In an influential essay in Politico, the veteran Lebanese journalist Hisham Melhem who is the Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya, sounded the death knell for Arab civilization. “Arab civilisation, such as we knew it, is all but gone,” was his bleak prognosis. “The Arab world today is more violent, unstable, fragmented and driven by extremism… than at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago.”
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Melhem then goes on to detail a long list of ills plaguing the Arab world: From the apparent defeat of the Arab Spring revolutions in most countries to the failure of Arab secular and monarchist regimes, not to mention the proliferation of fundamentalist violence.
“Is it any surprise that, like the vermin that take over a ruined city, the heirs to this self-destroyed civilisation should be the nihilistic thugs of the Islamic State?” he asks.
But to my mind, the domino-collapse of one state after another is not a sign of the death of Arab civilization, but is rather the result of the implosion of three bankrupt forms of despotism: That of the tyrannical Arab state, Islamist demagoguery and foreign hegemony.
Despite the massive differences in the forms of government and the nature of the governed, most post-independence Arab states shared one thing in common: They all served a narrow elite to the detriment of society as a whole. Wherever you turn your gaze, you will find, almost without exception, local masters seated in the place of the previous imperial overlords.
In addition, the foreign rule of yesteryear did not go away, it just changed its face and modus operandi. The loose-knit Ottoman empire in which local leaders and elites paid lip service and tribute to the Sultan but sometimes behaved like independent leaders, such as in Egypt, was replaced by the British and French who spoke the language of independence but often engaged in direct rule.
When the United States muscled out the old-world European powers, it spoke the language of self-determination and anti-imperialism but created its Pax Americana empire which exercised control through vassal leaders in client states and a ruthlessly punitive approach, including crippling sanctions and invasions, towards those who rejected its hegemony. The upshot of this is that Arab populations have lived under a double oppression: That of their native rulers and that imposed on them from distant capitals.
Just like Washington tolerates little regional dissent, Arab regimes have shared, to varying degrees, a ruthless attitude to domestic opposition. This had the dual effect of robbing their societies of a clear cadre of effective alternative leaders and empowering ever-more extreme forms of opposition by side-lining or decimating moderates.
Although a lot of attention has been directed at regime crackdowns against the Islamist opposition, especially the various chapters of the Muslim Brotherhood, less well-known is that secular dissidents suffered repression easily as harsh or more so, especially leftists.
This is to be expected of the Gulf monarchies whose claim to legitimacy is founded on dubious religious pretexts. However, the revolutionary republican regimes of Egypt, Syria and Iraq, despite their reputation for having been closet communists and pro-Soviet in America, not only dealt ruthlessly with the liberal opposition but were also bitterly anti-communist.
Though the reasons varied, the decades-long oppression of secular opposition forces in the Arab world had far-reaching consequences. One was the decimation of viable alternative leaders, which was acutely felt when the leaderless Arab uprisings did not manage to assemble a credible leadership quickly enough to consolidate their gains.
This, along with the weak, corrupt, incompetent and dysfunctional nature of Arab secular regimes – not to mention the “democratic” fig leaf the West used to disguise its interests – led to the discrediting of secularism in the minds of many, and, after decades of being in vogue, Westernization became a dirty word rather than something to aspire to.
This left an ideological and political void which radical, anti-authoritarian Islamism managed to occupy, for a time.
To counter both the secularist and Islamist threat to their legitimacy and rule, a number of Gulf states went on the offensive and actively exported, lubricated by petro-dollars, their own brand of Islam, such as the ultra-conservative Wahhabi ideology from Saudi Arabia or Salafism from Qatar.
For a while, political Islamism’s simple “Islam is the solution” formula apparently won a lot of supporters as a counter to the failure both of secular pan-Arabism and conservative monarchism, but this is waning.
Though the secular opposition forces may have been down, they were definitely not out. This was reflected in the progressive, leftist, pro-democracy nature of the 2011 Arab uprisings, especially in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria.
This set alarm bells ringing in what had become the trinity dominating Arab politics: The Arab autocracies (whether republican or monarchist), the Islamist opposition and the U.S.-led West. And each of these set in motion their own anti- or counterrevolutionary forces.
The one country where these forces did not manage to cause major mischief is the only place where the Arab Spring has been a relative success: Tunisia. For a time, Egypt looked like it might also escape this fate but, instead, turned into a battleground for regional and international forces.
But the worst proxy battleground has been Syria. Caught between the intransigent and murderous Assad regime and its allies in Russia, China and Iran, on the one hand, and the unholy alliance between the United States and the conservative Gulf monarchies, on the other hand, the peaceful, secular uprising didn’t stand a chance.
What the above reveals is that it is not Arab civilization that has died, but the political order put in place almost a century ago following the collapse of the Ottoman empire is going through its death throes. And like dying wild animals, these beasts are at their most dangerous when fatally wounded.
Despite the surface decay in Arab society, submerged underneath are the fresh shoots of a robust, youthful, dynamic civilization kept from blossoming by the stranglehold of the suffocating weed on the putrid top soil of the established order. This is visible in the courageous youth who led the revolutionary charge against despotism, neo-liberalism and socioeconomic inequality. It can be seen in how tens of millions of Arabs have lost their deference to their leaders and their awe of authority. It can be traced in the innovative reinvention of religion and in the growing assertiveness of secular Arabs, not to mention in the pent-up creative social, economic and even scientific energies eager to be unleashed and harnessed.
Once the crushing weight of the oppressive weed has been removed, future generations will have the space and opportunity to enable a true Arab Spring to bloom. But the road to recovery and then progress is long, hard and gruelling.
Khaled Diab is an Egyptian-Belgian journalist, blogger and writer who has lived, studied and worked in the Middle East and Europe and is currently based in Jerusalem. His book profiling the 'intimate enemies', Palestinians and Israelis, is forthcoming at the end of 2014. Follow him on Twitter: @DiabolicalIdea