Forgive me for reiterating! Will Rogers once said "I'm not afraid
of what people don't know! I'm afraid of what people know and think
This quote is all the more pertinent these days. It is so in view of America's troubled novitiate in the Near East and the persistently flawed and mendacious "monocultural" conception of the region that we, as a public and as academic communities, are being made to swallow –hook line and sinker– as historical truth by those opposed to America's venture. This flawed image of the Middle East –as an exclusively "Arab" domain– is being propagated not by impartial observers, nor even by Middle Eastern voices truly representative of the region's diverse ethnic, cultural, and national make up. Unfortunately, these faulty and unscrupulous images are being advanced by Arabist pundits, an Arabist media, and an Arabist-dominated academy, thus giving falsity both popularity and legitimacy.
Take this recent piece by Mr. Raja Mattar for instance: On the surface Mr. Mattar's article appeard perfectly legitimate; an impassioned reaction to an old essay by Professor Walid Phares in which the latter –clearly an impertinent Christian dhimmi who would have been better served by aping his kind and shutting it– dared speak of the plight of his people and shed light on their forgotten histories and their sagas of dispossession and cultural suppression.
The problem with Mr. Mattar's essay was not its stated premise –an attempt at debunking Professor Phares' claims! For no Arab Nationalist worth his salt would let allegations of Arab injustice and repression against minority groups go unanswered. Even the Arabist barefaced negationism and denial of Middle East minorities’ rights and historical narratives are warranted if Arabism is to survive as an ostensibly coherent cohesive and integrative movement. Nothing less than revisionism and rejection of non-Arab narratives can be expected of true Arab Nationalists. Afterall, being merciless and brutal to those advancing an idea inimical to Arab Nationalism –brutal to the point of physically and metaphorically annihilating them– was a famous Michel Aflaq directive (see Fii Sabiil al-Baath, Beirut, 1963, pp. 40-41.) And so, no! The problem with Mr. Matar's essay was not its commendable loyalty to Arab Nationalism. The problem dwelt in the essay's intellectual dishonesty and its attempt to pass on its Arabist reading of Middle Eastern history as dispassionate scholarship and historical truth.
In his haste to dismiss Middle Eastern minority rights and minority narratives, Mr. Mattar, a Lebanon-based business consultant and a self-described "Christian Arab" proudly brandished a jaded Napoleonic aphorism claiming history to be "a set of agreed upon lies"; fabrications as it were, aimed at propping up history's victors and legitimizing its most current and most fashionable powers that be.
In a sense, Mr. Mattar might have been justified in his righteous indignation against those Christians of the Middle East who dared reject their imputed Arabness (as advocated by Sati' al-Husri, Michel Aflaq, and others from among those 19th and 20th century's luminaries who concocted the Arab national idea.) But at the same time, by denying those so-called "Arab Christians" their pre-Arab historical heritage and their non-Arab cultural specificity (imagined and falsified as they might be in his eyes) Mr. Mattar was behaving (or rather ill-behaving) exactly in the manner of those oppressive and pompous "makers of history" to whom Napoleon's adage was referring. History is indeed written by the victor! That is why Mr. Mattar and Arabists of his persuasion feel justified in their incensed negation of those who don‘t conform to their worldview.
In an attempt to debunk the Maronites of Lebanon's Phoenician myth of origin, Mr. Mattar spurted the usual Arabist mental masturbation, first arguing that regardless of what one thinks, the whole of the Middle East was Arab (he even skirted the outrageous claim that all semitic languages were the progeny of the Arabic language... Edmond Rabbath would have been proud!) He then accepted the Phoenicians as a fait accompli , but then claimed that they were coast dwellers that could not have possibly interacted (let alone mixed) with the Maronites, a breed of inveterate mountaineers. Of course, Mr. Mattar ignored the fact that the intrepid sailors that were the Phoenicians, took to the open sea on ships made of Lebanon's famed Cedrus Libani, a breed of Cedars that flourishes only on Mount-Lebanon's highest ridges, the Maronites natural habitat per Mr. Mattar. Hmm!
But Mr. Mattar truly outdid himself when he regurgitated the jaded Arabist mantra (even citing Herodotus, "the father of lies") that the Phoenicians, like all Semitic peoples, came from Arabia, and were therefore Arabs. I know I mentionned this in an earlier post, but here's what the historian Joel Carmichael had to say to this indefensible canard:
There is scarcely any doubt that the idea of ancient 'Semitic' peoples bursting out of the Arabian Peninsula over whole millennia and establishing civilizations on the borderlands north of the peninsula is MERE THEORY (emphasis added.) It is based on NO RECORDS AT ALL and is, in fact, modeled on the historic eruption of the Arabs themselves in the seventh century, AND THEN RETROJECTED TO FIT AN UNKNOWN SITUATION [...] (emphasis added.) There are, after all, actual records of the emergence of some of the great Arabian tribes from the desert and of the settlement of some Bedouin in the cultivated area north of Arabia. If there are records of even such minor colonizing movements, it seems unlikely that such immensely important, comprehensive, and far reaching events as the successive conquests of such huge areas as Babylonia, Assyria, or Phoenicia by Arabian tribes would not have been commemorated in one way or another[...]
Th[is] theory is a very old one, [...] yet strangely enough, however appealing, [it] does not seem to have the smallest factual foundation. (see the Introduction of Joel Carmichael's "The Shaping of the Arabs.")
The icing on Mr. Mattar's cake, again in an attempt to deny the Maronites their cultural and national specificity, was that they were eloquent contributors to the Arabic literary awakening (al-Nahda) of the late 19th century. Well, boo hoo hoo hoo, Mr. Mattar! I guess you showed them, didn't you? With this sort of circular reasoning, one could argue that James Joyce, an Irishman who wrote a most exquisite English poetry, and George Bernard Shaw, another Irishman and one of the titans of modern English literature, were both Englishmen (given that they chose English as their intellectual medium.) This sort of rational would make Kahlil Gibran into an Englishman as well, since the quality of his English prose puts his Arabic output to shame. Similarily, Charles Corm, Michel Chiha, Jacques Tabet, Elie Tyan, Andrée Chédid, Georges Shéhadé and Amine Maalouf all become Frenchmen on account of their wielding of the French language and their momentous contribution to its literary edifice. Lest it slipped your mind, Mr. Mattar, we are wielders of the languages we use, as a result of conquest and appeal, with the former being a compulsion and the latter being a choice. Not unlike English, Arabic is a language of conquest. English is the (official and national) language of Scots, Irishmen, and subcontinental Indians as a result of colonialism and coercion, not attraction and fascination. I suspect you can deduce the rest for Arabic!
Mr. Matar referred to those Middle Eastern Christians who refused his blinkered Arabism as "self-hating Arabs." Were those same "self-hating Arabs" to mimic the dogmatism and intransigence of Mr. Matar's Arab Nationalism, they could very well have described him as a "useful idiot", a "court jester for his Arab master", or a "dhimmi in the service of his people's oppressor." But luckily for Mr. Mattar, Middle Eastern Christians, the autochthonous pre-Arab inhabitants of the Middle East, do not advocate the erasure of Arabness or the eradication of their Arab conquerors; only the recognition of their rights, their histories, and their narratives. Le pire des bastonneurs est celui qui t'oblige à te bastonner toi-même aptly said Amine Maalouf; "the most evil of bullies is the one who forces you to bully your own." That is the genius of Arab Nationalism, indeed of any brutal totalitarian pan-movement; the sanitization and banalization of evil (by making it a family affair) and the ultimate erasure of those who stand in the way of the proposed nation, incoherent and alien as it might be in the eyes of the ones it seeks to subdue.
With Mr. Mattar, Arabism seems to be in good hands, for cruelty, hatred of the other, his annihilation and the annihilation of his cultural references and historical accretions are an Arab Nationalist’s article of faith. Indeed, with a skilful use of semantics, Michel Aflaq (the founding father of the Arab Baath) transformed the language of violence and brutality, inherent to his ideas, into a sublime form of love. Raja Mattar seems to have been a good study.
Arab Nationalists, Aflaq preached, must practice a form of “loving brutality” against those who go astray from the nation, because Arab Nationalism is, “before anything else, love”. The Arab Nationalists, Aflaq said:
are merciless to themselves, merciless to others [...] they must be imbued with a powerful hate, a hate unto death of those persons who embody an idea contrary to the idea of Arab Nationalism. [...] An inimical theory is not found on its own; it is embodied in individuals who must be annihilated so that it too may be annihilated. The existence of an enemy of our idea vivifies it and sends the blood coursing in us. Any action that does not call forth in us living emotions and does not make us feel the spasm of love [...] that does not make our blood race in our veins and our pulse beat faster, is a sterile action. (Aflaq, Fii Sabiil al-Baath, pp. 40-41.)
So there you have it, Mr. Mattar! A national idea built on the negation of the other! That is the essence of the Arabism you're trying to force on us! And your incensed petulence and nnoyance with those of us who rejected your stunted worldview (and refused a coerced Arabization) is devastating proof of Arabism's patently bigotted and intolerant instincts)!
"History is the most dangerous outcome that the mind's chemistry has ever elaborated. [...] It creates mental images, it intoxicates peoples, it provides them with false memories, it exaggerates their reflexes, it sustains their old wounds, it torments their peace, it drives them into the ecstasy of grandeur or persecution, and it renders nations bitter, magnificent, obnoxious, and conceited.
History justifies whatever we instruct her to justify. Strictly speaking, it teaches us nothing, because it embodies everything, and it provides models of everything."
Paul Valéry wrote this haunting passage in his 1945 Regards sur le Monde Actuel, clearly, with the brutality and irredentism of Nazi Germany in mind. But no words more pertinent could have more aptly described the reductionist bent of Arab nationalism, the negationist and brutal impulses of its exponents (Mr. Mattar‘s included,) or the vulgar cultural suppression and baseless irredentism that it has engendered throughout the 20th century. Mr. Mattar should take good aim at where and unto whom he should cast his stones, for his too is an edifice built of glass. The mental images, the imagined harmony, the kindred memories, the wounds, the torments, and the recollections of grandeur spouted by Arab Nationalism bear not more truth or more legitimacy than the emotions and collective memory of those of us who refuse to be drawn by the Arabist locomotive. Arab Nationalism’s intransigence has indeed turned an entire nation –the Arab nation– into an obnoxious, overbearing and conceited bully. Mr. Mattar eloquently bears out this conclusion.
But what really is this Arabism that Mr. Mattar is so intent on shoving down our throats?
Not unlike Nazism and other types of the racialist nationalisme intégral, Arabism is essentially an “enlarged tribal consciousness” with an overbearing and coercive aim of uniting all peoples of a presumably similar folk origin, in total disregard of their independent histories, social experiences, and cultural accretions... In this sense, Arabism holds that anyone remotely connected to the Arabs, even if not born within their domains, and even if alien to their experiences, language, or cultural predilections, that person is perforce and in spite of himself an Arab. Sati’ al-Husri was merciless and blunt in this regard. He maintained that
under no circumstances should we say ‘as long as someone does not wish to be an Arab, and as long as he is disdainful of his Arabness, then he is not an Arab.' He is an Arab whether he wishes to be so or not. Whether ignorant, indifferent, undutiful, or disloyal, he is an Arab, but an Arab without feelings, or consciousness, and perhaps even without conscience (see al-Husri’s Abhaath Mukhtaara fi al-Qawmiyya al-’Arabiyya, Beirut, 1985, p. 80.)
This sort of chauvinism plainly chucks out the very foundations of a liberal nationalité éléctive where one is member of a nation as a matter of choice and free-will, and as a result of a “daily plebicite,” as put by Ernest Renan. But I suppose blinkered Arab Nationalists of Mr. Mattar’s ilk cannot abide the basic human freedoms of conscience and choice that are at the basis of our modern world’s liberal democratic nation-states.
Mr. Mattar may cite Salibi (to whom I shall return shortly) all he wants. The fact remains that:
--A nation cannot be the result of racial affinities! Otherwise, Hebrews and Arabs would long since have united into a single cohesive integrative nation. (Hell, even the self-avowed Arabs themselves would long since have united in an outfit at least resembling the European union. Instead, our modern world knows hardly a nation more fractious, quarrelsome, and disjointed than that of the Arabs... And Mr. Mattar still feels justified in pontificating and imparting his "Arabhood" to us."
Regardless of the views of racialist Arabists, the fact remains that zoology has no place in human history. Zoology is for horses. One should hope that humans would seek loftier criteria in determining their identities and their kinships.
--A nation cannot be the result of linguistic affinities either; a fact that keeps the Brittons and the Irish, or the Brittons and the Scots locked in semi-perpetual conflict. Certainly, a common language can contribute to a modicum of harmony, cordiality, and cooperation among different peoples, but it is certainly not a prerequisite, nor even an important criterion for nationhood. When thinking of national cohesiveness and linguistic dissonance, no modern nation more coherent or more harmonious than Switzerland comes to mind. Yet the Swiss have not one, not two, not even three, but rather four national languages. Yet Switzerland is neither Italian, nor German, nor French... But I suppose the same luminaries who concocted Nazism and the racialist irredentism of the nationalisme intégral, looked at language as a corollary to race and zoology. I seems that Aflaq and al-Husri were excellent students of Nazi and Fascist ideologies. But they were also oblivious to the fact that human will is superior to race and language. A man’s will to be Swiss (or Lebanese, as opposed to Arab) is loftier than the primitive instinct of pigeonholing humans and labeling them according to a given language or a zoological attribute. But I suppose Arab Nationalists have yet to reach a certain level of sociological and cultural sophistication before they are able to abandon their primitive and overbearing tribal instincts.
--A nation cannot be the outcome of religious affinities (although Arabism itself is merely secular nomenclature for Islam.) For quotes corroborating this reality, see my post on “The Myth of Arab Nationalism.” It is high time we began looking at Arabism empirically, not just textually!
--Even geographical proximity among peoples, and even a real or imagined community of interests cannot be valid criteria for nationhood. Otherwise, Canada and the United States would long since have merged into a single state.
As Ernest Renan put it, a nation is solidarity based on a corporate will to be one, to belong to one another, to dream together, hope together, fabricate myths and memories (and remember real ones) together, and finally, when necessary, forget together. Without a corporate will to be one, there would never be a nation. I hope Mr. Mattar and his Arab Nationalist allies would have the wherewithal to realize that coercion will never make those of us who view themselves as distinct nations, into Arabs. The way it stands today, Arabism is in need of more friends than vassals and slaves! Why then go around attempting to colonize and shackle those of us who won’t buy into that ideology? Mr. Mattar, isn’t it better you labored to keep your Arab house in order, rather than forcing others into your mess???
Now on to Kamal Salibi, of whom the good Mr. Mattar seems so fond. But first a couple of nuggets by another Kamal.
In 1945 the late Kamal Jumblat, who many consider the par excellence Arab Nationalist paragon and one of the most eloquent advocates of Arabness, had the following to say about Lebanon’s distinctness and its sui generis non-Arab character:
Located on the Western edge of the Syro-Mesopotamian quad, [Lebanon] has the task of transmitting to the Western world the faintest pulsations of the Eastern and Arab worlds. And given its position on the shores of the Mediterranean, it has the task of intercepting –before anyone else– the life ripples of the Mediterranean, Europe, and the universe, in order to retransmit them [...] to the nations of the hinterland; to this realm of sand, mosques, and sun. Such is an element of an Eternal Truth. (See Camille Aboussouan’s Présentation in Les Cahiers de l’Est (Beirut, July 1945), p. 3)
This portrayal of Lebanon as a mission dictated by the country’s unique geographic and human makeup, came not from some crackpot Lebanese nationalist. These were the words of a committed Arabist who spent a good part of his adult life attempting to debunk the image of Lebanon “the crossroads”, “the bridge”, “the intermediary”; in sum, the “Lebanon Phoenicia“ so adulated by the Maronites (and inexplicably denigrated by Mr. Mattar). Still, Kamal Jumblat seemed convinced by the logic of Lebanon’s Phoenician soul, even though Arabism (and ultimately Arab unity) might have remained overriding themes in the pantheon of his political engagements.
In 1946 Kamal Jumblat would actually outdo himself in an address outlining his political platform as a Deputy running on the slate of the Shouf region of Mount Lebanon. As you will note, the content, style, and imagery used by Jumblat in this address truly betray a rabid Phoenicianist, not the socialist Arabist who’s support of the Palestinians and other Arab causes during the 1960s and 1970s contributed greatly to the disintegration of the Lebanon-Phoenicia he had earlier glorified. Said Jumblat in 1946:
This beautiful golden coast, which has witnessed thousands of years ago, the birth of the first City-State, the birth and the propagation of the first national idea; the establishment of the first maritime empire, and the emergence of the first representative democratic system in the context of an electoral monarchy in a bi-cameral chamber of deputies and suffetes –and this was so at a time when early humanity was still stumbling through its first steps, long before the radiance of Athens and long before the ascendancy of Roman Law. Very near to this sea, which had been Lebanese since the beginning of time, and which radiated in the grandeur and reason of Sidon, Byblos, Tyre, Carthage, Alexandria, Athens, Rome [... emphasis added] Here on this very unique spot in the world, where the Mountain and the Sea meet, get along, and embrace [...] in a national consciousness that gave birth to the first independence movements in the East [...] This [national consciousness] was incarnated in this homeland of humanism, receptive and open to all of the world’s intellectual currents [...] in thsi country, at once old and young, the Alpha and the Omega, this country, to which the world owes values, ideas, Men, institutions, and splendor, [in this country] we are justified in being optimistic. (For a transcript of Jumblat's speech (in French) see Les Années Cénacle, p. 99.)
Jumblat was not alone among Arabists acquiescing in the non-Arab character of Lebanon. Incidentally, Kamal Salibi himself –whom Mr. Mattar proudly spouts as some magic bullet with which to slay the subersive Maronite beast– was a fervent promoter of the Phoenician narrative of Lebanese history (see a transcript of his Kaslik lecture in Dimensions du Nationalism Libanais, pp. 108-109.)
Lebanese tradition has it that Fakhreddin Maan II, a 16th-17th century Druze chieftain, was the architect of modern Lebanon. He had ruled mount Lebanon during the 17th century, and by 1623 reigned over an area comprising the modern Lebanese Republic, but also extending eastward to Palmyra and the gates of Damascus, northward to Latakiyyé on the Syrian coast, and southward to Acre on the Palestinian coast. Although Salibi argued that the expression “Lebanon” or “Lebanese unity” might not have existed in Fakhreddin’s terminology or in his national imagination (as the appellation “Mount-Lebanon” during the 16th and 17th centuries was restricted only to the northern part of the modern Lebanese Republic) he claimed that Fakhreddine, nevertheless, enjoyed a “special national distinction within the Lebanese sectors” [of the Ottoman dominions] and benefited from the “spontaneous loyalty” of the various ethno-religious groups that inhabited the areas of Mount-Lebanon, Beirut, the Shouf, Kesrouan, and the South; “the nucleus” of the Lebanese entity to come, and the precursor of the modern Lebanese Republic as Salibi put it (p. 109).
Indeed, Salibi argued that the story of Fakhreddine and his exploits (and even his adopted "Prince of Phoenicia" sobriquet" were perhaps a romanticized legend and an exaggerated national myth concocted by 19th century Maronite chroniclers in search of an historical justification of the Lebanese Emirate of Bashir Shehab II (ruled 1788-1841). But in Salibi's view, this legend had “more significance than reality itself” in that Fakhreddin constituted the cornerstone of the Lebanese entity that was to emerge after his death (pp. 110-111). In this case, legend possesses more powerful symbolisms than an often insipid reality.
Even in his searing 1988 vitriol (A House of Many Mansions) against the Lebanese entity, the Lebanese state, and the Lebanese national idea, which he had helped letitimize and intellectualize during the 1950s-1970s, Kamal Salibi still admitted that “Historians of Lebanon who limit[ed] themselves to th[e] view [that Fakhreddine was the architect of Modern Lebanon] st[ood] on firm ground.” (A House of Many Mansions, p. 129). What's more, in his PhD dissertation, Salibi paid ultimate tribute to the Mediaeval Maronite historians of Lebanon (the first modern progenitors of the Phoenician myth of origin.) Salibi's dissertation, which treated the topic of three Maronite historians (al-Dwayhi, Al-Shidyaaq, and al-Qlaa'i) was written under the direction of Bernard Lewis and Albert Hourani, and was subsequently published in book format under the title "Maronite Historians of Mediaeval Lebanon."
It should be noted that throughout the 1950s, and up until the early 1970s, Kamal Salibi was the one who intellectualized (and normalized) the Phoenician myth of origin among Western audiences (and within the Lebanese State, its national curricula, and its academic establishments, eg: AUB.) Salibi was in fact the semi-official "historian" of the Kataeb party and the one who intellectualized the Kataeb's conception of Lebanese identity (he was a fixture in several Kaslik and USJ lecture series, with such great Lebanese patriots as Jawaad Boulos, Nagib Jamaleddin, Nagid Dehdeh, and Sa'id Akl...) Now, with an Arabist about-face, he has become the doyen of Arab "history", tracing everything from sliced-bread to the Bible and Jesus, to Arabia. He has been mocked by colleagues and former mentors (Hourani and Lewis included) for his newfound petulant conspiratorial analyses etc... especially in such tabloid-style-studies as "the Bible came from Arabia" and "who was the historical Jesus; a conspiracy hatched in Jerusalem." Relying mainly on folk-etymology (of the Lebanese kind, eg: Shakespeare and Bonaparte are none other than the Lebanese folk heroes Sheikh Isber and Abuna Bard) Salibi claimed that the Bible had its origins in Mecca, and Jesus was born in Arabia (it was st-Paul who hatched up the fallacy of him being a Palestinian.)
The Paul Valéry passage quoted above would have sufficed to respond to Mr. Mattar's blather. But given his tunnel vision of the Middle East, I doubted he could grasp Valéry's subtleties. For those of us who can read, and for want of a more fitting conclusion, here's the quote again:
History is the most dangerous outcome that the mind's chemistry has ever elaborated. [...] It creates mental images, it intoxicates peoples, it provides them with false memories, it exaggerates their reflexes, it sustains their old wounds, it torments their peace, it drives them into the ecstasy of grandeur or persecution, and it renders nations bitter, magnificent, obnoxious, and conceited.
History justifies whatever we instruct her to justify. Strictly speaking, it teaches us nothing, because it embodies everything, and it provides models of everything.