Against Arab Sickness

At Politico Magazine, Hisham Melham writes on the collapse of Arab civilization.

Arab civilization, such as we knew it, is all but gone. The Arab world today is more violent, unstable, fragmented and driven by extremism—the extremism of the rulers and those in opposition—than at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago. Every hope of modern Arab history has been betrayed. The promise of political empowerment, the return of politics, the restoration of human dignity heralded by the season of Arab uprisings in their early heydays—all has given way to civil wars, ethnic, sectarian and regional divisions and the reassertion of absolutism, both in its military and atavistic forms.

But why?

“No one paradigm or one theory can explain what went wrong in the Arab world in the last century,” Melham writes.

And against an essentialist view of history: “Nor is the notion of ‘ancient sectarian hatreds’ adequate to explain the frightening reality…”

Melham then gives a powerful and sweeping history of polarization, violence and political oppression in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and Egypt. From him we learn the limits of Arab nationalism (Nasser’s Egypt, and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq) as well as the toxic iterations of dictatorship. While political Islamists are not all equally terrible, Melham tells us they all belong to the same family tree, rooted in “the Arabs’ civilizational ills.”

Nowhere in the piece is it mentioned just what those “civilziational ills” are, or where they come from.

After dismissing the notion that all of this horribleness can be explained away by theory, and after squashing the popular but unempirical argument that all of this flows from “ancient hatreds,” Melham just keeps repeating: Because Arab civilization. For me, this serves as an excuse for inaction, an alibi for Westerners to turn away, an invitation to Arabs to simply let their culture’s “pathologies” eat away at themselves or burn away.

Juan Cole has an effective response: “There is nothing wrong with their civilization.”

Rather than blame some invisible sickness that afflicts only Egyptians and Syrians and Iraqis, Cole looks to economics, demographics, and natural resources. He also aims to show that destructive instability is not unique to the Arabic speaking.

(This all reminds me of Ta-Nehisi’s Coates’ writing. In the American context, he pushes back against explaining racial injustice and inequality as some inherent pathology that is unique to African Americans. Replace blacks with Arabs and white supremacy with colonialism.)

Looking at historical examples from Europe, Southeast Asia and Africa, Cole points to the violent transition many nations faced as they moved from colonial, fascist, and agricultural societies into more democratic, industrial ones. “Singling out the Arab world is unfair,” he writes.

To make sense of Middle East politics, a history of colonization goes a long way. So does knowing many Arab populations have grown faster than their stagnant economies. Add mass-displacement and water shortages fueled by carbon emissions, and the irony of the Arab world’s (non-oil) resource-poverty becomes a cruel joke.

All of this contributes to the instability we see today. And with these factors in mind, lamenting some Arab cultural pathology seems far less persuasive.


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