The Arab and Muslim worlds now confront a civilizational challenge unlike any they have faced since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The terrorists attacks on New York and Washington cost thousands of innocent lives. Millions of other lives will be wasted or lost if Muslims and Arabs respond to September 11th by wallowing even more in their sense of victimhood.
“Anti-Americanism” in the hands of an Osama bin Laden is but the latest and most virulent form of an idea nurtured originally by secular, so-called progressive, nationalist Arab intellectuals under a variety of labels: anti-imperialism, anti-zionism, Arab socialism, pan-Arabism. These took as their point of departure genuine grievances, some more legitimate than others. Among the legitimate grievances, priority must be given to the injustice caused by the dispossession of millions of Palestinians that accompanied the birth of Israel in 1948.
In the hands of Arab nationalists and leftist “anti-imperialists” of my generation, however (of whom I was once one), this sense of grievance failed to get channeled into building civil societies based on any hard-won expansions of civil liberties wrested from tyrannical regimes (such as occurred in Latin America in the 1980s). Our failure to even pursue such goals left a vacuum that was soon filled by a conspiratorial view of history , reinforced by those tyrannies, which ascribed all the world’s ills to either the great Satan, America, or the little Satan, Israel.
The dangerous, unstated corollary of this view was the notion that “we Arabs” had no, or hardly any, power to change the unjust ways in which the world works. Arabs in particular, and Muslims more generally, began to see themselves as the “eternal” victims of the 20th century, consigned to a Sisyphean “struggle” against Satanic injustice. Lost was a sense of ourselves as authentic political agents aiming toward concrete and gradual political gains.
It is important to note that Arabs are not the only people who wrap themselves in victimhood; the modern Israeli sense of identity was, after all, forged on the foundations of the Holocaust just as surely as Palestinian national identity was forged by Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Such symmetries (there are many) created a powerful complex of victimhood, applicable to one degree or another to all peoples of the Middle East (Palestinians, Israelis, Kurds, Armenians, Turkomans, Shi’is, and Sunnis).
In the Arab world, especially after Israel’s victory in the six day war of 1967, this complex turned into the driving force of politics and culture; it became the foundation upon which such murderous regimes as Saddam Husain’s Iraq and Hafez Assad’s Syria were built. From the hands of secular Arab nationalists, the murderous anti-American brew was passed on to (previously marginal) religious zealots. In 1979 it fused with anti-Shah sentiments to become one of the animating forces of the Iranian revolution. In the wake of that seminal event, it overwhelmed major sections of the Islamic movement from Algeria to Pakistan.
The Arab and Muslim worlds today comprise a basket case of collapsing economies and mass unemployment overseen by ever more repressive regimes. But in many ways the greatest failure in the Islamic world is intellectual, specifically a failure of the intelligentsia – writers, professors, artists, journalists, and so forth – who, with few exceptions, fail to challenge the region’s wildest and most paranoid fantasies. If anything they buttress them by refusing to break out of nationalist paradigms (for instance by not extending the hand of solidarity to counterparts in Israel).
Instead they act as “rejectionist” critics, excoriating their rulers for being insufficiently anti-zionist or anti-imperialist. Lost in all of this is the hard work of creating a modern, rights-based political order, one that could form the basis for general prosperity. Absent that alternative focus, in the thick of endlessly self-pitying victimizing rhetoric, is it any wonder that despairing middle class individuals gravitate toward radical and terrorist activities aimed at smiting the demonized other? Their horrific/suicidal actions call forth ever more summary and violent responses, which in turn reinforce that pervasive sense of victimhood, yielding other delusional martyrs. Here is the abyss facing the world’s Arab and Muslim communities today.
To pull back from the precipice, Muslims and Arabs, not Americans, must be on the frontlines of a new kind of war, one worth waging for our own salvation and our own souls . That, as out-of-fashion Muslim scholars will tell you, is the true meaning of “ jihad ,” a meaning hijacked by terrorists and suicide bombers and those who applaud or excuse them. To exorcise what they have done in our name is the civilizational challenge that Arabs and Muslims, within and without the Arab and Muslim worlds (Osama bin Laden has erased the significance of such distinctions) face at the dawn of the 21st century.
Kanan Makiya was born in Baghdad, Iraq and now teaches at Brandeis University. His books include “Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq” (University of California Press, 1989 and 1995), “Cruelty and Silence: War, Tyranny, Uprising and the Arab World” (Penguin, 1993) and “The Rock: A Seventh Century Tale of Jerusalem” (Pantheon Books, 2001).