Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Freund opens fire

As promised Chuck Freund and I have begun a back and forth on the prospects for Arab liberalism. Chuck's opening salvo is below:

Proprietor Young has graciously (or perhaps insidiously) invited me to exchange ideas about the potential revival of Arab liberalism in the wake of the Iraq war. As I argued on Reason Online Arab liberals have an opportunity to challenge the failed, inadequate, and self-defeating Pan-Arabist worldview with a competing liberal narrative, and are already doing so. Since I first wrote, citing a few examples, many other long-stifled liberals have joined their chorus. I'll be drawing on their work as this exchange develops.

Michael is doubtful that this phenomenon will come to anything. "The Arab world," he wrote on April 19 (below) "tends to respond to its defeats not by opening up but by closing down and falling back on the old ways--no matter how discredited they may be." He cited two examples: a predictably stupid essay about the war by Edward Said, and the remaking of Lebanon's leadership by Syria into what Michael calls "a government of apparatchiks in Beirut."

First, Said actually is a secular liberal of the Arab diaspora, and for all I know triumphant Arab liberalism will result in countless Saids. That may be a definitive argument against the phenomenon, but also, paradoxically, for it. However, I take the larger point about falling back on discredited habits.

Arab liberalism's future is not, I hope, dependent on epiphany. Said's petty, insult-laden essay (linked below) seemed to have been written before the war ended, though he will probably write it again many times in the future. Worse examples of reflexive, habitual blindness are available in the Arab press, including a notable tribute by the Palestinian 'Adly Sadeq to the "great leader" Saddam Hussein: "[T]he man made mistakes, which are an inevitable part of the experience of great leaders who rule complex societies in dangerous geographical regions during difficult times."

It's true that people who were always wrong will continue to be wrong. But the point, I think, is that people who used to be right -- but were silent, stifled, or ignored -- may now claim and be granted a legitimate role in the future Arab debate.

Michael and I agreed to keep our exchanges short, and I'm already out of room. I'll take up Michael's Syrian example, and notable events in Iraq itself, next at bat.

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