September 5, 2002
Dr. Mohamed Mosaad
A large group of Arab intellectuals, reflecting the whole spectrum of Arab intelligentsia, was presented in a talk show program broadcast on one of the Arab satellite channels. The subject was the Arab Israeli conflict, Intifada and the suicide bombing. The guests included Marxist, Nasserist, Nationalist, Islamist, and right wing intellectuals. One, thus, should expect a variety of conflicting ideas, a heated debate and an exciting show. One should, at least, expect an exchange of strong arguments, a reflection of different sources and a presentation of multiple analyses. Different ideologies, paradigms and historical, economic, political and cultural grounding of the subject must be displayed in a show like this, with guests like those discussing an issue like that!
The surprise, which is not really surprising to an Arab audience, was the absolute consensus prevailing on the stage. Israel is evil, peace is a big deception, the Israelis are monsters, Israel lives on extending its borders, and those who favor peace are daydreamers, not to mention betrayers and collaborators. There were some differences though. For instance the Nasserist representative said a suicide bomb is more effective than an atomic bomb. The Marxist representative objected, not to say it is immoral, Heaven forbid, but rather to say it is an exaggeration. Of course an atomic bomb is more effective; we should be objective and scientific, the Marxist said. The Nasserist, however, challenged him by saying that he is not exaggerating anything. An atomic bomb could be expected, but no one can know exactly when and where the suicide bomber will blow him/herself, he proudly commented. When the question of the victims being civilians was raised, the guests all murmured and waved their hands. There is not a single Israeli civilian; all of them are a part of the military establishment. The Nationalist frankly said that a one-day old baby living in Tel Aviv is an occupier who is naturally a legitimate target of suicide bombing.
This two-hour show is a drop in the Arab media ocean. But the other drops are no different. The same boring song has been chanted day and night for years in the Arab World. Western commentators are usually amazed and sometimes panicked by this propaganda, wondering how peace would be possible in such a context. My point, however, is not the content of the song, but rather, that it is the only song one can hear. The single narrative is not just the only view of Israel and the Arabs. It dominates the entire program of Arab national life. A conflict with a tiny country in a small corner of the Arab world has pushed almost all other issues off the stage for over half a century. Crazy people do say crazy things all the time, but we might expect to see and hear some other voices too.. Some other reasonable people should be also presented. Why are those reasonable people muted, and why is the crazy discourse flourishing?
Arab nationalists and Islamists, like their Israeli right-wing counterparts, feel threatened. Their solidarity, their very existence, they think, is in danger. Change will fragment and disperse their societies. For them, Israel is an essential element, or even the essential element, of their identity and their existence. Both Muslim Brothers and the Leftists who persecuted and jailed them for decades, believe fighting Israel must be the very heart of their programs. Islamists think this fighting will gather the Islamic World together; Nationalists think it will strongly unite the Arab World. The common essence of different Arab discourses, religious or secular, is the resistance against Israel.
What future could there be if Israel, the enemy, does not exist? The logical answer is that these discourses should change to encounter their national political, economic and social problems. However, these problems, which are the real problems they should have encountered a long time ago, are almost impossible to face, thanks to the autocratic regimes. Therefore, it is naturally better to face Israel, though with only words. Although very impotent, this hypocritical position maintained by Arab "patriots" protects them from danger while granting them much popularity as the heroes of this time! What a conspiracy they are making against their people and against themselves indeed!
On the other hand, those Arabs who enjoy consuming such futile discourses are releasing their repressed anger against their governments. They can go out to the streets shouting and screaming and - yes - stoning their national police forces so as to defend the Palestinians and show strong solidarity with them, those Arabs claim! What is the point of attacking the Jordanian police or smashing Egyptian shops facades? Demonstrators release their anger against their own governments while giving their Palestinian brothers and sisters their generous lip service. Would the American University students in Cairo who swear to sacrifice their lives donate their luxurious cars crowding around the campus to the Palestinians? I doubt it very much!
It is not only the anger against the governments that needs to be released. The anger against the self seeks also some outlet. Arabs are angry with themselves because they failed to build democratic modern countries. They have no access to political participation. They could never help their Palestinian brothers and sisters, nor are they empowered or capable to contribute in the making of their own future. They cannot blame only their rulers, sparing themselves from any fault. They know they are responsible for their own misery. Therefore, they wage their war for freedom by shouting in the streets, writing violent and racist articles and showing wild emotions to calm themselves down and drug their conscience. This one narrative, which they are parroting, is used as an effective analgesic to their ill conscience and anxious minds.
All of the above is understandable, but why do not Arab governments, as autocratic and authoritarian as they are, simply switch those parrots to sing another song, that of peace? Why do Arab governments allow, leave alone favor, a discourse that is anti-peace, and hence anti-official-Arab-policy? Arab governments say that this is a clear sign of their democracy. No one has ever believed them. The answer is rooted both externally and internally. Arab governments believe they are in the critical and sensitive time of negotiations. They are negotiating -not making- peace. These negotiations, to succeed, should be run both professionally and secretly by statesmen, without the noise of a curious audience. Moreover, the background of an "angry Arab street" backs up their negotiating position. The mad discourse also shifts the people's interest away from criticizing the governments. They even think the governments, to a certain extent, are taking their side by allowing their discourse to flourish in the official TV channels and the official and semi-official newspapers.
Despite this harmonious picture of peoples and governments playing their mutual roles in a slightly odd play, the underlying reality is very painful. The mad discourse is alienating Arab societies from the world around them. It is isolating them from the global changes and everyday developments. How can they build economic globalization if they are adopting a discourse of boycotting the American and the "Zionist" commodities? How can they contribute to the free market or encourage foreign investment if they are urging their governments to ban American and Israeli business? How would they join the global civil society in calling for human rights, if they are so enthusiastic for suicide bombing? How can they make their countries more democratic, or even ask their governments for democratic changes, if they are calling for "national consensus"? Is it possible to talk about a pluralistic society while preventing dissenting voices from "penetrating the national consensus"? Is not it a paradox to ask for a democratic political regime while maintaining autocratic social norms? How would they participate in a global dialogue when they are demonizing the Other day and night? Is it right to demand free expression while banning Ali Salem, the famous playwright, from the Writers Union, just because he declared his pro-peace position? How will they contribute in the making of viable global civil society if they condemn the "West" and say that UN, its global conferences and declarations, and the trans-national NGOs are but a part of the global conspiracy against the Arab identity?
This strange situation can not continue forever. This mad discourse should logically escalate to a real war; but a real war will not happen. On the other hand, Arab governments have done little to solve their internal socioeconomic problems. A new generation is emerging that cannot tolerate the mad discourse, but it has no alternative discourse either. Those youth are exposed to satellite and Internet communications. They see movies and advertisements which tell them there are other ways of living, ways they never experienced. For this generation, this no war no peace situation is puzzling and frustrating. The new generation does not believe in either the governments or the intellectuals. It has no collective program, and individual personal programs are also failing The problem for youth is not just repression, though they do not have free expression. The painful fact is that they have not had the chance to know many alternative discourses and to think about them freely so that they can choose and decide for themselves. This is why they feel anxious and nervous. Will this generation succeed in finding its way? Will it yield and surrender to the older generations? Will it resist? Will it blow up, making the situation even worse? Will it be contained? Will the oppressive mad discourse that aims to unite the Arab societies turn out to be the means of their fragmentation? Only time will tell. The outcome depends on the future of the peace in the Middle East. An escalation of violence in Palestine and Israel and/or a war against Iraq will made the mad narrative flourish and become even worse. On the other hand, a peaceful solution will hopefully corner this narrative and make room for the real issues of Arab society.
Dr Mohamed Mosaad,
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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