Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Shaker Nabulsi on Arab neo-Liberalism

Shaker Nabulsi, PhD is an American/Jordanian writer. He gained his BA in literature from Ain Shams University, Cairo, and his PhD in education from Kennedy Western University, California.Dr Nabulsi is a freelance writer, and a political commentator on Alhurra TV. He is a columnist for Al-siyasa (Kuwaiti), Al-raya (Qatar), Elaph electronic newspaper, Middle East Transparent website, and Modern Discussion website.He has written and contributed to 42 books covering topics in history, education, religion, and politics.

The writer describes a long tradition within the Arab world that most Americans would insist is non-existent, or worse, another example of how deceptive our enemies are and how they are trying to trick us into thinking they are intelligent humans instead of the heathen savages we know them to be. I don't know which is the deeper ignorance, that of the Arab world or that of the West. According to this writer these Arab neo-liberals "have been under attack by the extreme right wing in the Middle East, which has accused them of living in the shadow of the neo–conservatism of the Bush administration."

Since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, the Arab world has sought to build ideological alternatives to the powerful challenge presented by the jihadists, whose message exploded onto the global scene that day with such catastrophic power and immediate impact.

The task of creating a full-blown ideological alternative to the terrorists’ message has been a faltering one. Its effectiveness has been dependent on the successful resurrection of ideas associated with Arab liberalism – ideas which once defined the Arab political consciousness as a foil to oppose colonialism, and which need today to be proven as ‘authentic’ as those which are the mainstay of the jihadist creed.

The ‘Arab Liberals’ who are the intellectual root of the re-emergent trend of today, first appeared at the end of the 19th Century, in the form of two generations of enlightened thinkers.
In a short period of time, these neo-liberals gained a high profile, primarily by collecting – in the first of instance of its kind in Arab history – three thousand signatures from various Arab intellectuals in all parts of the world, which was then sent to the United Nations. The petition called on the UN to establish an international tribunal to prosecute terrorists, including people and institutions who incite terrorism, citing in particular religious clerics.

The petition, which was presented to the UN Secretary General on 8 October 2004, stated the following: “It is not enough for the [UN] Security Council to adopt resolutions ‘condemning’ terrorism. What will be more effective is the establishment of an international tribunal affiliated to the UN organization for the prosecution of individuals, groups, or entities involved, directly or indirectly, with terrorist activities including, but not limited to, fatwas issued by religious clerics in the name of Islam calling upon Muslims to commit terrorist acts.”
Since their emergence as a bloc of intellectual opinion, the neo-liberals have been under attack by the extreme right wing in the Middle East, which has accused them of living in the shadow of the neo–conservatism of the Bush administration.

The neo–liberals themselves have rejected this accusation, notably by highlighting three significant differences between them: first, that neo-liberals accept modernity, whereas neo-cons do not. Second, that neo-liberals refuse to use religion to dominate the masses, whereas neo-cons accept it. Third, that neo-liberals accept peace as a solution for ending struggle, believing that war will not bring stabilization. The neo-cons, by contrast, believe that war can be an answer.

Time will tell whether or not the neo-liberals will continue to expound and broadcast the message of their predecessors. Up to now, the neo-liberals have lost every round they have fought in the Arab World. They lack popularity and are widely misunderstood.

The main problem lies in the fact that their enemies have sought to portray them as the allies of US policy in the Middle East – a policy that is so widely and deeply hated. The Palestinian issue will remain the – and their – biggest test. Without solving this one, perennial problem, the neo-liberals will find it hard to define the relevance of what they are pursuing; their belief in modernity and democracy will fail to take root unless that solution starts to emerge. Only then will there be an opportunity to build on the strong body of ideas that amount to the Arab world’s own, home grown alternative to radicalism and extremism. But until peace arrives in Palestine, no sound of modernity or democracy will be heard.

Once again the question of Palestine rears its head. It is an easy matter to dismiss the entire argument of this writer by claiming that point is a straw man. Given the passion with which that issue is symbolic of the East-West conflict, as well as its obvious religious overtones, it would be wise not to be in denial about the importance of finding a peaceful end to that conflict.

This highlighted paragraph above distills three important ideas that critically divide the discussion: modernity, religion and peace.

In a convoluted and revealing manner, each of these three areas represents a sticking point in the conversation. Unfortunately, the "Arab neo-liberal" position is more compelling than arguments opposing them.

They argue in favor of modernity while the US finds itself allied with those political and social leaders who regard modernity more as a threat than a remedy to problems.

They argue that religion should not be used, to borrow a word from Marx, as an opiate, whereas the loudest voices on both sides of the conflict frame the debate in harshly-polarizing clash-of-religions terms.

And finally, by advancing the cause of peace, these idealistic thinkers marginalize themselves, like their Western counterparts, as overly-idealistic, maybe even cowardly individuals, not willing to go to war for what they believe.

I have never understood the widespread idea that war somehow leads to peace. It is a contradiction in terms, but one that most of the world readily accepts as certain as the law of gravity.

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