Tuesday, November 28, 2006

It's the Enlightenment, Stupid

[posted by Callimachus]

In resisting the colonists [100 years ago], the Arabs were broadly divided into two camps: the rejectionists and the integrationists.

The rejectionists were predominately Islamists and Salafis: the group that saw the Arab world's humiliation and defeat as a consequence of its abandonment of the righteous path prescribed in the Qu'ran and the Prophet Mohammed's sunna.

The integrationists, on the other side of the intellectual spectrum, saw the Arabs' defeat as a consequence of their lagging behind in all aspects of modern thinking; they saw a dire need for the integration of western modernity into the traditional Arabic/Islamic culture. As one notable integrationist - Taha Hussein, the legendary Egyptian education minister in the early 20th century - put it: "it's the enlightenment".

And somehow he was polite enough not to add, "..., stupid" at the end of it.

Well, no prize if you can guess which side is winning now. But for a while, in the early Cold War era, the opposite outcome looked more likely. Two dates figure in that development: 1956 -- there's that year again -- and 1967.

The whole experiment came to an end when Nasserism fell in June 1967 - the Arabs' worst defeat against Israel. The subsequent decade was one of complete reversal. The secular momentum of the Nasserite era was reversed. Anwar Sadat, Nasser's successor, put his political bet on the Islamic - rejectionist - movement.

It's reflexive on my part to reject simplistic explanations of Arab/Muslim rage that root it all in "the existence of Israel," or to allow that, even if that turns out to be true, it legitimizes the least action done in the name of that rage. But it's also pertinent to ask, in a calm and reasoned way, what shape would the Middle East be in today if the 1967 war never had happened?

Perhaps not much different. The Middle East still would have been what it was anyhow, in addition to the schism outlined in the article: A battlefield in the Cold War. In the early years, people often forget, Israel was on the socialist side and the Americans were friendly to the indigenous Arab powers and diplomatically hostile to the fading European imperial nations.

But that quickly changed, and the Middle East provided classic examples of the bad bargains the Americans made for the sake of anti-communism, both in terms of aligning ourselves against legitimate popular aspirations and suffering all manner of abuse and fecklessness and blood-bespattering from nominal allies.