Wednesday, May 07, 2003

Round 2: Young on saving Pan-Arabism
Much of what Chuck says below I agree with. As I argued in a Daily Star commentary weeks ago, one thing the pervasively negative Arab reaction to the collapse of Saddam's regime has done is to build a rift between Iraqis and the Arab world in general, and between Iraqis and Arab intellectuals in particular. Indeed, how can even the most anti-American Iraqi who, nevertheless, suffered under the Ba'ath regime come to grips with an Arab world that sided objectively with his tormentor?

Nor can I disapprove when Chuck writes: "But no U.S. action can effectively overcome the excuse-making, blame-shifting victimology now endemic to the Pan-Arabist worldview..." However, I would like to take this in another direction by making a proposal, after this assertion: Pan-Arabism as it stands today, while it indeed reflects the pathologies Chuck describes above, should not necessarily be seen as contrary to Arab liberalism. Can we find a formula that blends the undeniable (if often toxic) power of Pan-Arabism with a liberalism whose vanguard Chuck has noticed in Iraq?

To answer that we must distinguish between modernization and reform. The two are often confused in the Arab world. The Arab urge to find "rebirth" in Pan-Arabism, as described by Albert Hourani in his Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age 1799-1939, did not specifically reject liberalism--or the West. As Chuck well knows, many of the early advocates of an "Arab idea" (who argued that Arabs had a common destiny) were, in fact, influenced by the West. However, what attracted them most was Western progress, so that modernization was often mistaken for reform, specifically liberal reform. Many of the problems of the modern Arab world can be encapsulated in that historical mix-up.

Why should a marriage between Pan-Arabism and liberalism matter? First, because transnational aspirations are natural in an increasingly integrated world. That Arabs should thrive on a sense of common purpose isn't their problem. What is is their tendency to transform Pan-Arabism into a despotic myth that enforces a stifling (and defective) unity over individualism and liberty. Second, liberalism will only have true meaning in the Arab world (a) when Arabs can integrate it into concepts with which they are familiar, and (b) when it becomes widespread, with Pan-Arabism perhaps offering an ideal vehicle for this.

I realize I may be inviting Chuck to mention, as he did in private conversation, Adeed Daweesha's argument that Pan-Arabism has far less basis in Arab reality than its ideologues claim (I have yet to read Daweesha's book). The best bullets, though, are the ones we save for ourselves. So fire away.

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