Originally Published 2005-04-15 10:57:07 Published on Apr 15, 2005
¿Arise, ye Arabs, and awake!¿ was the seditious 19th century slogan of Arab nationalism in its infancy. It aroused them against the Ottoman rule but did not hinder the subsequent imperial designs of Britain and France. The moment of liberation became the start of newer forms of dominance.
The question of Arab unity and reform?
"Arise, ye Arabs, and awake!" was the seditious 19th century slogan of Arab nationalism in its infancy. It aroused them against the Ottoman rule but did not hinder the subsequent imperial designs of Britain and France. The moment of liberation became the start of newer forms of dominance. 

In an essay written in 1958 an eminent Western scholar had posed three possible options for the Arabs in their encounter with the West: submit, turn their backs, or meet on terms of equal cooperation after renewing their society from within. A prerequisite for the latter, he added, is "the removal of the irritant of foreign interference." That interference persists and the Arab world today, in the words of a careful observer, "is decimated and divided, bereft of all nationalist pride, lacking any solidarity or self confidence, more subject to foreign domination than at any time since the Second World War, and at war with its own angry citizens." 

The Algiers Summit of the Arab League provided ample evidence of the limitations of the Arab state system. The external factor is one aspect of it; another, more intrinsic, reason lies in a web of socio-political sins of omission and commission. 

Decades back the Syrian historian Constantin Zorayak had observed that the failure to understand catastrophes is even deadlier to a people than the catastrophes themselves. The failure to comprehend is thus central to the crises that have afflicted the region. 

The stated purpose of the Arab League is to strengthen relations between member states, achieve cooperation through coordination of policies, and safeguard the independence and sovereignty of its members. It has failed on each of these counts. Disunity characterises its functioning in times normal and stressful. Its failure is that of its members. They lack the political will and for six decades have not been to develop a unity of purpose and convergence of interests. Intoxicating rhetoric of Arab unity has enhanced manifold the impact of this failure. Is there a case for re-statement of purpose and procedure? 

Role of elites 

Philosophers caution against systematically misleading expressions and lawyers endeavour to benefit from loosely worded formulations of intent. Two generations of elites in Arab lands have been guilty of both. The issue, as the Moroccan historian Abdullah Al Arawi put it, is not about the intrinsic value of their vision of Arab history but about the real relationships obtaining in the world today. The focus, he said, should be on the social matrix of tradition, on the distinction between tradition as structure and tradition as value. 

Did the elites perceive this and translate it into practice? What was the precise import in their minds of frequently used expressions such as freedom, liberty, legitimacy, tyranny, revolution, governance, participation, and consultation? Were elite perceptions altogether autonomous? What role did external interests play in shaping and sustaining them? 

The geopolitical centrality and economic indispensability of West Asian lands is the curse of modern times, even if one result of it is unparalleled economic prosperity. The curse translated itself into an "infra historical rhythm" that retarded normal evolution; this, in turn, benefited both the elites and the principal external beneficiaries of that rhythm. The Arab nationalists lost their way in a maze of ideological confusion and oppressive state structures. The neo-patriarchal Arab Right became integral to the quest for stability and was viewed as an ally in local, regional and global terms. Its religious identity was an added asset in the fight against godless enemies. 

Prior to 9/11, the preference was for moderate Muslims; thereafter, for moderate and modern ones. In the process the Arab (and the Muslim) became synonymous with the actual or alleged failures of these elites. Thus were laid the foundations for implementing the doctrine of the "Clean Break." Simplistic prescriptions, however, do not work and Iraq shows that the best laid plans can go awry. 

Some questions beg for an answer. What is the seriousness of the domestic effort for change? Three Arab Human Development Reports of the UNDP have analysed the shortcomings in the shape of "three deficits" - knowledge, freedom and gender. Another report on Arab Competitiveness, produced recently by the Davos Economic Forum, puts the focus on population growth and high levels of youth unemployment and has urged a shift away from total dependence on a rentier economy. Sheer necessity would propel movement towards some correctives; it would be slow, even erratic and would seek not to disturb the locus of political and economic power. 

Machiavelli's dictum that "men forget more easily the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony" would hold good. The correctives therefore will lead to a measure of sharing, but will not involve meaningful transfer of political authority or economic power and decision-making. 

Is the purpose of the external impulse altruistic? In a process that is essentially elite-centric, they have been told that the "rules of the game have been changed" and they therefore have to comply. The elites would comply where they must; they would also be artful dodgers. 

In the process, and conveniently, less attention is paid to the other assertion of the AHDR 2005 that "the continued occupation of the Palestinian territories by Israel, the US-led occupation of Iraq and the escalation of terrorism" had an adverse impact on human development. (This and a few other sentences in a 250-page volume incurred the wrath of the U.S. Government, led to a cut in funding, and compelled the Administrator of the UNDP to dissociate the UN and the UNDP from these judgments). 

The Arab Street does exist and so does the citizen with an acute sense of dignity and with concentric circles of identity. He is aware of the interplay of the internal and external factors, and of the motives for emphasising one and underplaying the other. He knows that participatory governance without the power of the purse and the rule of law is an empty slogan, as is democracy without sovereignty. The challenge to the Arab citizen, therefore, is manifold. Domestically, neo-patriarchy and authoritarianism has to make way for participatory governance. Its pace and content would be determined by each civil society autonomously. It has to be meaningful but cannot be prescriptive. Regionally, the being and becoming of Arabness has to be clearly demarcated and the overarching Arab identity ("all those whose manners and traditions have been shaped in an Arab mould, and whose mother tongue is Arabic") is to be sustained for its cultural richness but without the unsustainable political baggage of the past six decades. 

The choices 

New regional or sub-regional entities, based on identified community of economic interests, could be one alternative. The Palestinian cause is an international one and not merely Arab or Muslim. Internationally, the urge to create fortresses, outposts, protectorates, captive sources of strategic material, and markets has to make way for an equitable system of international relations and trade and cooperative rather than competitive security arrangements. 

In each category the challenge is of confronting the entrenched power, and the resulting power equations. Given the inter-linkages, none can be addressed in isolation nor can cosmetic arrangements be enduring. 

The author is Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. Earlier, he was India's Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Ambassador in Iran and Saudi Arabia, and Vice Chancellor, Aligarh Muslim University.

Courtesy: The Hindu, Chennai, April 15, 2005.

* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Observer Research Foundation.
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