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January 31, 2006

Dream Palace of the Arabs

Fouad Ajami – ISBN 0375704744

A well known writer/columnist/chronicler of Arab Politics, Ajami explores numerous avenues which afford considerable insight into the foundations and functioning of the Arab mind, including Arab politics. While the book dates from 1998 it is, if possible, more relevant now than when published. Certainly general interested should be greater.

He aptly explores the strengths and weaknesses of Arab civilization, noting that their old world was compromised in the 50’s, broken in the 70’s, all without a reestablishment of its ways and rhythms. Wealth shifted as their economies changed from 3rd world marginality to oil wealth, and their politics from tribal to (more) cosmopolitan, and local to regional and international.

He informs on the tribal loyalties and the rift between the sects of Islam, which are not all that different from those divisions in European Christendom when the Protestants and the Catholics were at each other’s throats, and each of the Protestant sects felt it had the proper information regarding the “right ways.”

The Arab/Palestinian/Israeli conflicts are used to note the continuing strife, and the damage done to Arab sense of security when they were wiped out by the 6 day war. Ist was to have pushed the Jews into the sea, but ended with Israel controlling Arab/Muslim territory.

“There was a time, in the high Middle Ages, when Persian civilization and language served as the elite culture of the Muslim world from Indonesia to Morocco, but in the modern world this is no longer the case.” As Iran tries to reassert its relevance and its right to guide the region it is no longer accepted.

Strong traditions and history continue to isolate them from the world, and to create angst over Western domination, which is especially relevant with the current Iranian crisis over nukes. The revolutionary spirit of Khomeini persists, yet the revolution has done naught for the stability of Iran or the Middle East. It was to have created a theocratic utopia, a paradise on earth, which dovetails with the fantasy of a “golden age” (which never existed) in the remote past. Indeed, during recent times the “Muslim sword” has beheaded far more Muslims than nonbelievers.

About the first Gulf War, he comments that: “On pain of extinction, cultures often stubbornly refuse to look into themselves. They retreat into the nooks and crannies of their history, fall back on the consolations they know.” The West destroyed the supposedly superb army of Hussein in less than a week, and the ripples continue . . . especially since Gulf War II.

Thus the disappointment, even rage, and the resolve to revisit that fair age. Persisting in societies--everywhere and in all ages--is the need to locate order and meaning in some lost, beloved past. “From the time of Alexander until the rule of Nasser, Egyptians lived on the dream of change and improvement.” Egypt is still waiting, having fruitlessly tried Egyptian nationalism, then pan-Arabism, followed by liberalism, military dictatorship, a multiparty system, one party rule, capitalism, socialism, and alliances with the East followed by alliances with the West. Nothing has been successful.

Political history is littered with unrealized dreams, and with pragmatists who appreciate the limits of what can be done. “Rational” intellectuals--advisors to Sadat who were ready to work with Israel for peace (at least after the ‘67 war)--are aged or gone. Their impact is minuscule, leaving the radicals in ascent. Thwarted plans generate hate and rage, and someone other than themselves must be blamed. Their old world is gone, yet they are not released from its grasp. The unbending politics of opposition to peace with Israel and the world prevents normal traffic with the 20th century, never mind the 21st.
A deep ailment afflicts Arab culture. Only Arabs/Muslims can address it, yet they seem unwilling to approach the problem. They can’t go back, and won’t go forward.

Posted by respeto at January 31, 2006 12:27 PM