This has been, as the bard would have put it, the winter of our discontent. And truly no year — neither 1948, that saw the dismemberment of Palestine, nor 1967, that saw the defeat of the Arab armies at the hands of an upstart, settler-colonial entity grafted on our region — has arrived at a more desolate conclusion.
Say I’m mistaken, or call me a cantankerous old geezer — I suspect both — but when I look at it, our world, that collection of disparate states in the Middle East and North Africa we call the Arab world, has morphed, well over half a century after independence, into shapeless forms, barren of the “assabiya” that, as Ibn Khaldoun showed us in his iconic work, the Muqaddimah, had defined the core of our civilization in the classical age. The image would be conveyed through the simplest of metaphors — a fire dying in the grate. Sad? Yes, but true.
Consider Daesh, or the Islamic State (IS), as it is known in the West. In the large areas it controls in the Levant, the group’s vaunted exercise in state building would be a joke were it not ferociously tragic. As the Washington Post’s Liz Sly reported last week, services are collapsing, prices are soaring, medicines are scarce, schools barely function, and infectious diseases are on the rise in towns and cities across the so-called caliphate (a term Daesh has appropriated, and then cruelly mocked, from our past) they proclaim to rule. All of which belies these folks’ boasts that they are delivering a model form of governance for Muslims.
Libya has two separate governments (perhaps three) and competing militias are running wild. In Iraq, there are effectively no Iraqis left, as Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds raise, not their one national flag, but the flags of the ethnic group or sect they belong to, which in turn raises very serious doubts about whether Iraq remains the united nation we had known for 1,400 years, a united nation whose capital once was the seat of a thriving Arab Muslim commonwealth.
In Syria, a brutal regime that has massacred tens of thousands of its people continues to hold on to power, committed to the proposition that you meet dissent with barrel bombs. Preoccupied with the excesses of Daesh, we have turned a blind eye to Syrian regime’s atrocities. In Yemen, Shiite insurgents, known as Houthis, have taken control of Sanaa, the capital, and though a new government was named, their offensive continues.
And in Palestine, the Israeli government last Thursday gave approval for the construction of 243 homes on West Bank land that it had annexed to Jerusalem, and advanced plans for 270 more homes in the same area. Nothing shocking here, for the beast of prey will behave as a beast of prey. What is shocking is that we have ceased to be shocked by such news. Even more shocking, at this time in our history, is the fact that we feel helpless at confronting such provocations.
Why is it that we have failed — all these years, all these decades — to meet the challenges of modernity, at recapturing the ethos of that asabiyah in our past? Have we, in short, been infected with the germ of preordained failure?
I find the answer difficult to give, however cautiously I put it. But it is simply this: We have to take the critic, and his craft of social criticism, seriously, indeed desperately seriously. He alone, in the public debate, will show us the way to the clearing. What imbued our classical age with asabiyah was the tendency of that age to regard the poet — in his day, the ultimate arbiter of the truth, much as the critic is in ours — as central to the health of the body politic. At the time, even heretical poets, revered one and all, were never hounded to destruction, or into exile, because of their views.
And that is what distinguished our classical culture from all others around it — it evinced a preoccupation with the life of the mind. A vital critical tradition, vital even in its adversarial polemics, was seen not as a subversive luxury, but as a rigorous need. The conventional wisdom went, ban critical discourse and you enervate all around you. That was the source of the asabiyah in our exalted past.
And that is what those buffoons from Daesh, albeit in their own lunatic way, are trying to do. They are trying to ransack the attic of our history, our past, and our traditions, in search of that lost Eden of the caliphate and what the caliphate stood for in its heyday.
Arabs today still inhabit their teleological past, as much as that past inhabits them. And well they might. Consider in this regard William Faulkner’s line from Requiem for a Nun. “The past is never dead,” he wrote. “It’s not even past.” And consider additionally the proverbial idiom: “The past is prologue.” It is indeed.
Arabs want to come up for air. Watching helplessly as, say, two-bit Zionists colonize their land in Palestine, and find themselves unable to do anything about it. They know they have gone from heroes in their ancestors’ age to zeroes in their own. They will lash out at the drabness of their condition and, as Dylan Thomas put it, “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”