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Arab Peace Activism

July 5, 2002

Dr. Mohamed Mosaad

The visit of Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem in 1977 marked the beginning of the Arab-Israeli peace process. Sadat's visit gave impetus and encouragement to a mass Israeli peace movement. Since then the Israeli peace movements have started to flourish, increase and differentiate. Nevertheless, no similar movements have come into being on the Arab side. Why, then, is there no peace activism in the Arab world? In this article I will try to briefly explain this mysterious phenomenon.

First, the aforementioned question presumes that there is any spontaneous social activism at all in Arab society. The question of peace activism would make more sense if there were real grass roots social activism based on a healthy civil society, democracy, free press and protected human rights. Since such activism has never fully existed in the Arab World for decades, one can hardly raise the question of peace activism specifically. In many Arabic countries, grass-roots initiatives for democratic political change are discouraged by governments. Funding that might go to independent movements for political change is channeled into "approved" or government sponsored organizations. Those who try to pursue an independent path must shun politics entirely or face the risk of unpleasant consequences. Charities stick zealously to nonpolitical and uncontroversial work, and political movements often divorce themselves from social reality.

Second, it is crystal clear that in the Arab world peace in general is the business of the governments. Arab governments explicitly monopolize the peace “process.” Nobody else can intrude into this realm. Arab journalists and intellectuals further the view that the governments should, for political reasons, be involved in the peace process. On the other hand, we, the people, should be remain isolated from it. The governments have to sign some papers; we have to deny their implementation. The Arab schizophrenic attitude is locally recognized by both people and governments in terms of "harmony!" The few dialogue and peace activities in Arab countries are run by governmental people. People-to-people projects don’t exist, except nominally of course. Besides, social activism is usually promoted to oblige the state. As the states’ politicians already refer to “peace” in all their speeches, why should we the people bother to give some help?

Third, how could peace activism be imagined, if the only narrative people keep hearing all the time is that Israelis, all of them, are militant Jews who came to our land to kill and expel us, playing their known role in the international imperialist conspiracy against Arabs and Muslims? How could it peace be possible, if it is the Israeli nature to hate and fight us, if every Israeli is Sharon-like, and if it is embedded in their eternal books not to have peace with us? How could such Arab peace activism be possible if the tens of thousands –sometimes hundreds of thousands- of Israeli peace activists demonstrating for peace are either invisible or portrayed as an integral part of the Israeli conspiracy playing their special role to garnish the image of Israel in the world?

Fourth, at both the social and intellectual level in the Arab countries, peace is rather associated with a stigma of globalization and its Western cultural, economic and political hegemony. As such, the word elicits all kinds of “resistance”. It is a package deal. Being loyal to your country or to Arab nationalism, you have to “protect” its identity and its very existence by resisting Globalization, Normalization, Westernization, McDonaldization, etc. To put it the other way round, it is the deep feeling of weakness, defeatism and insecurity that makes Arabs to “fear” peace.

Fifth, to shed more light on the previous point, I would say it is also the pan-Arab despair spreading from end to end and penetrating all Arab institutions, sectors and classes, that makes people see no hope in the future. "Future" is not one of the words in the contemporary Arab political lexicon. Arabs tried socialism and capitalism, state capitalism and the free market, nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism, one-party political systems and that of many competing ones, the kingdom and the republic, the Russian system and the American system as well as traditionalism and modernity. They were sold plenty of promises, good wishes and nice dreams. They trusted their politicians, economists, intellectuals, religious leaders and social activists, who ultimately proved to be either failing or betraying them. Why should they now try this new idea of “peace”?

Sixth, many of those who rushed to preach peace were unfortunately corrupt politicians, immoral businessmen, and a lot of greedy opportunists. Peace proved, and has been proving, to be a good source of money, whether in US dollars or in Euros. Those people gave peace a malodorous reputation. A cigar-smoking fat cat became the classic image of the peace activist. People ask, "What would make them be so active?"

Seventh, of all these reasons, the most important one is that a clear peace vision has never existed in the Arab world. What is that thing "peace," or what does it call for? The answer is indeed unknown. This is why, for the public, to be pro-peace is to be pro-Israel and hence a traitor as well. For the Arabs, peace means simply “no occupation”. This is the peace they have known till now. Israel should just withdraw from the territories so that we have peace. How can we, the people, help in this, especially when “Israel” does not look like withdrawing in the near future? No one answers!

A “discourse” of peace should have been created in the Arab World a long time ago. What we have, till now, is but shallow preaching plus some economic promises of a future Middle East where everyone is happy and rich. A real discourse encountering the anti-peace discourses, whether nationalist or Islamic, with all their assumptions, concepts, dogmas, paradigms, structures, etc. does not exist. There is no alternative narrative of the history that people knows; nor is there representation of the Israeli point of view. There are almost no writings showing the complexity of the Israeli society and the humanity of "the Other." If you humbly ask, not for a vision, but even for some data, you find no answer. The 300,000 to 400,000 Israeli visitors to Egypt per year, the 30,000 to 40,000 Egyptian visitors of Israel per year, the hundreds of Egyptian companies working in Israel, the tens of thousands of Egyptians working in Israel, the many Israeli investors and agricultural experts working in Egypt, the number of intermarriages between Arabs and Israelis, the flourishing Israeli projects and economic cooperation in Jordan and all the rest are simply unknown.

How, then, can Arabs articulate their understanding of peace? Arabs still think of their role in peace as not making war, for war makes us lose our sons and our economy! Now it is absence of war. The most amazing idea, to me, is that the logic of war and the logic of peace are in fact identical! The point of departure for both of them, war and peace advocates, is that we could not defeat Israel. Pro-war people think we should unite, resist normalization and wait for the proper moment when defeating Israel is possible. Pro-peace people say, "Why don’t we stop wasting our time and just give up this lost war?" Now, can we imagine a peace that shares its very motivation and logic with war?

Eighth, is the Israeli occupation. Unlike the previous reasons, which are all internal ones, this one is external. It is composed of the daily Israeli aggression and oppression against the Palestinian people; it is the Israeli government's decision to build of new settlements even before the blood shed in Jenin has dried out; it is the procrastination of withdrawal of the previous governments and the reoccupation of Palestinian territory by the current one. In short, Israeli tanks are killing a possible Arab peace camp just as suicide bombers are killing what is still remaining of the Israeli peace camp.

Finally, and despite all these reasons discussed above, I would venture to claim that there is a great potential for an Arab peace movement. This potential proved itself once in the Egyptian demonstration supporting the late President Sadat after his historic visit to Jerusalem. If independent Arab peace societies were allowed to exist, I believe they would recruit a great membership. Since, however, by law, only apolitical societies can be registered in Arab countries, these assertions can only be a matter of speculation!

Mohamed Mosaad,

Cairo, Egypt

Dr Mosaad is an Egyptian psychiatrist, sociologist, educator and  peace activist. His is coordinator of the Abrahamic Forum,  and member of the Abrahamic Forum Council, an International Interfaith  dialog. He is a member of the Global Council of the United Religons Initiative URI.  He may be reached at .

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