Francis Robinson on ‘The Arabs’
Posted on Apr 15, 2010
December 1987 saw the beginning of the first Palestinian intifada against Israel, in which over one year 626 Palestinians were killed, 37,000 injured and 35,000 imprisoned.
In this context, Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, emerged out of the Muslim Brotherhood and quickly showed itself to be better organized and less corrupt than the secular PLO. By now Islamist values were coming to be expressed in Arab public space, which had once been strikingly secular, as young men wore beards and young women headscarves.
The end of the Cold War created a new context for Arab lives: but not a better one. The US was now the hegemonic power in Arab lands. Arabs quickly discovered what this meant when Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait in 1990 was met by an assault on Iraq by the USA and its allies which left thousands of civilians dead. Arab states were evenly divided over the action, but for most ordinary Arabs it was another example of heartless Western imperialism. Their views were not changed by the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq of 2003, which was undertaken for specious reasons and which by 2009, according to the Iraqi government, had led to 150,000 civilian deaths.
American hegemony also meant that its client, Israel, seemed to have a freer hand to bring misery to its Arab neighbours. In 1996, in the context of Hizbullah attacks on Israeli positions in southern Lebanon and missile attacks on northern Israel, Israel launched its Grapes of Wrath operation, which left 400,000 Lebanese displaced and much infrastructure destroyed. In 2006, Israel, irritated by a Hizbullah raid across its northern frontier, attacked again, destroying much of South Beirut, more infrastructure, and leaving a million Lebanese displaced. In January 2009, after a six-month ceasefire had led to no relaxation of Israel’s control over Gaza’s frontier, Hamas began to fire rockets. Israel responded with a two-week assault on this densely populated enclave, targeting UN agencies, hospitals, schools and residential areas. An estimated $1.4 billion of damage was inflicted, 1,300 Palestinians were killed, and 5,100 wounded. There were thirteen Israeli dead and eight wounded.
Let us repeat Samir Kassir’s words: “it’s not pleasant being Arab these days”. By their actions, moreover, the West and its clients have shown themselves largely indifferent to Arab suffering. It is hardly surprising that Arabs, and Muslims elsewhere in the world, danced in the streets at the news of the 9/11 assault on the USA. As little has changed since 2001, it is to be expected that, if there were a similar assault today, the Arab response would be much the same.
Eugene Rogan has written an authoritative and wide-ranging history. The text is easy to read, with useful summaries at the end of each chapter. Moreover, distinctive Arab voices make themselves heard, whether it be a Damascus barber commenting on the weakening of Ottoman authority, an Egyptian scholar noting the injustice of the British response to the Dinshaway incident, or the courageous resistance of Fatiha Bouhired and her twenty-two-year-old niece, Djamila, in the Battle of Algiers.
Furthermore, in a context where partisanship is the norm, Rogan is even-handed. Yes, we are told about the unprovoked attack by Jewish forces on the Arab village of Dayr Yasin on April 9, 1948, which left 250 villagers dead. But this is immediately balanced by an account of a Palestinian attack on a Jewish medical convoy in Jerusalem in which seventy-six Jews were killed. Rogan is meticulous in giving the numbers of Arabs killed and wounded by Western and Israeli action in Arab lands. But he also makes clear the brutal ways of the Arabs with each other: Hafiz al-Asad’s levelling of the city of Hama as he tried to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood, Saddam Hussein’s ruthless action against the Shias who rose against him after the first Gulf War, and the 100,000-200,000 killed in the fifteen years of Lebanon’s civil war.
There is a school of thought which argues that, if Arabs have had a miserable time in recent centuries, it is largely their fault. There may be some truth in this. But Rogan makes it clear that the West has much to answer for. He also makes it clear that Arab societies, as opposed to their rulers, are increasingly finding the answer to their problems in political Islam. “In a free and fair election in the Arab world today”, he declares, “I believe the Islamists would win hands down.”
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