Why the Arab Spring Never Really Arrived

A new book by Jacob Lassner traces the links between today’s situation in the Arab states and the region's cultural and religious legacies. In short, one must hold up the mirror of history to the contemporary Middle East

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Protesters in Tahrir Square, Cairo, in February 2011.
Protesters in Tahrir Square, Cairo, in February 2011. Credit: Emilio Morenatti / AP

“Middle Eastern Politics and Historical Memory: Martyrdom, Revolution, and Forging National Identities,” by Jacob Lassner. I.B. Tauris, 248 pages.

Every national movement – Zionism, too, of course – finds itself with a built-in tension between two central aspects of its conceptual identity. On the one hand, nationalism emerges as one of the expressions of the Enlightenment and its universal principles: The demand for self-determination and for a nation-state stems from the idea of the sovereignty of the people, one of the cornerstones of modern secular political thought and of democracy. On the other hand, in order to entrench its legitimacy and anchor it in the consciousness of broad strata of society, every national movement appeals to historical memory and social awareness that are often connected to foundations of a religious nature.

The varying proportion in the presence of these two components goes a long way toward determining the difference between various national movements.

Thus, secular French republicanism sees a religious fanatic like Joan of Arc as the beginning of French nationalism and perceives her as an icon of its national identity. Similarly, the Czech national movement, which is undoubtedly the most secular of such movements in Central and Eastern Europe, identifies the 15th-century religious reformer Jan Hus with the incipient rise of Czech national awareness. Those so inclined can also see the imprint of this tension of the tension between the two components in current Israeli discourse about the meaning attributed to Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.

One of the important contributions of Edward Said to historical discourse is that he confronts Western scholars of Arab history and of Islam with the need to look in the mirror and note that many of their insights derive from the Western worldview, which shaped their approach to the East on the basis of through the prism of their own values. These values were thus posited as the criterion for evaluating other cultures, which, accordingly, were perceived to be inferior or backward as compared with what were considered Western progress and rationalism. At the same time, the fact that Said was not a historian but a literary scholar led to his focusing on cultural aspects of imperialism and colonialism, while neglecting the need to address their material and economic infrastructures.

For this reason, no few Western Marxists found themselves somewhat uncomfortable, because Said’s approach led them to occupy themselves with what Karl Marx called the ideological “superstructure” of imperialism, instead of trying to expose its economic and social roots. Rudyard Kipling, of course, gave expression to imperialism, but the reasons for Great Britain’s conquest of India did not derive from approaches related to the “white man’s burden,” but rather from the economic interests of the bourgeoisie and from the strategic needs relating to the ability to realize them.

For this reason, it was difficult for Said to deal with several aspects of the concept of “Orientalism” – for example, the fact that it was actually Jewish scholars, such as Ignaz Goldziher and those who followed in his footsteps, who glorified the world of Islam vis-a-vis European Christianity when it came to tolerance toward minorities and toward Jews in particular. Said also refrained from dealing with Arab history as such and with its ideological expressions as they were reflected in the writings of Arab and Muslim historians and in the political institutions of the Islamic world. All his achievements notwithstanding, Said is an example of a discourse that deals merely with literary and cultural representations instead of engaging with the economic infrastructures that gave rise to and served them.

This in large measure constitutes the background to the new book by Jacob Lassner, of Northwestern University, which seeks to draw a connection between the present-day political situation in the Arab world and the cultural legacy of the Middle East whose roots lie in Islam.

A mural of Edward Said at San Francisco State University.Credit: Briantrejo

Prof. Lassner is a historian of Islam and of medieval and modern Arab societies, and underlying the seven essays that comprise his book is a simple insight: Just as it is impossible to understand U.S. politics today without taking into consideration the Puritan background of the British settlers in colonial North America, and without addressing the phenomenon of the enslavement of the Blacks for more than 300 years, and just as today’s Russia and Soviet oppression cannot be comprehended without considering the authoritarian czarist legacy – so too contemporary Arab politics cannot be understood without a knowledge of the region’s history, including its various religious components.

Without Lassner saying so explicitly, his book suggests that part of the failure of scholars and commentators in the West to grasp phenomena such as the Arab Spring of 2011 is due to the fact that many of them don’t know Arabic and are unfamiliar with the world of Islam and its culture. Consequently, their analyses are flawed by superficiality and thus unavoidably fall short – exactly like an analysis by a commentator on race relations in the United States who simply ignores the phenomenon of slavery, which continues to leave its imprint on American society to this day. Lassner is engaged in an attempt to understand contemporary Arab and Muslim societies through their own understanding of themselves. That, paradoxically, is something Edward Said never did.

Accordingly, Said did not enhance the understanding of intellectual and social developments in the Arab world, despite contributing significantly to our comprehension of the way the West shaped its approach toward the colonial world.

Religious legacy

Lassner’s book is divided into two parts. The first basically discusses the different approaches within Islam toward issues with political implications; the second part – which may be of greater interest to the general reader – refers to dilemmas confronting the Arab world in our time.

Lassner shows that the question of religious legitimacy was central to understanding the various dynastic vicissitudes in the Arab and Islamic caliphates of the Middle Ages, and that their implications continue to resonate today in political discourse in those countries. This is the key to the power of contemporary Islamist movements and it is the fuel that propels so-called political Islam, from the Muslim Brothers to ISIS and of course the regime in Tehran. The result is the inability of political thought in the Arab countries to free itself of this religious legacy, even though the idea of nationalism was imported into the Arab world from the West.

One of the fascinating themes in this discussion is the place of the term “shahid” – martyr for the cause – which is not confined to purely religious discourse but has seeped into the supposedly secular Arab national ideology. This is especially discernible in the adoption of the term by the different branches of Palestinian national movement. It is not possible to underestimate the power of this concept in shaping Palestinian national identity in the struggle against Israel, including the granting of legal and economic status to individuals seen as shahids.

This phenomenon, in addition to others – such as a perception of history in which ideologues of Arab nationalism who are of Christian origin also see Mohammed as the source of its legitimacy – attest that the Arab world has not undergone a radical process of secularization. In the Arab world, it turns out, only the communist movement adopted the principle of secularization, which explains the disproportionate representation of Christians, Kurds and Jews in various communist movements, from Egypt to Iraq.

The fifth essay in Lassner’s book, the central one of the second part, links this historical discussion to an analysis of contemporary reality in the Arab countries, including the frustration over the failure of the Arab Spring. This essay – “Forging National Identities in the Modern Arab Nation State: Inventing Legacies of Near and Distant Pasts” – distinguishes Lassner from scholars who sought to account for the failure of the Arab Spring by citing only immediate, concrete circumstances, including foreign intervention (whether American or Russian). In contrast to them, his principal argument refers to the problematic nature of the very legitimacy of some of the Arab states and their weak grounding in regional consciousness and history.

In Lassner’s view, the reason for this structural failure lies in the fact that the Arab nation-states that were established in the Middle East after World War I did not emerge from within Arab societies per se, but were the result of an Anglo-French imperial arrangement that began with the Sykes-Picot Agreement and continued in the San Remo and Lausanne conferences. They created political entities in the region – initially mandates under Western tutelage and afterward independent states – without any consideration for the history, geography and ethnic or religious identities of the local population. Thus were created states such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon (as well as Mandatory Palestine and Transjordan), which had not existed in the past as discrete entities with a specific type of identity or legitimacy. Their borders were delineated arbitrarily based on imperial needs and did not give expression to any popular local preferences.

Incoherent world view

Lassner provides a riveting account of the liquidity and incoherence of the worldview propounded by Prince Faisal – son of Hussein bin Ali, the Sharif of Mecca, and later king of Iraq, under British aegis – regarding the region’s political future. A hundred years after their creation, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon each still lack a minimal foundation for the consensus that would enable the establishment and maintenance of a functioning polity, and every attempt at democratization leads only to the deepening of rifts and further conflicts among the religious and ethnic communities that form these states.

Prince Faisal.Credit: George Grantham Bain Collection

To this Lassner adds the contradiction between the principle of the nation-state, a Western concept imported from the outside and imposed on these societies, and the universal idea of Islam, which continues to nourish the principles held by the majority of the populations in these countries and to obviate articulation of a separate national political identity. (The exception is, of course, Egypt, which has long possessed a solid political identity.)

In the end, the failure of the attempt to replicate the Western nation-state model in the Arab world gives rise to a situation in which the only way to preserve the state framework is via brutal oppression, of which Saddam Hussein and the Assad family are the prime examples. What’s interesting in Lassner’s analysis is that he notes that Saddam’s rule was characterized not only by cruel oppression (which is what most of the world remembers today), but also by an attempt to shape a separate Iraqi identity by drawing on the legacy of Babylonia, from Hammurabi to Nebuchadnezzar. The evocation of that legacy was intended to facilitate creation of common identity, not only for the Sunnis and the Shi’ites of Iraq, but for the Kurds as well. It was a synthetic attempt with limited success, and the regime that was established in Iraq under American auspices, and which tried to forge a common identity based on democratic elections, has so far not succeeded any better than its predecessors. Iraq and Syria are not actually functioning states, and even the earlier attempts by the two wings of the Ba’ath movement could not overcome the inherent flaw of the lack of a common denominator.

The countries of the Levant, as well as Libya and Sudan, continue to oscillate between autocracy and disintegration, and in Lassner’s view it’s hard to say how they will emerge from these inherent tensions. He hints subtly that the Palestinian national movement – which seemed to have a good prospect of articulating a coherent national consciousness in the struggle against the Zionist enemy – has also been caught up in the tension between the idea of the nation-state and the Islamist vision of Hamas. If so, Palestine is apparently doomed to be a failed state even before it has become a state at all.

Lassner’s general approach is anchored – even if he does not say so explicitly – in the schools of thought that aim also to understand developments in Eastern Europe on the basis of their historical legacy; Russia is, of course, the outstanding example. On the other hand, that countries such as Jordan and Morocco have thus far succeeded in avoiding serious upheavals, is also related to a historical legacy anchored in religion: the fact that they are led by rulers thought to be descended from the Prophet. This accords them deeper legitimacy than concepts of a nation-state, democratic elections or rule by some military junta.

Saddam Hussein.Credit: REUTERS

Nationalism, Zionism and archaeology

Prof. Lassner also addresses the attempt to find legitimacy and historical continuity for Palestinian nationalism by arguing that the Canaanites were actually Arabs and that the Arab presence in this part of the world dates back thousands of years. This is clearly an attempt to respond to the Zionist historical claim to the Land of Israel. The examples the author cites in this regard attest to how difficult it is for Arab historiography to cope with the complexity of Arab identity as such. From another perspective, this effort also testifies to the poverty of Arab historical scholarship in the modern era.

Another essay in the book is devoted to the national aspects of archaeology. Lassner shows that traditional Christian religious approaches, which seek to downplay the Jewish legacy in the Land of Israel, overlap with Palestinian arguments about the Canaanites and an Arab presence in the country since antiquity. He also analyzes the Zionist bias in Israeli archaeological research, although he notes that the Arab allegation that Israel tries to ignore findings relating to Arab culture and Islam in the country is essentially absurd. At the same time, he seems to underestimate the crass effort by Elad, the right-wing, pro-settlement NGO, to amplify the findings of a Jewish nature, particularly in Jerusalem, sometimes by dubious means.

“Middle Eastern Politics and Historical Memory” reminds us that even in regard to such highly charged issues as national identities, a way exists to try to arrive at an intelligent, balanced discussion. This is achievable by not drawing solely on literary and artistic representations (as Said did), but rather by analyzing as faithfully as possible the social and political reality as it was perceived by the historical actors themselves, in their language and their culture.

Lassner’s book can serve as a guide for those who wish to understand why, despite the hopes that many held out for the Arab Spring with good intentions but without sufficient historical knowledge, the deep-seated problems of Arab societies are still far from being resolved – in particular the issue of the basic legitimacy of some of the Arab states. In the Israeli context, these are especially important insights for those who hope to arrive at an agreed-upon solution with the Palestinian movement, which is captive to all the dilemmas that characterize other Arab societies.

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