The inheritors

In the 1980s, I was a teenager living down the street from a used bookstore.   My view of the world was shaped by the paperbacks available there for 85¢ and less.  Many of those were political books from 15 or 20 years before. Among them was Peter Mansfield‘s book Nasser’s Egypt, a general survey of Egypt as Mansfield saw it the late 1960s that depicted President Nasser, his pan-Arabist ideology, and the centralized economic planning of his government with the utmost sympathy.  Other political books I found at the same store depicted Nasser less favorably, but even those that presented him very negatively could not suppress all romanticism in describing the ambitions of his program and the dashing quality of his personality.

In the days when I was reading these books, the American mass media were lionizing Anwar Sadat.  From the moment President Sadat signed the Camp David Accords with Israel, he was presented to the American public as an apostle of humanity who embodied hope for peace in the Middle East.  When the movie Gandhi was a hit, Hollywood followed up with a series of other biographical epics about history’s great peacemakers; Sadat, starring Lou Gossett, Junior, was the first.  Indeed, Sadat and Mahatma Gandhi figured in the US media as exact equivalents in those days.

Considering that he came to office in the shadow of two men who inspired so much legend, it is hardly surprising that Hosni Mubarak has been seen in America as a bland placeholder.  Indeed, the most flattering thing I’ve ever read about President Mubarak in a major US publication called him “Egypt’s Gerald Ford,” a man who was his country’s leader today for the sole reason that he happened to have been kicked upstairs to the vice presidency when President Sadat wanted to get him out of the way and appoint a new defense minister.

Therefore, Egypt’s three modern presidents figure in my imagination as dramatically different figures: Nasser the tragic hero, Sadat the secular saint, Mubarak the afterthought.  It always jolts me when I see people bracketing the three together.  I know that from the perspective of many Egyptians the current regime seems like a rancid thing that’s been stinking up their country since 1952, but when I read phrases like “Nasir-Sadat-Mubarak continuum” I always scratch my head.

Another book I found at the same store was Eric L. McKitrick‘s Slavery Defended: The Views of the Old South.  A line of McKitrick’s reproduced on the back cover convinced me to buy it:  “Nothing is more susceptible to oblivion than an argument, however ingenious, that has been discredited by events.”  None of the pro-slavery documents McKitrick found put forth an argument that I would call especially ingenious, though several of them did manage to raise awkward questions about the economic system of the states in which laborers were nominally free.  Still, I think McKitrick makes a vital point.  If some Southern apologist had constructed a truly brilliant argument in defense of slavery, the fact that no serious person is today looking for any such argument would likely mean that the apologist’s work would be forgotten.

The same applies to other arguments.  Whatever its drawbacks, Nasser’s pan-Arabism had  far more to recommend it than did the practice of slavery in the United States.  Yet it too is a spent force, one which has left many monuments but which no longer attracts followers.  President Mubarak’s career is one of those monuments; his administration’s evident lack of public support shows that he has long since exhausted whatever political inheritance may have been left from Nasser when he took office decades ago. Of course, the events that discredited pan-Arabism took place long before Mubarak came to power.  By 1981, Syria had been out of the United Arab Republic for twenty years, and North Yemen had been out of the United Arab States for as long.  The June 1967 war with Israel would bury pan-Arabism, but the collapse of these federations may have marked its real death.  The case for pan-Arabism, no matter its abstract appeal, could not survive these events.

If nothing is more susceptible to oblivion than an argument discredited by events, surely the converse is true as well.  Nothing is less susceptible to oblivion than an ideology, however asinine, that has inspired a winning cause and given many people opportunities to become rich.  I suspect that many of the ideas which still have currency and power in world affairs are at least as weak as pan-Arabism.  Indeed, if we were to examine them in the abstract we would find that many forms of nationalism and internationalism have the same logical structure as pan-Arabism.

How different, for example, is Zionism from pan-Arabism?  Certainly the geography of it is different, demanding control of one country rather than promising the unification of many countries.  However, both call upon an ethnic group to unite under the sovereignty of a single political entity.  As Nasser called on Egyptians, Syrians, Yemenis, and others to discard the national and communal identities that separated them from each other and to unite in a new state where their shared Arabness would emerge as the only communal identity they needed, so classical Zionists called on Jews from various countries to discard their loyalties to their homelands, the distinctive practices of the forms of Judaism which had grown up in those countries, and their participation in the existing economic systems of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to migrate to Palestine, speak Hebrew, and build a socialist, secular state where Jewishness would emerge as the only communal identity they needed.  The Orthodox knew what they were doing when they opposed Zionism before 1948, since the diversity of Judaism was the most obvious barrier to the unification of the Jews.

As classical Zionism was a secularizing ideology that strove to push the religious differences among Jewish communities into the background, so too Nasser’s pan-Arabism required that religion be pushed into the background.  Of course, Arabs differ in regard to religion more widely than do Jews, with a majority of Muslims who are quite diverse in their beliefs and practices, a minority of Christian Arabs who are if anything more varied in the forms of their religion than are their Muslim cousins, and many smaller minorities as well.  Pan-Arabists in Nasser’s day therefore made a point of displaying their cooperation across the boundaries of religious communion; for example, this admiring obituary of the late George Habash alludes to Habash’s status as a Greek Orthodox Christian only to dismiss the idea that such an affiliation could have shaped his career (“It is often said that Habash’s “Christianity” — as if he was religious — was the only reason why he was not the leader of the Palestinian national movement, instead of Arafat. I never agreed with the view,”) while a recounting of Habash’s friendship with and support of Nasser goes on for paragraphs.  Habash and his admirers may represent an extreme version of the secularizing thrust of pan-Arabism, while the anti-Mubarak protestors who recently silenced shouts of “Allahu Akbar!” in Tahrir Square with a chant of  “Muslims, Christians, we’re all Egyptian” may represent a mild version of a secularizing Egyptian nationalism.  But every movement that strives to make borders irrelevant in order to build a new communal identity based on ethnicity must begin as a secularizing movement, because the religions that actually exist have all developed within those borders.

Of course, people identified themselves as Jews before Zionism, as people have identified themselves as Arabs before and after pan-Arabism.  The movements did not invent those labels, but they did set out to change their meaning radically.    Where the forms of Jewish identity that actually existed before the creation of Israel were so many ways of being a member of a minority community within various countries, the classical Zionists promised that in the Eretz Israel a new Jewishness would be possible, a Jewishness that would be a thing unto itself, the only communal identity a person would need.

Permit me to return to my old used bookstore one more time.  Browsing there, I found many books in my price range about the history of philosophy.  Several of these went on about the distinction the such Schoolmen as Thomas Aquinas drew in the Middle Ages between “Essence” and “Accident,” that is, between the things that exist on their own and qualities that characterize those things.  Classical Zionism and pan-Arabism were both ideas that the Schoolmen could have understood.  Zionism looked at Jewishness and saw a collection of accidents, various ways of being a member of a minority group in each of the many countries where Jews had settled.  They wanted to turn those accidents into an essence, into a national identity that would displace all the old identities and sweep away the variation of religious practices, of languages, of political loyalties, and of economic status that separated Jews from each other.  Likewise, to be Arab is always to be a resident of a particular country, whether a majority-Arab country or a country in which Arabs are a minority.  It is always to be associated, at least tenuously, with one of a wide variety of religious groups.  It is always to participate in the economic system specific to one’s time ansd place.  Therefore, Arabness may color one’s attitude toward one’s country or one’s religion or one’s economic position; it never defines that country, or that religion, or that economic position.  The Schoolmen, then,  would have seen Arabness as an accident and pan-Arabism as an attempt to make it an essence.

What about the idea of a single global market for capital and labor, which seems to be the ruling ideology of the USA at the moment?  Like pan-arabism, global capitalism addresses itself to the borders that it will render irrelevant and the traditional communal identities that it will obliterate.  Admittedly, pan-Arabism only promises to wear down the borders between the Arab states and to obliterate the communal identities that separate one Arab group from another, while global capitalism (alias “globalization,” alias “Neoliberalism,” formerly alias “the Washington consensus,” sometimes alias “TINA,” because “there is no alternative”) wants to erase all borders and to dissolve every social role except those of buyer and seller.  But the emphasis in each case is on reducing the importance of borders and of communal identity.

Like Zionism and pan-Arabism, global capitalism too appeals to people in the name of one characteristic they share and asks them to give up all their other identities and loyalties in order to create a world where that one characteristic will grow into a communal identity that will do the work of all the rest of their social affiliations.  In the case of global capitalism, that characteristic is participation in markets.  Global capitalism is just one of many internationalist ideologies; other forms of internationalism appeal to law-abiding behavior, or universalizing religions, or the destiny of the proletariat, or the ecology of the planet, or what have you.  Whatever characteristic an internationalist ideology may privilege, the ideology promises a triumph in the form of a single communal identity for all who share it.  In the case of nationalist ideologies, something like this promise is occasionally fulfilled, while internationalism has so far been a purely destructive force.  Still, even when nationalism succeeds  in forging a mass society, that mass society is a cold and lifeless thing compared with the loyalties and bonds among neighbors and kin that it displaces.

That brings us, finally, to the men in the photo at the top of this post.  President Mubarak and Palestinian leader Abu Mazen rose to prominence in the era of pan-Arabism.  Abu Mazen is as much a monument to pan-Arabism as is Mubarak.  Since pan-Arabism is a spent force, neither man enjoys democratic legitimacy.  One striking difference between them is that Mubarak is a billionaire many times over and Abu Mazen is little more than a prison trusty.  To be sure, those are accidents of their circumstances.  Were he in Abu Mazen’s position, Mubarak would have little opportunity to help himself to riches.  But whatever Mubarak can do to enrich himself, he has no more to offer his countrymen than Abu Mazen has to offer his.  Perhaps in this way Mubarak is an apt symbol of the fate of pan-Arabism; having risen to power in a regime committed to the obliteration of borders between Arab states and of the communal identities that distracted from shared Arab-ness, as a billionaire mubarak has joined the class that global capitalism exalts by extending the destructive side of pan-Arabism to target all borders and all communal identities everywhere.

As prime minister of Israel, Netanyahu is the heir of Zionism, but his economic policies represent a total rejection of classical Zionism’s socialist side and his pandering to the ultra-Orthodox religious parties in his coalition show that the secularism of the Zionist legacy means nothing to him.  Netanyahu’s only real creed is global capitalism.  Since Zionism still retains a grip on the public imagination in America and Germany, while global capitalism is at its zenith, Netanyahu is a force to be reckoned with.  Obama is the most senior agent of global capitalism, so he is at once extremely powerful and instantly disposable.  As for His Hashemite Majesty Abdullah of Jordan, well, there’s a reason they call him King PlayStation

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