Baker's theme was a cold reminder that the Arabs' encounter with the West has been humiliating. The failure to comprehend globalization leads inexorably to regional failure: the deterioration in the position of Arab countries vis-à-vis their non-Arab neighbors reveals advanced political decay and an utter inability to determine their own destinies. No response-not that of a derivative nationalism or that of militant Islam-gives the Arabs the good government and dynamic economies they need to meet the challenge of modernity.
Denying this reality serves no purpose. Fortunately, for the Arabs to acknowledge it is not to reject their own roots, but to find the basis on which to adapt their values and societies to the modern world. This specifically requires: (1) understanding the West, (2) accepting the myth of Arab nationalism, (3) pursuing collective objectives, (4) nurturing respect for authority, and (5) working for political representation.
I. Understanding the West
It is becoming increasingly difficult for Arab leaders to masquerade as achieving rulers, when in reality their tenuous political edifices seem on the verge of falling apart. United Nations sanctions against Iraq and Libya reveal the increasing weakness and isolation of Arabs in the new world order. Many signs point to a shift in the balance of power to non-Arab regional players: the reemergence of Iran as a powerful regional player, the rise of Israel as the Middle East's strongest power, Eritrea's belligerency towards Yemen and Sudan, and Turkish incursions inside Iraqi territory and its provocative water policy in relation to Syria and Iraq. Then there is Sudan's embroilment in a war it cannot win in its southern provinces, domestic repression in many countries, and the Islamic revival - all of which combine to put the Arabs in a tight situation indeed. Arab troubles have come home; they no longer lend themselves to patched up solutions.
Arab troubles have come home; they no longer lend themselves to patched up solutions.
Coming to terms with the West and understanding what makes it tick is not an invitation to abandon the traditions that give Arab-Islam its unique qualities. In any case, this is impossible because Islamic values are deeply rooted in Arab societies and are fully respected by the ruling elite. The last three decades have, in fact, witnessed a surge in religious identity and traditional cultural traits. Attempts to stem their tide by force would seem unproductive, especially in the light of their surging importance over recent decades.
Absent such understanding, the Arabs cannot rid themselves of a self-defeating sense of siege and oppression that is built on centuries of misconception, stereotyping and prejudice. The failure to establish successful regimes in the modern democratic era is the reason for the Arabs' fixation on the past. Spain and Britain have gotten over their lost empires, but the Arabs are still fighting Crusaders and wishing the Mongol invasions and the Spanish Reconquista, which destroyed their great medieval centers in Baghdad and Andalusia, had never happened those seven centuries ago.
Spain and Britain have got over their lost empires, but the Arabs are still fighting Crusaders and wishing the Mongol invasions and the Spanish Reconquista had never happened.
Today, the Arabs face the arduous task of having to reconcile themselves to the loss of a unitary Islamic state. They must accept and learn the new rules of international relations, and reform their societies accordingly. This is part of the ebb and flow of historical cycles. After all, in medieval times, Arabs and Muslims played a major role in Eurasian politics and excelled in culture and civilization; a grudging Europe, duly recognizing its inferiority, altered its value system and broadened its cultural and civilizational horizons. European self-examination, growing out of an awareness of its weaknesses, led to the breakthroughs that made the West the political, civilizational, and economic hub of the world.
Understanding the Western experience does not mean trying to replicate it. But it does mean acquiring the progressive rationality and political legitimacy that made the West's take-off possible. Its grounding in the twin values of rationality and legitimacy gave the West the sense of identity that allowed it to move forward, rather than remain mired in its past.
The Arabs first came into contact with Western notions of nationalism in the middle of the nineteenth century. Impressed, they tried to develop their own ethno-national identity as a necessary step toward modernity. They failed partly because they did not integrate in their system of behavior values such as hard work, punctuality, individualism, anonymous citizenship, respect for state authority, informational inquisitiveness, commitment to basic human rights, and acceptance of the idea of broadly shared political responsibility. Now the Arabs are left with no choice but to tackle the consequences of the communication revolution, namely the advent of the era of a global information system, before they have integrated the full political consequences of the industrial revolution.
The Arabs' best bet, if they can bring themselves to make it, is to admit defeat graciously and recognize that after a millennium of hostile confrontation between Christendom and Arab Islam, the Christians won. If it helps, Muslims can console themselves that the Christians seem to have lost their souls, or at least their faith, in the process of imposing their standards on the rest of the world. But it is futile to pretend that these standards are not valid in and of themselves: the pace of universal progress in political governance, science and technology, and even to some degree culture, is set by the West.
The Arabs' best bet is to admit defeat graciously and recognize that after a millennium of hostile confrontation between Christendom and Arab Islam, the Christians won.
Arabs implicate the West for their travails. Whatever truth this charge may have, Arabs must realize that it is harmful to dwell on such resentments. Contact with the West may have been painful to the Arabs, but the West carries the modernizing values the Arabs need for their own regeneration. Before this can happen, however, Arabs must resolve their lingering identity crisis.
II. Accepting the Myth of Arab Nationalism
Arabs need Arab nationalism more than ever. Chronic divisions have rendered them in the aggregate less influential in world affairs than Israel, Turkey, or even Iran, despite the fact that Arabs constitute more than half the population of the region. For example, in North Africa, the states are either wholly dependent on the West (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania), or quarantined by it (Libya).
The Arab League-established in 1945 to coordinate foreign policy and build political solidarity and economic cooperation-was from the start undercut by suspicion and feud, much of it resulting from personal rivalries among Arab rulers. Further weakened by the Kuwait war, which saw some Arabs joining a Western alliance against other Arabs, the League is basically ineffectual. Significantly enough, this organization's decrepitude occurs just as the consolidation of regional economic and strategic blocs gains momentum in other regions (consider trends in the Americas, Europe, and the Pacific region).
Undeniably, Arab nationalism lacks many of the functional prerequisites that allowed the successful launching of the European Union (such as identifying common economic interests, forming inclusive bonds of individual associations, engagement in intellectual pursuits, and development of the idea of anonymous citizenship). In terms of geographic unity, Peter Mansfield observes that the concept of an Arab world stretching from Morocco on the Atlantic Ocean to the western shores of the Persian Gulf is deceptive: this vast territory "is really an archipelago of inhabited islands on a desert sea."2 But contemporary transportation and communication technologies mean the desert is less of a barrier to Arab interaction than are rulers preoccupied with defending their illegitimate regimes.
In truth, Arabs do share important qualities on which to base a transcendent nationalism: history, culture and a sentimental attachment to the Arabic language that has no equivalent among speakers of English or Spanish. Using Ernest Renan's remark that "language invites unity, but does not compel it," Mansfield writes that "the Arabs are linked by a huge invisible nervous system. If you apply pressure at one point, the reaction may take place at some wholly different branch of the complex. But, to carry the metaphor further, the Arab world lacks a skeleton."3 The skeleton in question is a pan-Arab institution capable of defining and pursuing collective goals, including democratic reforms in each Arab country.
Globalization, whatever else it is, requires nations to cooperate and take an interest in one another's affairs. James Baker's message to young Arabs was not only that their success and prosperity depended on their willingness to compete in the world economy, but that they had to accept the essential conditions of this competition. The era of trans-national capitalism means not only the end of the socialist experiment in its many variants, but also the end of cozy little despotisms. The key to Spain's entry into Europe, to take an outstanding example, was its acceptance of democracy. The Arab states have paid dearly for their divisions, just as the Europeans did, and now must realize that the formation of a viable bloc is not a choice, but a necessity. They must not only form a "bloc" or a "union", but specifically a liberal-democratic-capitalist union, and therefore they must give themselves the means to criticize the pace of one another's reforms. The Europeans, after all, have a court of justice and re
gulatory bodies: with a certain amount of screaming and kicking, they are accepting common economic and legal standards.
Arab nationalism, with its mix of myth and historical fact like any other nationalism, is indispensable. It requires an effort on the part of the political elites, whose parochial interests have tended to undercut the seriousness of their commitment to it. There is no lack of examples: Gamal Abdel Nasser's United Arab Republic mainly underscored the rivalry between Egypt and Syria; today the Union du Maghreb Arabe highlights the distrust between Morocco and Algeria. A new Arab national consciousness must be founded on the principles of liberating reason, solidarity, cooperation, freedom, initiative, and inculcation of positive values.4
III. Pursuing Collective Objectives
Arab states have not been inattentive to the importance of pan-Arab policies, notably in military and economic affairs, especially since the intensification of the Palestine crisis in the mid-1940s. The Arab League was supposed to establish harmonious and mutually beneficial relations among the member states, but it achieved few tangible results, largely because personal rivalries, suspicion, and insecurity doomed close inter-Arab cooperation. The league's charter included a number of clauses on economic and military cooperation which remained a dead letter. Arab states signed numerous bilateral trade agreements that were either immediately discarded or else were insignificant. The obvious merits of economic interaction did not result in improving inter-Arab political relations. To the contrary, political divisions preempted all aspects of meaningful cooperation and created an atmosphere of uncertainty among Arabs.5
Arab reticence in attempts at military cooperation proved even more disastrous than their failure to come together on economic matters. Often motivated by narrow political objectives, plans for military cooperation became an arena for settling personal scores, or a demonstration of subservience to international powers. In 1949, King Faruq of Egypt proposed the formation of an Arab collective security pact in order to avert the likelihood of a merger between Iraq and Syria. Egypt's Nasser advocated a similar plan in the mid-1950s, hoping to neutralize the American-backed Baghdad Pact project (with its anti-Soviet goals) which monarchical Iraq thought would give it a claim to leadership in the Arab world. In 1964, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon agreed to establish a joint Arab command to strengthen Arab armies bordering Israel. The 1967 Arab-Israeli war attested to the failure of genuine Arab military planning and cooperation. Participation of Arab states (Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia) in the U.S.-led mi
litary coalition against Iraq shocked the Arab world and exploded the pretense of its unity. On the positive side, it also ignited an intense debate on the need to found a new Arab order resting on defining and pursuing collective objectives.
For many years Arab economists and businessmen have pleaded for the establishment of an Arab market. Writing in 1982, Yusuf Sayigh lamented the failure of efforts to achieve economic integration. He faulted Arab states for inadequate conceptualization of development, weak commitment to development effort, and excessive dependence on the advanced industrial economies.6 This has in recent years become a more common outlook, and not just among economists. Egyptian businessmen such as Muhammad al-Jundi, president of the board of directors of the International Company for Commerce and Investment, and Wa'il Lahhita, president of the board of directors of Egytrans, hold that it is an inevitable necessity; not achieving it will lead to highly undesirable consequences.7 Ma`n Bashshur, an Arab nationalist activist, sees the formation of an Arab economic bloc functioning in accordance with market principles as the only realistic possibility for Arabs to cope with the rigorous criteria of the U.S.-inspired new global order.8
On a more general level, Arab nationalism must eschew the idea of a "center state," (a term coined by Nasser to refer to Egypt's pioneering role in achieving Arab unity) and relinquish the notion of a heroic leader who would eventually unite the Arabs (such as Nasser or Saddam Husayn).9 Arabs must build reciprocal relations on the basis of conciliation, respect, understanding, and compromise for the purpose of integrating the Arab countries. In practical terms, this means:
Unity of vision and solidarity in action.
Quick and peaceful resolution of inter-Arab conflicts.
Prompt aid to any Arab country threatened by a foreign power.
An all-Arab military command capable of deterring possible foreign encroachments.
An economic market that ensures the free movement of trade, labor, and capital.
A united front when dealing with foreign powers on economic and political matters.
For the Arab states to establish harmonious relations among themselves and engage in constructive relations with the outside world, they must radically alter their internal politics in the direction of more democracy. Domestic stability, the result of public support for good governance, is indispensable for fruitful international relations. Inter-Arab cooperation in the past was always secondary to suppressing the opposition. Rulers' meddling in the domestic affairs of other Arab countries poisoned the Arab political climate and precluded the prospects for smooth relations. The frequency of intervention in the affairs of other Arab countries has declined in recent years, but the development of regimes based on the existence of loyal oppositions is still not very far advanced. The required changes entail instituting the rule of law and enfranchising the population in decision making. The first change hinges on respect for authority, and the second on political representation.
IV. Nurturing Respect for Authority
The rule of law demands public awareness of government intentions and endorsement of its policies. Respect for authority is essential for the successful implementation of public policies and the maintenance of law and order. Respect for authority requires its acceptance by the population as legitimate; legitimate majority rule, in turn, implies that political majorities can change through legal processes of popular representation. In other words, respect, in political affairs, is a two-way street.
Functionally, Arab states deviate from the modern state on which they are modeled, and succumb to a variety of particularistic tendencies. A few efforts in some Arab countries to create a sense of belonging through identification of the ruling party with the state (the neo-Destour in Tunisia, the FLN in Algeria, the Arab Socialist Union in Egypt, the Ba`th in Syria), have proven ineffective. Replacing the "party-state" with political pluralism is on the agenda in several countries, albeit with a degree of caution that sometimes seems counter-productive (as when the Tunisian presidential election is pluralistic but the winner takes more than 99 percent of the votes). Corrupt party machines have not inspired much confidence in populations still grouped along visceral lines. Similarly, ideological vagueness, corruption, nepotism, and weak or nonexistent civil societies have led to low levels of trust between representatives of state and society. The state, in these conditions, has been reduced to using brutish forms of coercion when it could not buy off mobilized sectors.
Arab nationalism should contribute to legitimizing nation-states. But this entails a risk: if regimes are perceived as illegitimate, Arab national sentiment can undercut Arab states by resurrecting radical nationalism, which leads to coerced state mergers. The world order today is unlikely to tolerate such radical tendencies, so the possibility of their re-emergence in this era of globalization does not augur well for Arabs. Note that, with the important exceptions of Egypt and Tunisia, territorial nationalisms have failed. Saudism, Iraqism, Syrianism, and Lebanonism are meaningless notions. Strong Arab tendencies prevail everywhere in the Arab world, even Egypt, where large segments of the population are increasingly accepting identification with the Arab world. Respect for the authority of the state in the Arab world can be enhanced by resolving the nationalistic question, which the notion of Arabism seems quite capable of fulfilling. Civil society, which is badly wanting in the Arab world, should support, not militate against, nationalism.
Three main factors have inhibited the development of civil societies in the Arab world: authoritarian regimes, particularistic identifications, and underdevelopment. First, Arab rulers usually suppress professional associations and other types of demand groups, or simply coax them; a few ban all forms of interest articulation. Second, weak anonymous identifications make the concept of a community nebulous to many Arabs. For the most part, Arab societal identifications have not transcended the family sphere, localism, or regionalism. Interest-driven and duty-bound associations that cut across society are little known in the Arab world. Third, the small Arab economies and their lack of versatility do not promote the proliferation of viable interest groups.
Respect for authority is a learned behavior. It results from abiding by the rules of mass organizations, well-defined patterns of family interactions and interpersonal relationships. Coercion is, unfortunately, the dominant instrument that regulates most Arab individuals' contacts with their environment. The result is resentment of authority. Arabs tend to loathe authority and, if possible, evade it; they see it as arbitrary, oppressive, and unjust. Its monopolization by rulers creates a wedge between the Arab populations and their elites. What is needed is to transform passive spectators into citizens who actively participate in the affairs of their countries, and who feel represented, not ruled, by their public figures.
V. Working for Political Representation
Political representation has become a hot topic in Arab circles in recent years. In one notable event, Arab intellectuals who convened for a seminar in Abu Dhabi in November 1997, agreed that the solution to Arab political travails lies in democratization and respect for the law. They condemned the Arab ruling elites for using politics exclusively to further their narrow interests. The intellectuals concluded that representation will resolve the legitimacy crisis and ensure an institutional basis for genuine Arab cooperation.10
In a sense, Arab leaders have no choice. In anticipation of future developments, they must accept the need for political reform, a difficult process that requires broad political participation, accountability, and administrative decentralization. In an exceptional piece of scholarship, Charles William Maynes advised Arab rulers that the twenty-first century will not bode well for their obsession with political centralization. Demographic growth and successive technological strides, according to Maynes, are bound to transform the political contours of the Middle East.
States in the Middle East will have an ever-harder time managing their internal pressures as technology begins to transform the relationship between governments and people in the region as elsewhere. . . . Today, technology seems to be siding with the decentralizers. The rise of the service economy, the development of the Internet, the explosion in the number of cable television channels, and growing mass literacy, all are strengthening the periphery at the expense of the center. All are empowering at the local level while undermining authority at the center.11
The Arab world's transition towards real representation has two sides: elite assent to broad public participation as an irreversible fact and the masses' acceptance of rationality and legality. Elite decisions to expand the base of politics and introduce the practice of broad political recruitment are more conducive to regime stability than mere dependence on crude instruments such as repression or co-option. They must display a high degree of altruism; there are no examples of competent polities in which the ruling elites resorted to petty behavior in order to lengthen their staying powers. Part of the problem with the elite is attributable to the weakness of the institutions of civil society. The absence of lay activists with clear messages to transmit to the ruling elites on behalf of the masses, which is one of the main functions of civil society, has compounded the issue of representation, desensitizing the rulers to the aspirations of the people.
If Islamic militancy represents one form of extremism, secularism represents another. Secularism, as a constitutional basis for society, is not indispensable for the flourishing of tolerance, respect for human rights and the rule of law, and the other features of the modern state. On the contrary, secularism is a useless concept in the Arab world in which Islam and culture are intertwined. Rationality and legality, however, are fully consistent with Islamic culture. But they are habits that grow out of the practice of self-government.
While acquiring the habits of self-government through orderly representation that invites trust between citizens and officials, the Arabs must learn to work together and achieve a modicum of understanding and cooperation among themselves. Such cooperation has the dual advantage of satisfactorily resolving the chronic identity crisis that continues to prevail among the speakers of Arabic, and undermining the growth of militant Islam. Furthering Arab cooperation must not, by any means, become an invitation for expansionism or for threatening the interests of other political actors in the Middle East (namely the United States, Israel, Turkey, and - once it renounces religious fanaticism - Iran). When it happens, Arab cooperation cannot supplant other forms of cooperation that must, by necessity, involve the powerful non-Arab elements as well. Arabs need to understand that although they constitute a major group in the Middle East, they must accommodate the interests of others as well. Otherwise, Arab cooperation will be just another invitation to doomed radicalism and conquest, tendencies that continue to slumber in the Arab collective consciousness.
Consistent political change among Arabs, one that favors public responsiveness and regime accountability, enhances the possibility of rationalizing elite and public attitudes on the key domestic and international issues. It serves, furthermore, to de-ideologize the content of political participation by the increasingly mobilized segments of Arab populations. Transition toward legality and rationality will most likely result in reciprocal behavioral changes in the region, especially among security-obsessed Israelis. Assuming this could happen, the Middle East will witness real peace and confidently enter a new era of globalization.
Americans can do their part by pushing Arabs toward democracy and the political elites to engage in painful but unavoidable political reform. Short-term U.S. interests in the Middle East may seem to be better served by maintaining the status quo, but eventually those interests require a politics resting on consensus, not repression. Arab publics can, and should be, educated to understand that U.S. vital interests in the Middle East do not necessarily collide with local interests. Arab publics should also be trained to realize that the Jewish state in Palestine is a historical accident, and that accidents can result in happy endings.
The twentieth century has entered the Arab collective consciousness as an era of great frustrations, astonishing defeats, and stunted aspirations. The Arabs owe it to themselves to understand past failures, not wallow in them, and move forward. The Arabs of today are a casualty of history. It does not matter at all if they put the blame on themselves or others, so long as they accept it and proceed to do something about their situation.
Hilal Khashan is professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. This paper derives from his forthcoming book, Arabs at the Crossroads: Political Identity and Nationalism (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000).1 CNN World Report, June 19, 1998.
2 Peter Mansfield, The Arab World: A Comparative History (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1976), p. 504.
3 Mansfield, The Arab World, p. 505.
4 Kustantin Zurayk, "Ghiyab Dawlat al-'Aql," Al-A'mal al-Fikriya al-Kamila li'd-Duktur Kustantin Zurayk, vol. 4 (Beirut: Markaz Dirasat al-Wihda al-'Arabiya, 1994), p. 61.
5 For a good account on fruitless Arab efforts at cooperation, see Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, The Crystallization of the Arab State System 1945-1954 (London: Oxford University Press, 1982), pp. 179-80.
6 Yusif A. Sayigh, The Arab Economy: Past Performance and Future Prospects (London: Oxford University Press, 1982), pp. 141-62.
7 Ruz al-Yusuf (Cairo), Nov. 3, 1997.
8 Ma'n Bashshur, "Mustaqbal al-Haraka al-Qawmiya al-'Arabiya," Al-Manabir, Feb.-Mar. 1994, pp. 8-9.
9 Muhammad A. al-Jabiri, Mas'alat al-Hawiya: al-'Uruba wa al-Islam wa'l-Gharb, no. 3 (Beirut: Markaz Dirasat al-Wihda al-'Arabiya, 1995), p. 78.
10 Nida' al-Watan (Beirut), Nov. 4, 1997.
11 Charles William Maynes, "The Middle East in the Twenty-First Century," The Middle East Journal, Winter 1998, p. 11.