle a description, comes from. In other words, if that’s not what he says, what does he in fact say? And, what are we to make of it? In a journal article published almost 10 years ago (I well remember when it first came out) and in a more recent book, “Desiring Arabs” (University of Chicago, 2007), Massad does indeed launch an attack on gay identity and on something he calls the “Gay International.” From this it is assumed by those who are either unable or unwilling to try to follow his not terribly complicated arguments that he is replicating the standard homophobia of religiously and socially conservative reactionary leaders in the postcolonial world (in, for example, Iran, Uganda, etc.). As an intellectual exercise and political position, he is, of course, doing no such thing.

Massad’s argument essentially is that Western culture in the 19th century produced an original and unique hetero-normative binary between a “straight” sexual orientation and “deviant” ones, most notably the “gay” identity, and that the exportation of the ideology of this normative sexual binary to the non-Western world through colonialism and neocolonial practices is to be critiqued, opposed and rejected. The corollary assertion/assumption behind this argument is that there aren’t any discursive or ideological parallels to or foundations for this straight/gay binary in either pre-19th century Europe or in the premodern and traditional cultures in the non-European world, and that homophobia as an ideology and social practice is produced exclusively by this binary. In other words, fear and hatred of homosexuals is the product of the rigid categorization of people into gay and straight identities, with straight being designated normative and gay deviant. The logical extrapolation of this argument, of course, is that the gay-rights movement causes tremendous harm to people who engage in same-sex relations in the postcolonial world by reifying and re-inscribing this binary in a culturally “inappropriate” space such as the Arab world in which it supposedly never existed before colonial Western influences. There is a kind of un- or at least under- stated nostalgia in Massad’s arguments for an alleged (and, I would argue, probably imaginary) pre-colonial and pre-modern sexual episteme in the Arab world free from gay/straight binaries and therefore free from homophobia as such and free, or at least more free, of the persecution of people who practice same-sex relations.

Many people, including himself, like to suggest a strong connection between his work and that of Edward Said, but I don’t see any strong relationship at all, except insofar as Massad is one of thousands of scholars strongly influenced by some aspects of Said’s work. It’s clear to me, for example, that Said would have had some serious reservations about some of the implications of these arguments for individual and human rights, as considered in more detail below. I would argue instead that Massad’s work, especially his central idea — the critique of the “Gay International,” is far more influenced by Chandra Talpade Mohanty, and especially her groundbreaking 1986 essay, “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses.” Mohanty argued that Western feminists, and especially their project of creating the political category of “Third World women” as an object of knowledge, as well as other intellectual and activist projects, in fact completely misread the realities and the needs of women in postcolonial societies, superimposed their own inappropriate and damaging agendas on “Third World women,” and produced philosophically invalid and reductive binaries that may have suited their own agendas but did positive harm to the women they were purporting to speak on behalf of. It seems to me that Massad has taken the essential framework of Mohanty’s critique of Western feminism’s relationship with women in postcolonial societies and applied it to the Western gay-rights movement’s relationship with practitioners of same-sex relations in the postcolonial world.

Frankly, I don’t think Mohanty’s critique has faired well in the context into which Massad has translated it. His book is neither the only, nor the best, study of this subject (still one has to be impressed by the degree to which his own headshot on his Columbia University webpage looks like the gentleman on the dust jacket cover illustration). However, for people interested in Arabic literature, its extended and intelligent reading of the poetry of Abu Nawas and its evolving reception is certainly worthwhile. But I think there are at least two serious problems, one intellectual and one political, with his argument that deserve careful interrogation.

The first problem, which is essentially an academic and intellectual problem with political implications, is the very problematic, and I would say indefensible, way in which Massad positions the relationship between precolonial and postcolonial Arab sexuality, and his whole handling (or rather avoidance) of the question of the nature of modernity. The question of whether Massad is completely off base or not in his total rejection of any corollary antecedent in traditional Arab societies to the modern, Western, gay/straight binary that certainly characterizes contemporary homophobia is one that has to be resolved by historians far more expert in the subject than I. However, there would, at first glance, seem to be plenty of indications of what would, in practice, amount to homophobia and the persecution of same-sex practicing individuals in many forms of traditional Arab culture, even if analogous terms and frames of reference are not immediately obvious and there is no reduction of sexuality to a gay/straight binary.

I’d certainly agree with him that, since this is a quintessential product of modernity, it has no precise analog in either Europe before modernity, in this case the 19th century, or in precolonial non-Western societies either. How could it? But it doesn’t follow that therefore there is no basis for homophobia or repression of same-sex practitioners in traditional Arab societies or to imagine that that didn’t happen when there seems to be a great deal of evidence that it did (not only specific instances of and legal structures for such persecution, but also the existence of derogatory language that appears to predate any sustained encounter with the colonial West that might have produced it as a form of mimicry). But, as I say, how we evaluate the relationship between traditional Arab modes of sexuality and contemporary homophobia in the Middle East is really beside the point.

The reason it’s beside the point is that Massad is missing a crucial point about the nature of modernity that I think eludes many intelligent, well-meaning people: modernity is a package deal and not an à la carte menu. It seems to me that almost all contemporary identity categories have been either directly produced or completely redefined by modernity, leaving very little if any meaningful social identity categories that are not, in effect, precisely the products of modernity. Contemporary notions, both East and West, of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, ideological affiliation, etc. all seem to me to be produced or defined by modernity, that is to say by their modern context. Even well-established identity categories that obviously and deeply precede colonialism and modernity in the Middle East, such as divisions between Sunnis and Shiites (as well as other smaller Muslim denominations) or premodern tribal affiliations, have all been restructured and redefined in the context of a postcolonial Arab modernity defined first and foremost by the Arab state system. In other words, I’m arguing that certain kinds of social and political identities, including the gay and other non-normative sexual identities, are, to all intents and purposes, built into modernity in the same way that race, ethnicity, nationality, gender and other comparable political identity categories obviously are. Some of them predate modernity, but have been redefined. Others are new or have taken on new significance, for example with regard to women’s rights.

One may or may not be a fan of modernity. I’ve known many people, including some I respect highly, who dislike it intensely and wish they had been born in an earlier century. That’s fine, but it does not alter the fact that in our time modernity is pervasive, and there is nothing outside the whale (unless, of course, one were to go to the most remote parts of Amazonia or Papua New Guinea, perhaps — and even then one would have to question the ability to step outside the whale in any fundamental sense).

My own suspicion is that the last hurrah, so to speak, for premodern feudalism in the non-Western world was the war against the British launched by a Hindu-Muslim coalition in 1857 known variously as the sepoy mutiny, the great rebellion or the first Indian war of Independence (all of these seem to me to be efforts to cram these momentous events into a very small box in which its significance cannot be contained). When this rebellion against colonial rule by an impressively powerful and well-organized traditional and premodern collection of forces finally and decisively failed in India, and in similar conflicts in other parts of Asia and Africa in the 19th century including in Algeria, Southern Africa, China and elsewhere, the colonized world was faced with an unavoidable conundrum: much larger premodern social forces were simply not able to prevail against smaller but far more effective modern colonial ones.

I think this is often misunderstood as the problem of a technological disparity, whereas in fact it is a question of modern forms of social organization. The great difference on the battlefield was not rifles, cannons and railway, it was modern forms of military organization and regimented drilling. In terms of administration, again modern bureaucracy is not resistible by analogous premodern administrative structures. And on it goes. The Japanese, the only people of Asia and Africa not to have been either a colony or a semi-colony (though they did get pushed around a little bit by the United States), made a national and successful effort to modernize in a generation, and it saved them from the fate that befell everybody else. But the fact is that in colonial society after colonial society, anti-colonial forces came to understand that the most effective, and possibly the only real, tools to combat colonial rule were in fact the substantive elements of social modernity even if shrouded in the trappings of a surface layer of traditional authenticity. Indeed, nationalism as such in the colonial world is the product of precisely that class of colonial subjects educated by and interpolated into modern subjectivity.

The point here is that the modernization of the postcolonial world was an ineluctable, two-fold process: first, pre-modernity proved utterly incapable of fending off colonial rule and second, colonial subjects interpolated into modern subjectivity became the leaders of effective resistance to colonialism and the parents of national independence. It seems to me that value judgments about this apparently inescapable process which replicated itself without fail in every colonial society are less important than recognizing the logic and structure behind the process itself.

Partha Chatterjee has led the way in critiquing the intellectual foundations of postcolonial nationalism, and has suggested that there were alternatives, for example Gandhi’s vision for India. While his critique is enormously powerful and important, suggesting that postcolonial nationalism is always and by definition a derivative discourse that traps postcolonial states in an unequal relationship with the Western world (we shall see about that, perhaps in my own lifetime, at least in the case of China and possibly India), but frankly I can’t imagine what a Gandhian state would possibly have looked like. I think there’s no doubt that even if things went as well as they could, India was always going to be the product of the more conventional politicians like Nehru and the others, and so it proved. My point is that, whether we like it or not, it’s hard to argue that the postcolonial world had any choice but to either embrace modernity, of course with its own individual characteristics, or remain premodern and indefinitely, fully and directly colonized. This doesn’t mean adopting Western culture, it means adopting social and organizational principles largely developed in the West, and there is a difference — modernity is a set of structures based on social organization and modes of production and is not specific to a limited, regional or given culture, and we already see a dizzying multiplicity of ways of being modern the world over and for more than 100 years. Of course this enforced embrace of modernity is very problematic, but the alternative seems to have been continued colonization and direct subjugation, and no society chose that. And it doesn’t mean that modernity will not begin to be defined in non-Western ways as the power, influence and independence of large postcolonial states continue to develop.

I think that like a great many other intellectuals Massad misses both of these points. I think he treats modernity as if it were optional, which is wrong, or to be lamented, which is pointless. I also think he treats modernity as if it were an à la carte menu in which a society may pick and choose the items it wants for its own purposes and simply decide to avoid some other aspects that are inherent in modernity (and not, therefore, simply in Western culture) such as gay and other “problematic” socio-political identities. Hetero-normativity is no doubt unfortunate, but it’s also ubiquitous in modern societies. The way to overcome it, it seems obvious to me, is to work through the tangle of its own contradictions rather than by lamenting its deep entanglement with inescapable aspects of modernity or yearning for a long-lost and possibly fictive preferable past which cannot be recovered. It seems to me that there are certain societies not only in Europe but also to some extent parts of Latin America, South Africa, Thailand and some others that are groping towards a version of modernity that includes the identity category of homosexual but in a way that is not pejorative, discriminatory or abusive. My deep suspicion is that this is achievable, whereas eliminating gay identity or the idea of a gay-straight distinction (it need not be a strict binary) is probably not, at least in the foreseeable future.

Which brings us to the second core problem with Massad’s arguments, which is their political significance in the real world. It’s ridiculous to suggest that he’s putting forward a homophobic logic, but there are, nonetheless, too many parallels between some of the arguments he’s making, even if it is in a good faith effort to protect sexual freedom from rigid and irrational binaries, and arguments made by oppressive and repressive forces in the Arab world and beyond. He is a public intellectual, and I think needs to be sensitive to the impact his arguments are likely to have. I’m sure this was not his intention, but some of his arguments, especially if taken at face value and not properly understood in their own context — for example about the lack of any cultural analogue to the gay/straight binary in traditional or premodern Arab culture — echo those of repressive and genuinely homophobic voices in the Middle East in a way that makes me extremely uncomfortable and that should also give him some pause. He can’t be responsible for people willfully misreading his work in ways that can’t be anticipated, but he can be for ways that can be anticipated. This can be anticipated.

This problem was played out fairly dramatically in an angry exchange he had online recently with a representative of what I believe is the only gay-rights movement openly operating in the Arab world. It’s not surprising that these gay-rights activists in Beirut would have felt extremely threatened by the political implications of Massad’s arguments, because the only position that really exists politically in the contemporary Arab world that they bolster is the program of repression of same-sex practitioners. His response didn’t seem to acknowledge the problem of the likely political impact of his arguments (which is not a responsible position for a public intellectual), and his hostility to those publicly and enthusiastically adopting the gay identity and pressing for homosexual rights seems somewhat irrational to me. Massad’s arguments, and his attitude, strip the agency from those in the Arab world who have made a conscious, deliberate decision to identify as gay, and instead assigns to these legitimate choices the status of a false consciousness in a most unnecessary and ungenerous matter indeed. One could easily subscribe to most of his analysis while at the same time retaining a certain sympathy for gays and lesbians in the Arab world and for their rights not only as individuals but as a protected class.

For some reason, Massad doesn’t do this. I do not understand why, but he actually seems to oppose the political agenda of providing Arab gays and lesbians with legal protection as a class because of his opposition to the binary and the gay identity it produces. That it is far too late for any such rearguard action against a social category that is, in effect, built into modernity and has already taken root at all kinds of registers in the Arab, and indeed the global, political consciousness, doesn’t seem to occur to him. But I think ultimately this is a highly irresponsible position, and ungenerous in an inexplicable way. He seems to be so opposed to the gay identity as a socio-political category in theory that he opposes the gay rights agenda in practice. Of all of the beleaguered groups and threatened movements in the Arab world, picking on Arabs who openly identify as gay and gay-rights activists seems a very strange choice indeed.

It’s perfectly reasonable for Joseph Massad or anyone else, whether in New York, Beirut or any other place, to practice same-sex relations but decline to identify as homosexual or gay. I have no trouble understanding this, and he’s explained the rationale quite clearly. But for the life of me I cannot understand how this extends to a kind of frankly mean-spirited and politically indefensible opposition to providing legal and political protection for those who do embrace the gay and lesbian identity in the Arab world. It’s important that we don’t misunderstand Massad’s arguments or allow extreme and preposterous mischaracterizations, such as calling him an Islamist or a homophobe, to go unchallenged. That said, as I have demonstrated here, I find myself in disagreement with many of his premises, unconvinced by some of his assertions about the past in the Arab world, baffled by some of his conclusions, mystified about his apparent lack of concern about their political implications and worried about their potential consequences.

يجب أن تكون فلسطين دولة علمانية

واشنطن العاصمة – يشتد النقاش، في الوقت الذي يضغط فيه الفلسطينيون على المجتمع الدولي لتحقيق التزاماته بضمان إنشاء دولة فلسطين المستقلة إلى جانب إسرائيل، حول طبيعة الدولة الجديدة. يتوجب على الفلسطينيين، لصالحهم، أن يخالفوا التوجه الإقليمي السائد المتعلق بالسياسات الدينية، وأن يضمنوا منذ البداية إنشاء دولة علمانية بشكل حازم لا تراجع عنه.

ليس هناك من تساؤل بأن الفلسطينيين هم، بشكل عام، شعب محافظ متديّن. إلا أن هذا يشكل سبباً أكبر لاعتناق شكل علماني من أشكال الحكم. لا تعني الحكومة العلمانية الإلحاد الرسمي أو مهاجمة المعتقدات والمؤسسات الدينية أوالعداء تجاه الإيمان الديني والممارسة الدينية، وإنما تعني الحياد التام للدولة في الشؤون الدينية، وبالتالي الحفاظ على الحريات الدينية لكافة المواطنين. وهي تعني حرية جميع الطوائف الدينية من تدخّل الدولة، وكذلك حرية الدولة من سيطرة أية سلطة دينية.

يعتبر المجتمع الفسطيني مجتمعاً متغاير الخواص بشكل بارز. هناك نسبة عالية من المسيحيين من طوائف مختلفة، لعبوا دوراً رئيسياً في الحركة الوطنية وفي المجتمع بشكل عام. سوف تعمل أية محاولة لإنشاء هيكل حكومي يرتكز على المبادئ الدينية الإسلامية من حيث المبدأ على تهميش الفلسطينيين المسيحيين إن لم يكن التمييز ضدهم أواستثناءهم.

أعرب العديد من القادة الفلسطينيين عن استعدادهم السماح للمستوطنين الإسرائيليين اليهود الذين يرغبون بالبقاء في فلسطين والالتزام بقوانين الدولة الجديدة أن يفعلوا ذلك. يثير ذلك احتمالات وجود أقلية يهودية في فلسطين كذلك. ومن المحتمل أن تصر إسرائيل، وليس فلسطين، على إخلاء كامل المستوطنات، بسبب الصعوبات التي ستبرز أمام أية حكومة إسرائيلية في حال بقاء يهود أو إسرائيليين في الدولة الفلسطينية الجديدة ومواجهتهم لأية صعوبات ذات أهمية. إلا أن استعداد القادة الفلسطينيين احتضان أقلية يهودية كمواطنين أو مقيمين على قدم المساواة تحت القانون يشكل مبدأ هاماً يجب الحفاظ عليه.

سوف تكون الحكومة العلمانية بالطبع أساسية في توفير معاملة متساوية للمسيحيين الفلسطينيين بل وحتى الأقليات اليهودية تحت القانون، ووصول متساو إلى كافة حقوق ومكتسبات المواطَنة. تشكل العديد من دول الشرق الأوسط، بما فيها إسرائيل، أمثلة يجب عدم تكرارها في التعامل الاجتماعي والوضع السياسي للأقليات الدينية، حتى عندما تتوفر الحريات الدينية رسمياً.

هناك تنوع هام حتى داخل المجتمع الإسلامي الفلسطيني. يتراوح المسلمون الفلسطينيون في تبعيتهم بين العلمانيين سياسياً والمتشددين دينياً، إلى الإسلاميين (وفي بعض الحالات الإسلاميين المتطرفين)، إلى المسلمين غير الراغبين بممارسة دينهم. هناك كذلك مجموعات هامة من الملحدين واللاأدريين في كل من الجاليتين الفلسطينيتين المسلمة والمسيحية.

شكلت القيم العلمانية تاريخياً سمة رئيسية للحركة الوطنية الفلسطينية، والتوجه الحديث نحو إعادة تعريفها بتعابير دينية، إلا أن الأمر جاء معاكساً بشكل كامل. كان لتكثيف الطروحات الدينية، تصاحبها مستويات متزايدة من التشدد المسلّح والعنف أثناء الانتفاضة الثانية، وبدفع من الإسلاميين بشكل رئيسي، وعلى رأسهم حماس، وبمشاركة من الوطنيين الذين سعوا لعدم تهميشهم في مجال الشرعية الدينية، كان لها نتائج كارثية على الحركة الوطنية الفلسطينية.

كذلك كان هناك ما يماثل عملية تقديس النضال على الجانب الفلسطيني من حيث تصاعد التعصب الديني الزائد في المجتمع الإسرائيلي، رغم كونه أقل وضوحاً وإنما مماثل في تشدده. ويشكّل التحول بعيداً عن النزاع، والذي يتميز بالتنافس على الأرض والسلطة بين مجموعتين عرقيتين وطنيتين، كما كان الحال عليه حتى الآن، وباتجاه حرب دينية حول مشيئة الله والسيطرة على المواقع الدينية، يشكل تهديداً إلى كل من الإسرائيليين والفلسطينيين على حد سواء. النزاعات السياسية عرضة للتوصل إلى اتفاقيات متفاوض عليها، ولكن الحروب الدينية ليست كذلك.

لقد أوصينا أنا وزملائي في فريق العمل الأمريكي من أجل فلسطين ومنذ فترة طويلة بأن تكون الدولة الفلسطينية ديمقراطية وتعددية، منزوعة السلاح وحيادية في النزاعات. وبالطبع، حتى تكون الدولة تعددية بشكل صحيح لا يمكن أن تسيطر عليها وجهة نظر دينية واحدة، وأنما يجب أن تسمح بأوسع مجال ممكن من التعبير عن التنوع الديني.

تعتبر جميع المجتمعات متغايرة الخواص فيما يتعلق بالإيمان، وهذا هو الوضع الواضح في المجتمع الفلسطيني. وهذا واحد من أسباب كون الحركة الوطنية الفلسطينية تاريخياً علمانية سياسياً رغم الطبيعة الورعة دينياً لمعظم المجتمع الفلسطيني. يتعرّض المبدأ لتهديد خطير نتيجة لتنامي السياسة الدينية، ولكن يجب الدفاع عنه بعزم وتصميم.

يجب أن تمثل أية دولة تستحق النضال من أجل إنشائها، جميع مواطنيها بشكل متساوٍ، ويتطلب هذا إنشاء فلسطين تكون فيها الدولة حيادية في القضايا الدينية، أي أن تكون حكومة علمانية.

A real plan to build Palestine

Two weeks ago the Palestinian Authority issued a detailed budget for thestate and institution-building programme it adopted last August. The programme calls for Palestinians to unilaterally build the administrative, economic and institutional framework of an independent state in spite of the Israeli occupation and as a peaceful, constructive means of countering it.

This agenda might be conceptualised as the Palestinian answer to Israeli settlement-building by creating positive, unilateral new facts on the ground that restructure the strategic equation, but with the crucial difference that, unlike settlement activity, it is consistent with international law, welcomed by the international community, and promotes rather than hinders prospects for a peace agreement.

The new document, Palestine: Moving Forward, Priority Interventions for 2010, spells out priorities for the Palestinian government in the coming year, and includes cost estimates and funding status. Building on the August cabinet document, this detailed financial agenda is a clear guide to what the Palestinian government seeks to accomplish and how this can be supported financially, technically and politically by all those seeking to promote peace based on the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

The major priorities outlined emphasise “the building of central and local government institutions that are essential to the establishment of a modern and sovereign state of Palestine”, upgrading of public services, the development of “strategically significant infrastructure”, and measures to “improve and promote the image of Palestine internationally”. The programme is ambitious, but those who closely follow events on the ground in the occupied West Bank will know that projects are already under way and things are beginning to happen in both the public and private sectors. Among numerous examples are the first planned Palestinian city in the West Bank and the first private equity fund aimed at developing small and medium-sized Palestinian businesses. However, as a new document demonstrates, too many items are either unfunded or have funding pending.

The Palestinians require international support to succeed in their attempt to prepare for successful independence and changed the strategic landscape in favour of peace. Financial and technical assistance is indispensable, as is political protection for the programme from the United States. In a recent Cif article, Ben White outlined the obstacles to this programme posed by the Israeli occupation, and these serious concerns demonstrate the extent of political protection, as well as financial and technical support, the plan will require if it is to succeed.

International interest in the agenda as a parallel track to diplomacy is growing, but the programme deserves a good deal more attention than it has received thus far. Billions of dollars have been pledged in international support for the PA but little has been delivered and the Palestinian government continues to live hand to mouth. This is utterly unacceptable, and contributes to both instability and lack of progress towards peace.

The Palestinian ability to transform international support into serious governmental programmes has been demonstrated by the success of the new security forces, a model of cooperation that needs to be extended to all levels of administration and institution building in the occupied territories. Israel was initially deeply suspicious of the new security forces, however the programme received financial, technical and political backing from the United States and went forward nonetheless. There is now an Israeli consensus that the security force programme was a positive development, and this process can be repeated in sector after sector.

For Palestinians, a crucial challenge has been to put meat on the bones of the skeleton released in August, and the new priorities document is a creditable and timely second step. Now, however, as they seek international funding and support, almost every item in the new budget will eventually require its own detailed outline if donors, funders and partners are to be fully engaged.

While it is essential for all parties to continue to pursue the top-down diplomatic agenda that will shape the terms of peace, it is just as important for the international community to move quickly to support this bottom-up state and institution-building plan that will complement, reinforce and protect the diplomatic track, and ensure that the Palestinian state, when it is established, will be functional and successful. It can also serve as an alternative source of momentum in the direction of peace if diplomacy is at an impasse or yielding too few results too slowly.

The PA has provided the international community with an unparalleled opportunity that is also a test of its commitment to peace in the Middle East. If the real commitment is there, international actors must launch a multi-year, coordinated and global effort to help the PA build the infrastructure of the Palestinian state everyone says is the key to peace.

The question is: do we really mean what we say about the importance of peace based on the creation of a Palestinian state, and are we willing to act on it?