Comment: A Century of Arab Delusion

Iraq perfected a corrupted version of Arab nationalism, but it was Arab intellectuals who created and then abetted it. Can they ever change their spots?

Comment: A Century of Arab Delusion

Iraq perfected a corrupted version of Arab nationalism, but it was Arab intellectuals who created and then abetted it. Can they ever change their spots?

Tuesday, 22 February, 2005

Somewhere in the1920s, the Arab national idea, which had hitherto been a reformist and even liberal notion allied to a moderate Islam, and well-integrated into the socio-cultural map of the Middle East, took a wrong turn. It began to develop definite racist overtones, hegemonistic values, and an exclusivist and intolerant perspective on politics and society.

The architect of this suicidal turn was that fastidious Ottoman intellectual dandy, with his broken Arabic and a borrowed philosophy from Bergson and German idealism, Sati' al-Husri. He put his theories into practice by imposing them on an entire generation of Iraqis through his control of the educational system and his cultivation of ever more extreme ideologues and politicians who used his vulgarisation of Arab nationalism as a control tool over an ethnically and religiously diverse people.

In the 1950s this sorry experiment in Iraq became the norm elsewhere in the Middle East. One regime after another tottered and fell to Arab nationalists of the al-Husri variety. In power, they metamorphosed into the Arab Nationalist Movement, these exemplars of Arab "democracy" who gave us the unlamented regime of South Yemen, the Nasserist apologists and their apotheosis, the Ba'ath Party, in both its Iraqi and Syrian varieties. Kurds and Berbers became mountain Arabs, Islam was a folk identity, and there were no ethnic or religious minorities to clutter this pristine vision of an indivisible Arab nation with an (undefined) historic mission.

The Iraqi Ba'ath Party, riding high on massive oil wealth in the 1970s, underpinned its vicious racist and sectarian policies by reference to these absurd theories. Such was the power of these ideas that there was not a peep from the Arab nationalists over the decades of Ba'athist rule when Iraq was ethnically cleansed of its 500,000 Fayli Kurds; when the majority Shia, always suspect in nationalist lore, were reduced to cannon fodder in the regime's wars of aggression; when Kurds were forcibly relocated, gassed and Arabised, all in the name of some homicidal fantasy about the Arab nation and guarding its eastern gateways from the Persian invader.

Saddam Hussein rode to power on a tank, but he was served by an army of grovelling intellectuals who betrayed every principle of their trade. Noam Chomsky wrote a classic article in the 1960s castigating America's intellectuals for not rising to their responsibilities with regards to the Vietnam War. Only Kenan Makiya amongst the Arab intelligentsia, to his everlasting credit, dared to rise to this challenge in his moving book, Cruelty and Silence.

The Arab intellectuals who cowardly theorised and justified the murderous regime of the Ba'ath, and continued to view Saddam Hussein as a champion of their cause on the grounds of a phantom Arab "solidarity", are directly responsible for the tragedies that have befallen Iraq and its people.

Remnants of this thinking still persist, in spite of the catastrophes that have afflicted the Middle East. Every one of the pet literary, political and philosophical projects of these mostly untalented arbiters of the intellectual scene in Arabic-speaking countries is now in ruins. They have crashed against the harsh realities of an Arab decay caused mainly by the grotesque ideas that these wreckers have forced on Arab society, in alliance with the military and secret police thugs who still cling to power.

The debacle in Iraq, if the satellite channels that pander to this thinking are any guide, will not have any serious effect on the policies and practices of these regimes. It is being met by denial and by the reaffirmation of the old verities. Having spent two generations denouncing Islam as reactionary, they are now trying to cling to it as a strategic ally in their doomed effort to salvage some scrap of credibility. The Arab regimes, led by Syria, are quaking in their shoes after the fall of Ba'athism in Iraq, for that is what it really is, the abject and final failure of an ideological system whose champions blithely presided over one disaster after another.

Can a leopard change its spots? I doubt it, although what needs to be done is as clear as daylight. Reform of decrepit state structures, economic liberalisation, jettisoning of a spent ideology, dissolution of security apparatuses, demilitarisation, intellectual and political freedoms, openness and tolerance - in fact everything that the nationalist ideologues abhor. That is why de-Ba'athification in Iraq is so important. The cult of violence, aggression and hatred, which the Ba'ath has so assiduously cultivated, must be uprooted from society and its scars have to heal.

The legacy of Sati' al-Husri, realised by the Ba'ath and Saddam Hussein, is the ruin of Iraq. It is the brutalisation of societies, the pauperisation of nations, rampant theft and corruption, sectarian and tribal divisiveness, and now, the cowardly cringing from a hyperpower whose goals are uncertain but which has taken an intense dislike to these regimes.

Where will this end? I cannot say for sure, but Ba'athism, Arab nationalism, in fact any totalitarian thought system, cannot survive in the Middle East anymore. They deserve to be junked in the scrap-yard of failed systems. Good riddance, I say.

Ali A. Allawi is an Iraqi economist and investment banker in London who is active in the Iraqi opposition.

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