Sunday, May 18, 2003

Young on the American example
There is little I can disagree with when it comes to Chuck's general argument in his latest offering below to our back and forth on Arab liberalism. However, I do have doubts on some of the specifics of what he says, and a question on process.

Doubts first. Chuck writes: "Pan-Arabism, as many of its critical historians have been observing for decades, is finished politically." Alas it is not, Chuck, because it is one of those mercurial and resilient ideologies that is hailed when it (rarely) succeeds and is defended as having been misapplied when it fails. I prefer to reflect on how we can encourage Arabs to kill off Pan-Arabism, or that aspect of it, as you wrote, that "provides the narrative structure for the Arab story of victimization at the hands of those non-Arabs who are more powerful, more conniving, richer, etc."

I also have doubts about the ease with which the Arabs will agree to replicate the liberal ideal of creating "large and multiplying communities based on varying identity choices", therefore transcending identity hinged on group enmities. I'm not suggesting Arabs are incapable of doing so, or refuse to do so. Rather, I feel many actually prefer a tighter, religion-based group identity that, yes, often survives by defining enmities, but also provides much security. Look at Lebanon: suffocating group identity is indeed a problem, but also a sanctuary.

On process, I have the following question: How can our current liberal cries in the desert (or indeed those of the continuously shuffled officials whom the Bush administration is dispatching to Iraq) be turned into reality? This is where I believe U.S. policy in Iraq comes into play, but also Washington’s policy towards Iran, Palestine and Lebanon. In the end, liberalism in the Middle East must dangle from a tangible hook to avoid being just a theory, or a longing.

For example, how does a yearning for identity choice in the Arab world square with Washington's overtly Shiite-centered strategy in Iraq? If the U.S., the practical sponsor of liberalism, is playing a potentially divisive communal game, the Arabs will not behave differently. Ironically, the Bush administration’s approach is based on the assumption that the Shiites have none of the hang-ups with Pan-Arabism that Sunnis do. Or, how does one react when the U.S. sanctions Syrian control over a liberal Lebanon, whose power-sharing structure the U.S. could never stomach, despite the fact that Syria's communal system is worse?

These aren't rhetorical questions. The inconsistencies raised are things Arabs will look at to determine whether liberalism is a serious alternative to what they already have. We can't deny the power of American example, as much as we might like to.

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